I had been on a casual chat with my brother in law, who is running agri-business in Africa. I was surprised with the efficiency with which the agricultural economy was running and how the farmers are even using drone technology to do aerial surveillance of their farms. Curious on these advancements, I decided to do some research on the new developments in the field of agriculture.
The agriculture as a sector has a mammoth problem in hand – to feed the 9.6 billion people (as per FAO prediction) who are going to inhabit the planet by 2050. If this number is achieved by our efforts, then the food production must increase at least by 70% from the current levels. This has to be achieved despite the limited availability of cultivable lands, increasing need for fresh water and change in weather patterns that would come with the impact of climate change.
There are a few technologies that I found interesting and could change the way the food comes to our table. Have you ever imagined what is the average time for a newly harvested apple to reach to your table? One week, one month, three months..sorry! On an average, it takes around eleven months to reach your table. By that time you can be pretty sure that it is just a sugar ball rather than a fruit rich in antioxidants. So what if we could do a teleportation of such food items from one corner of the world to another corner. It is not a new Starwars movie in making.
Through the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab, we have made personal food computers possible. This could possibly make you and me the farmers of the future. This is a tabletop-sized, controlled environment provides agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber. By manipulating climate variables such as carbon dioxide, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature we will be able to yield various phenotypic expressions in the plants, means we would be able to create a “climate recipe” suiting our taste. Through this project, this information can be shared across the globe on an open architecture platform to develop customised fresh vegetable and fruit recipe.Soo tomorrow we could have an apple made suiting the crispiness and sweetness customised for our taste buds. It could potentially allow farmers to induce other abnormal conditions such as drought and saline environment producing desirable traits in specific crops that wouldn’t typically occur in nature.
Another silent breakthrough happening is the creeping of Internet of Things (IoT) to the agriculture. We have started to use remote sensing technologies to make agri-farms more intelligent – means to make smart farms or feedback farms. So how do such farms work? These farms use remote sensing technologies that would observe, measure and respond to inter and intra-field variability in crops using the data gathered from farm and crop yields, atmosphere and soil-mapping, food and fertiliser consumption and weather data and apply feedback to the support systems. Such information collection is done not just in farming, but also in livestock and fishing. There are companies such as Anemon from Switzerland and eCow and Connected Cow from UK that tracks the health of livestock and recommend live solutions to the owners.Similar technologies are coming in the fish farming too. Eruvaka from India has developed a system that would control pH, dissolved oxygen, physical composition of water thus helping the water quality to be maintained effortlessly in aquaculture.
The main concerns that could come in implementing such cutting edge techniques are the ownership of data and the issues in communicating the technicalities to the farmers. In 2000, there were 525 million farms on record, out of which not a single farm was connected to the Internet of Things. IBM expects that by the year 2025 with the same base of 525 million farms, there will be 600 million sensors in use at these farms and by 2050, there will be two billion sensors used in 525 million farms – representing a major shift towards technological advancements.
Another development that would be of my interest is the one that has been developed during the interplanetary exploration endeavours of NASA in the late 60s. Since the travel time to Mars could take a year or even longer and the space on board and the resources were limited, NASA had figure out how to produce food with minimal inputs. It involved single-celled microorganisms that used hydrogen from water and the carbon from the carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts and converted into a nutritious, carbon-rich crop and eventually to a meal. The types of microbes that they used were called hydrogenotrophs – nature’s supercharged carbon recyclers. These organisms created a virtuous carbon cycle that would sustain life onboard a spacecraft, thus creating a closed-loop carbon cycle.
How beautiful would it be if we can convert the increased carbon levels in our atmosphere to edible food and solve the problem of hunger? To cope up with the incoming demand of the food, I believe the modern agriculture simply cannot sustainably scale to meet that demand. We could use the existing land resources to get better outputs through the new methods of the web and dig out the techniques that could have been used for our interplanetary expeditions.
The future of food is not about fighting over what can be done and what cannot be done. The future of food is about networking the billions of farmers and the consumers and empowering them with a platform to ask and answer the question, “What if?”