Can Electronic Bees and Robot Farmers Solve Our Agriculture Problem?

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In the early 1800s the human population started growing at an alarming rate. By the 1900s the alarm bell went into overdrive: in the 20th century alone the total number of humans grew from 1.65B to 6B. During that same period, the earth and all of its resources stayed the exact same size — which begs the question: as we’re on track to hit 8B people by 2024, where will we find the resources to feed all of them?

NewtonX consulted four agriculture and sustainability experts, one former executive with Cargill, a former senior level employee with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, a food and sustainability analyst formerly with National Geographic, and an agriculture professor at an ivy league institution to discuss the implications of a growing global population and dwindling resources.

Too many mouths, not enough earth

According to the former employee with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the production of food in of itself has a massive impact on the earth’s resources and ozone layer. Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming — estimates for GHG contribution from agricultural activities on the planet range from 14% to 51% — and according to the NewtonX expert formerly with the UN, agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined. To boot, agriculture not only requires massive water supplies, but it also affects water quality, as runoff from fertilizers pollute rivers and lakes.

The ecological problems and growing population are not the only barrier to food production. In addition, the global middle class is expanding, and is expected to grow by 30% by 2050. This will result in greater demand for food products such as meat, eggs, and dairy, which in turn will increase demand for corn to feed livestock. Today, only 55% of food grown ends up in human stomachs; the rest is used to feed chickens, cows, pigs, etc. As the middle class grows, this percentage will become exacerbated with developing countries increasing their consumption of poultry and meat. The problem is, for every 100 calories of grain used to feed animals, humans only get 40 from milk, 22 from eggs, 12 from chicken, 10 from pork, and 3 from beef.

This means that even if we are able to improve output from agricultural land, the growing demand for poultry and eggs will nullify improved productivity.

So how can agriculture replenish in greater quantities than it consumes?

Can technology save us?

“Since the planet is not expanding, the best approach to increase production is not to convert land into farmland,” explained the former analyst with National Geographic, “but to improve yield on the land that is already used for agricultural purposes.

Agriculture is already one of the most advanced industries from a technological perspective: it was one of the first use cases for IoT, and in the past 50 years yield for soybeans and corn has tripled (and consequently prices have plummeted) as a result of modern mechanization, irrigation, and genetics. But while the technology exists, the challenge today is implementing this technology in low-yield locations, primarily in Africa and South America. Using tools such as subsurface drip irrigation, which can reduce water use up to 40% while increasing yields, will minimize the impact of agriculture on the environment while also improving farmland yield. Indeed, improving water supplies where yield is incredibly low could result in a 58% increase in global food production.

There are also technologies to address erosion, nutrient depletion, and salinization, but because they are cost-prohibitive in many areas of the world, they have not been implemented. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization former employee explained that in order for technology to truly make an impact, though, it would need to be used in areas that can ill-afford it, meaning that international efforts are needed. In the meantime, though, numerous first-world technologies have appeared to help reduce reliance on meat and improve crop yield even further.

The most promising emerging technologies include:

  • Crop monitoring robots
  • Genetic modification to make crops that consume less water more efficiently
  • Lab grown meat
  • Meat substitutes that satisfy first-world diets (Impossible Foods, New Wave Foods, etc.)
  • Robotic bees

While these technologies will certainly help food production in places where yield is already high, the trick to feeding 8B people worldwide will be implementing technological innovations in emerging countries. Countries like the U.S. will focus on meat alternatives, reducing household and restaurant food waste, and developing new efficient ways to improve yield incrementally stateside.

The real question is not whether or not technology can save us; it’s whether or not we will let it save us.

 

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