Just for fun, a bit of science fiction

October 15, 2011

One of the issues that I regularly raise during my presentations is the one of the farmers of the future. As about everywhere in the world, the average age of farmers is increasing, this brings the question of who will take over and what effect it will have on the future of agriculture and future production systems.

One topic that generates interest from audiences is the possibility of having farming robots. Surprisingly, the same intrigued enthusiasm comes from audiences that have a bias against industrial large-scale agriculture. Yet, the prospect of robots roaming the fields does not seem to be a cause for concern.

Because of the lack of interest by the youth to take over farms, the Japanese are actively working on setting up farms that could be run by robots, instead of humans. In many other countries the aging farming population with the limited interest from younger people to become farmers, also linked to the rising price of agricultural land, raises the question of how big farms might become, and how to manage them.

Currently, the many developments in the field of robotics, of satellite applications, of field sensors and of computer programs make a futuristic picture of farming become more realistic.

With the expected rise of the cost of energy and of the price of all compounds made with massive use of fossil fuels, precision agriculture is the future. The name of the game will be zero-waste. Future economics will not allow for wasting energy, water or fertilizers or any other input. It will be imperative to get the most out of the least, not just simply producing more with less.

The use of satellites to map fields and indicate the variation of the content of fertilizing elements in the soil is already a reality. The use of GPS for harvest is now common with modern equipment. We are really only one step away from having computers processing all this data and operating fertilizer spreaders by automatically regulating the distribution of fertilizer on the field, based on the soil scan assessment. This will avoid overuse of fertilizer in zones that already contain enough nutrients. With the expected exhaustion of phosphate mines, and the large variation of phosphate contents in soil, it will pay off.

We are also only one step away from having tractors, harvesters and other agricultural equipment doing the fieldwork without drivers. A company in Iowa is already developing such a technology by linking the position of a tractor to the harvester via GPS. Such an approach makes the use of human operators less of a need than it used to be. This would allow farmers to manage much larger areas from one remote location. Their role would become more one of process controller, monitoring and steering the fieldwork by ways of cameras and remote control. This also would require less physical work, thus allowing aging farmers to manage at least as much production as they would have at a younger age. This would become even more of a possibility, as farming robots would be developed to replace humans for the physically more demanding activities.

Developments in the area of sensors also offer many possibilities in terms of farm and risk management. The ability of monitoring variations of temperature, humidity, plant growth, the presence of diseases, fungi and other pests in real-time would help make use of resources much more efficiently. Current developments of biosensors used in food packaging are amazing. Some of such sensors have the ability to turn fluorescent in presence of food pathogens. They can help prevent risks of food poising. Sensors help to detect undesirable “visitors”. Sensors also would help farmers detect potential threats at an earlier stage, even before they actually become visible by the human eye. This would allow starting treatment before problems could take proportions that would threaten production. This has the potential to help farmers produce more optimally, and to produce higher yields than they would otherwise. Linking such sensors to devices that can release the necessary amounts of water, nutrients, pesticides and possibly herbicides would help produce quite efficiently, and would reduce the use of inputs. This would help reduce waste, work towards more sustainable farming methods and reduce the use of chemicals, as they would be used only at the right time, at the right place and in the right quantities, instead of being applied systematically to the whole fields, including areas where they are not needed. The use of airplanes to spread chemicals could be eliminated, which would also reduce the use of fossil fuels. Instead of airplanes, it is possible to envision the use of drones that would have a “patrolling” function to detect anomalies or the extension of pests in the fields. By bringing the huge amount of data that these robots, sensors and drones would produce, fields would be monitored on a 24/7 basis and decision-making would be faster than today. Corrective action could be implemented automatically just as well.

By adding more monitoring functions and developing ecological modeling, this futuristic approach would be a way of managing the interaction between the crop itself, which is the purpose of food production, and the need to manage the ecosystem surrounding the fields, to ensure that production is carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner. Monitoring living organisms in and outside the fields would help optimizing production. The farmer would know the status of soil organisms, mostly worms, insects and microorganisms. He would be able to deal with pests in a targeted manner, almost in a similar way as the images of surgical strikes that we can see in the news. Mapping the extent of weeds through such devices would also allow their control in a targeted manner and with minimal use of potentially harmful compounds. The emphasis would be about control and management, not on killing out everything that seems a threat.

Further, monitoring fields as described above would support the environmental steward’s role of farmers, while making it easier to execute as well. Farmers would be informed timely about production effects on groundwater quality and possible residues in the soil and the crops.

Of course, all of the above sounds like a bit of science fiction, but considering the amazing innovations taking place in the all the areas mentioned, together with the constant miniaturization of devices and the increased processing abilities of computers, it might not be as far-fetched as it may sound today. Although many of these developments are not taking place in the agriculture sector as such, they are real and happening faster than one could imagine. Farming in 50 years from now will probably look different from it does today.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Soylent Green is on some people’s minds

August 13, 2010

Funny how coincidences occur. In less than two weeks, I heard several times about Soylent Green, the futuristic movie. It came first in a couple of conversations I have had about the book I am about to publish (hardcopy proof is on its way to me), and it came up in the very serious French economic paper Les Echos, too. Considering the area I am involved in, I had to find out more about Soylent Green.

Soylent Green is a movie made in 1973, starring Charlton Heston. As such, I would not describe Soylent Green as a great movie, but it contains some interesting elements that resonate in today’s environment. To sum it up, the action takes place in a devastated New York in 2022, where 40 million people live is dismal conditions. The planet is in bad shape, the economy is just as bad and food is scarce. A powerful multinational, Soylent Corporation controls food supply, thanks to its very successful product Soylent Green, a high protein food. Natural foods are very difficult to find. Strawberries sell for $150 a jar and to get beef, one needs to have the right connection. Cooking is a lost art, but some still have the nostalgia of the yesteryears, when life was good.

Although made around the time of the first oil crisis, it mentions very current topics, such as a collapsing economic system, greenhouse gases and the power of multinationals over our food supply. That is not bad, considering, it is almost 40 years old, an age than more than half of the world population has not reached yet. The author certainly had a strong vision of where our world is heading.

The plot is rather creepy, though. The production of Soylent Green is anything but appetizing, and quite different from plankton as mentioned at the beginning of the movie. You can watch it here: http://www.watchonscreen.com/videos/1549/soylent-green-is-people.html

For those who may worry, my book envisions the future of food production from a very different angle.