From cutting emissions, to increasing productivity and changing diets, there are many reasons why agriculture will change in the coming years but it’s the emerging technology that will decide how it changes. Forget the traditional view of farming as an industry wedded to production measures of the past. Today’s food producers are keen to adapt and leverage technology driven by the world’s most futuristic businesses and developers.
From crypto-currencies and fast-track plant breeding, to floating farms and vegetables that grow in thin air, we look at five areas of technology that could become commonplace in the not-so-distant future.
Indoor farming units, growing a year-round supply of fresh produce are an increasingly popular set-up option.
Indoor, or vertical, farms grow rows of crops stacked in tiers. The plants are grown without using soil, in a water based solution, infused with nutrients—a technique known as hydroponics— while high quality light is provided by light emitting diodes.
The system has strong green credentials, for example, it overcomes concerns over soil degradation and high water-use associated with some traditional agricultural systems. Water is constantly recycled and the units themselves can be sited in under-utilised space.
"There are many reasons why agriculture will change in the coming years but it’s the emerging technology that will decide how it changes"
Indoor farming also offers farmers a high degree of control over the growing environment. They can manipulate day length, temperature and precise nutrient levels and maintain the same conditions for 365 days of the year.
Larger scale operations of thousands of square metres are now being set up on the outskirts of urban areas and for landowners there are options to set up a unit or let land to existing companies.
However, there is a drawback. Indoor farms depend heavily on heat, light, and additional carbon dioxide to boost plant growth. Power sourced from the grid would be prohibitively expensive, so units often invest in anaerobic digesters or biomass burners. These are allied to combined heat and power generators that also yield carbon dioxide, so the system can be very efficient but the initial capital cost may be substantial.
The technology system that keeps crypto-currencies tamper-proof is already being adapted to help tighten traceability and boost customer confidence.
Blockchain software, which underpins currencies such as Bitcoin, creates a chain of digitised data blocks. These blocks have a unique identity in a similar way to a fingerprint; so by changing a block you change the chain’s identity and the chain is broken. Any new information is only added to the end of the chain, which does not alter the sequence of the preceding blocks. This series of linked blocks is a more secure way of holding data because unlike conventional systems where data is held centrally behind firewalls, there is no centralised version of the chain. The result is a tamper-proof, interlinked data log.
In agriculture, suppliers across the world are already starting to use the blockchain systems. Companies such as Cargill in the USA, use the system to trace thousands of turkey movements. While here in the UK, Marks & Spencer is using a DNA sampling system to trace the provenance of its beef. Firms are also promoting the extra security levels used as a confidence-boosting selling point.
As the technology is rolled out it will undoubtedly add cost as hardware will need to be upgraded to record and link the data. But in the longer term, the benefits of secure data could outweigh these set-up costs.
Satellites and Data
As well as being able to steer a combine harvester from 300 miles above the ground, today’s satellites can also photograph fields on a daily basis. The photographs are clear enough to enable identification of individual trees, and can be used to collect all manner of information that can be especially useful when viewed over several years.
Some of the ways satellite photography is used include assessing in-field productivity and looking at crop health. This is done through looking at the colour of vegetation in the field, which can give information about the drying pattern of a field and the stability of the soil, as well as providing health indicators such as vitality and biomass. Through data collection it is possible to create indices that individual growers can use to appraise a farm’s metrics against the pooled data.
However, satellite technology is not cheap. A less costly route for precision agriculture is using GPS-equipped devices. These enable the mapping of pest infestations, soil conditions and nutrient levels, among other metrics. GPS also enables mechanised field operations that are more efficient as they reduce overlap and omissions.
Another alternative to satellites are drones. These are more versatile and tend to be easier and cheaper to use for smaller scale farm businesses.
The efficiencies provided by precision agriculture will more than pay for the investment over time. However, as the gains are only marginal, the payback takes longer the less land that is covered.
Precision Plant Breeding
A newly-developed, precision, plant breeding technique could fast-track crop improvements to lower costs and increase yields. The technique is known as gene editing. Scientists refer to the technique as CRISPR – an acronym derived from, “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” These are stretches of a genome containing spaces between the building blocks of the DNA. Researchers found it was possible to snip the gene using an enzyme as a pair of molecular scissors. By altering the DNA sequence it is possible to select desirable gene functions such as disease resistance.
Because gene editing only alters the DNA sequence within a plant, it is less controversial than genetic modification that introduces DNA from other organisms. It is also a simpler technique than genetic modification and, therefore, a more cost-effective solution to fast-tracking crop improvements. However, while the US courts have already approved gene editing for development, a ruling by the European Court in 2018 means the technique will fall under the same regulatory f ramework as genetic modification.