10,000 years of farming

Relative to the scope of human history, agriculture is a comparatively new phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, seeking out animals, plants and other food sources in the wild. Instead of growing food for themselves, humans had to go out and find it wherever they could.

Only within the last 10,000 years have humans cultivated farms, a process that involves breeding animals and systematically growing produce in order to maintain food supplies. And it’s no exaggeration to say that agriculture has shaped human civilization as we know it.

Of course, agriculture has changed a lot over the course of several millennia. From the primitive planting of grains around 8,500 BC to the massive industrialization of farming in the 20th century, the history of farming has involved major developments and responses to specific technical and geographical challenges. In fact, the industrialization of farming has occurred on such a massive scale, there are now huge concerns about the sustainability and ecological impact of the industry.

Although agriculture is already a high-tech industry, innovations and new responses to challenges keep on coming. What follows is a guide to some of the newer technologies in agriculture and how those technologies could affect our lives now and in the future.

Challenges for agriculture today

One of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today concerns the future. For decades now, agricultural scientists have been trying to convince farmers of the need for sustainability in agriculture: cutting down on non-renewable or unsustainable products, eliminating practices that are harmful to the environment and minimizing or re-using waste products.

By developing agricultural systems that are sustainable, farmers can ensure that future generations enjoy the same access to food as we do today while minimizing undesirable pollution levels and other problems.

The issue of sustainability is a serious one. With the global population expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, agriculture must take steps to ensure the long-term viability of its methods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), farming yields will need to increase by around 50 percent to account for this population increase, putting pressure on agriculture to employ methods with long-term effectiveness.

Other challenges facing the agriculture industry today include climate change and its effects on crop cycles, a scarcity of fertilizer components like phosphorus and price hikes for both land and farming products.

New agricultural technologies

Vertical farming

One of the most pragmatic solutions to today’s agricultural challenges has existed — in theory, at least — for over 100 years. For it was around the turn of the century when architects and scientists started proposing the use of skyscrapers (then in their infancy) as a means of farming.

Today, the practice of using tall, multistory structures for agriculture is called vertical farming. This method of farming involves stacking layers of crops or other foods one above the other, using sensors, heating and other technologies, as well as natural light and rainfall, to maintain a controlled environment that is conducive to growth.

Vertical farming attempts to address the needs of sustainability by simply taking up less space than typical farmland. Since crops are grown vertically, only a small footprint is required to produce large volumes of food. Additional advantages include increased yields (thanks to environmental control), resistance to adverse weather and a closed-cycle design that reduces the runoff and wastage of vital nutrients.

Although vertical farming was first proposed as an application of skyscrapers, similar benefits can be achieved by stacking metal shipping containers and other metal structures.

Sensors

Farmers need to consider a huge number of variables in order to produce the best possible food in the greatest possible volume. To help them get to grips with these variables (which include temperature, air quality and soil condition), they can use electronic devices with sensors to gather an immediate overview of the state of their farmland.

By using sensors to monitor the conditions of farmland, farmers can preempt environmental problems and ensure high yield — vital for meeting the increased demands brought about by population increases — and can even use equipment like drones to analyze a large area of land. These drones can be equipped with infrared light sensors and cameras to monitor the health of the field.

Sensors can even be used on animals. By implementing technologies like GPS and RFID tags on animal collars, farmers can better keep track of their livestock, accessing real-time information about cattle or other animals from a computer.

Agbots

Agricultural robots or “agbots” are a class of new agricultural technologies that can be used to automate various farming processes, increasing yields while reducing the long-term costs associated with manual labour.

Agbots work in various ways. When maintaining a field of crops, farmers will typically need to sow seeds, find ways to deter or kill pests, remove weeds and ultimately harvest the crop. Some agbots, equipped with wheels, mechanical arms and onboard computers, can carry out all of those tasks autonomously.

Using sensors, these agricultural robots are capable of identifying plants or individual leaves infested by bugs and then picking off those individual plans or leaves. Many can also discern weeds from the crop itself, removing weeds autonomously with mechanical grippers.

Although many agbots today remain prohibitively expensive, their use is destined to increase as farmers look for faster ways to carry out essential tasks.

Cultured meat

Vegetarianism grew rapidly over the 20th century, but meat production remains a gigantic industry around the world.

There are several undesirable environmental effects produced by the farming of livestock, including fossil fuel pollution, animal methane and — most obviously — consumption of large areas of land.

But that needn’t necessarily mean the end of meat consumption. One solution to the environmental problems of meat production is the development of cultured or “clean” meat, a synthetic food product grown in a laboratory from animal cells, not from slaughtered animals.

While there has been some public resistance to the new scientific practice, there are important benefits to it, including a reduction in methane production and land consumption, as well as the ethical advantage of not having to kill live animals.

Cultured meat is not yet available in shops and restaurants, but scientific research is ongoing. And as less and less space becomes available for traditional farms, meat eaters around the world could start consuming lab-grown hamburgers in the not-too-distant future.

How new agricultural technology will affect you

The extent to which new agricultural technologies will affect our lives ultimately depends on how widely they are adopted.

Practices like vertical farming (or other methods of minimizing land usage) will become more and more important as land prices increase and availability decreases. And while the investment in such projects could result in food price hikes for consumers, the controlled systems could also result in products of a more consistent quality.

Agricultural technologies like sensors and agricultural robots could also result in price hikes as farmers seek to offset investment costs while ultimately striving for the yield increases necessary to meet increased demand.

Not all new farming technologies will be immediately noticeable, but they will continue to play a huge role in our lives.