Agriculture is about to get weird

In the first two articles about the future we looked at work and tourism, this time it is the turn of agriculture and it is going to get very weird.

Any discussion about agriculture these days hardly talks about soil or water and certainly dismisses labour as almost irrelevant.  Well, perhaps that is a little over the top but the farmer of the future is more likely to have a degree in technology than soiled hands.

Agriculture is likely to fall into two broad directions, mass production and artisan.  For city dwellers of the future their farms are likely to be local, perhaps down the street and will resemble a large logistics centre rather than rolling fields.  Hydroponics, growing food using mineral enriched water which is constantly circulated, is about to become mainstream and, because the temperature and moisture is strictly controlled, and where disease and pests are eliminated through a carefully monitored environment, many plants can be grown in one of these farm factories.

If you were lucky enough to be studying the earth from space today and you passed over the green fields of Kent in southern England you would be able to see a 55 hectare greenhouse complex called Thanet Earth, the largest hydroponics complex on earth which grows 400 million tomatoes, 24 million peppers and 30 million cucumbers nearly all year round.  If they can do it in Kent then it can also be done in Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Galle, providing fresh produce for everyone and all on your doorstep.  Other growers are producing thousands of lettuces in old warehouses along with herbs and other quick growing greens.

There are limits though; roots crops don’t adapt well to hydroponics – at least not yet – but don’t worry.  The scientists may need to grow them in traditional fields but that is where the similarity with the past stops.  Robotics is already taking over.  High above the fields drones are flying and taking sensor images of the fields below.  That tells the farmer where there are problems, where fertiliser is needed and what density of seed can be sown for maximum yield.  In the field there are robots testing the mineral content of the soil before other robots using GPS and the data from the drones above are sowing the seeds.  Later in the year, robotic tractors run up and down the rows using sensors to identify pests and then, using sensor arms or vacuum methods, they get rid of the pests and may well do some weeding along the way.  Later in the season there will be more robotic tractors running up and down the rows picking the ripe produce.

Just think of it, possibly one day tea will be picked by drones flying above the plantations using sensors to identify the best leaves and then pluck and place them into a compartment slung under the drone.  If you don’t believe me, then check out Agrobot, just one of many firms creating robotic machinery for agricultural use.  In their case they have created a machine for picking strawberries, inside or outside.

Other machines are being developed which can go along the rows, analyse the soil moisture and nutrient content and then apply fertiliser as required whilst setting off sensors to allow the ‘little but often’ irrigation systems to apply just the right amount of water.  These systems can cut water usage by as much as eighty percent.

Even livestock farming is going through a revolution.  Genome editing is likely to mean greater meat production and higher yields in things like egg production.  Not an especially happy thought perhaps, fiddling with the genetics of animals, but as the world’s population grows it may be the only way forward.  Added to this list of scientific innovations are artificial insemination and embryo transfer.  Drones may play their role by finding livestock and perhaps even shepherding them in remote areas. Whilst sensors in the sheds might be able to spot illnesses before they become a serious problem, for example mastitis can be identified by thermal imaging cameras.

The last article in this series will focus on the future of leisure and there is likely to be a lot more of it.  It is already the case in the United Kingdom that people are moving back to the countryside and taking on smallholdings.  In the current pandemic many of these smallholdings have gained an additional living providing food for their local communities.  This more artisan approach to farming might provide a further strand to the future of agriculture.  There has been an explosion of interest over the past year in traditional crafts, whether it is cooking and knitting, carpentry or home repairs.  Beekeeping is becoming fashionable once more and the seed companies have struggled to keep up with demand as people aim to grow their own vegetables.

So it might be that the big factory farms will provide large quantities of food to keep us fed whilst smaller producers provide more niche products and flavours to feed our inner selves.  Whatever happens, the farmer of the past would not recognise the farmer of the future.

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