They say you are what you eat.
Well, if technology is the future of food, we might be more apt to say we digitize than digest.
With 2 billion more people living on the planet in the next 30 years, global population is expected to outpace current food production supply by as early as 2050. Compounding this situation is that in some countries, such as the U.S., irrigation-thirsty agricultural land is pumping groundwater faster than nature can replenish.
“Everything we think about regarding sustainability – from energy to agriculture to manufacturing to population – has a water footprint. Almost all of the water on Earth is saltwater, and the remaining freshwater supplies are split between agricultural use and human use, as well as maintaining the existing natural environment,” says California author and futurist Jamais Cascio.
Add in the realities – and the unknowns of climate change – plus the fact that only 40 percent of the Earth’s surface can support agricultural activities, and you have a market that is ripe for new technologies.
The good news is that digital technology, increased precision, and automated farming are reshaping the rural landscape. A potent combination of data-driven technology and biotechnology is creating substantial changes in the sector by introducing new processes or radically changing the way things have been done for generations.
An evolving industry
Understandably, with a third of U.S. farmers over the age of 65, adoption of technology in the industry has been slow. Many food growers who have relied on the same processes for a lifetime can be skeptical when it comes to new technologies. Once the primary driver of the U.S. economy, farming employed almost half the population in related businesses just over 100 years ago. Farming is now a $3 trillion dollar industry but employs only two percent of the workforce. Chalk that up to the marvels of technology.
Tools we take for granted, like tractors, revolutionized the amount of work that could be accomplished. A staple of the farming industry, the old two-row-horse-drawn planter could, in ideal conditions from sunrise to sunset, plant about five acres a day. The multi-row planter of today can accomplish the work of 300 farmers in a single day, planting 1,500 acres a day.
“Over a lifetime, farmers can expect to have about 40 growing seasons, giving them just 40 chances to improve on every harvest,” Howard G. Buffett writes in his book 40 Chances: Finding Hope in A Hungry World. With the technological changes that are occurring, farmers now have 40 chances every week to improve on what they are doing.
These days, the information revolution is squarely focused on agriculture and there are no clear winners yet (the farming equal of Amazon or Google). Some industry experts say the ag sector reminds them of the early days of the internet, with new startups sprouting daily.
“I think the sky is the limit. I think as far as the imagination can dream is where we’ll be, just give it time, especially when you look at how far we’ve came in the past 10, 20, 30 years,” Nick Elchinger, a farmer in Deshler, Ohio told AgWeb.
Indeed, agricultural technologies are evolving quickly. Smart irrigation systems optimize water use through the deployment of in-field sensors. Vision-enabled systems are allowing for precision seeding and weed application spraying, bringing about better growth outcomes with fewer environmental and health implications. However, there is a very real reluctance among many food growers who are not used to purchasing, yet alone using, these new advances in their daily jobs. And the vast number of tools and platforms available can be overwhelming for those who have relied on tried-and-true methods which have worked well throughout a career.
A robust demonstration of ROI is often needed to convince the skeptics. Farmers are a cautious bunch, and especially so of pitches offering “new and improved” but which may cost more than the value they generate.
What’s interesting, too, is that technologies are not only producing more and better crops; they are also driving up the value of farmland. As each acre of land becomes more profitable, the cost of land increases accordingly. Fruit-picking robots, for example, have helped to reduce labour costs, estimated at 25 to 75 percent of a crop’s value, leading to higher profits. When market prices are low, some growers opt to let fruit wither on the vine rather than harvest as labour costs make the crop unprofitable.
The 2019 USDA Farms and Land Summary indicated that while the total number of farms has declined, the average size of a farm has increased. More than 40 percent of farmland is operated by farms with sales volumes in excess of $500,000. Among the reasons attributed to this increase in sales is that technology has transformed what was once undesirable and difficult into productive and valuable land.
Ag goes high-tech
The technologies revolutionizing farming influence growing, harvesting and gene-editing the foods we eat – which gives a whole new ring to the push for farm-to-table eating.
With in-field sensors that constantly monitor moisture levels, smart irrigation systems can provide precise amounts water to improve crop growth. The volume of water delivered can be adjusted to the zone where the monitor is located, saving water and energy.
GPS guided soil-monitoring machines can collect soil samples at preset intervals from predetermined locations. Data can be collected during all seasons, from planting to harvest to winter dormancy, and reviewed and analyzed to get the best performance from soil. Although farmers have used GPS for years for farm planning and mapping, this technology is now used in autonomous vehicles for planting and harvesting. Fields are tended more efficiently with less worker involvement, and the net outcome is more profit and sustainability for farmers.
Drones are also becoming synonymous with farming and helping to monitor crops. Farmers are using this technology to study their fields and avoid costly yield losses. They can make real-time decisions on inputs like pesticides or fertilizers and pinpoint areas where resources are best directed.
Driven by data
With all this data, farmers are now relying on farm management software for important business decisions, including what inputs need to be applied to the land. This allows farmers to make decisions on the fly based on predicted earnings.
FarmLead online grain marketplace helps growers find the highest bidders for their crops. Buyers and sellers register anonymously and negotiate deals, so farmers can reach markets beyond their traditional trading area.
And big data isn’t just limited to soil, crops, and the business of farming. Biotech startups are also utilizing big data to make quantum leaps at the genetic and molecular level. Gene-editing tools use machine learning to make crops like wheat and soy drought- and disease-resistant, so less than ideal conditions aren’t as much of a challenge for producers.
These solutions are already having a profound impact on farming efforts in developing countries. Some African nations, for example, are now reaping improved harvests of biotech-guided corn, cotton, and black-eyed peas.
Crop advances provide a social and economic benefit to farmers, and make farms more environmentally sustainable. The production reduces greenhouse gases, soil and water pollution – and provides food security for billions.