About a century ago, if you happened to be a fanboy or girl of pulp science fiction magazines, you would have been tantalized by tales of impossibly futuristic farming machines. In publications like Thrilling Wonder Stories and Super Science Quarterly, robot farmers, self-guided tractors and miniature helicopters tended fields “seemingly with full consciousness … with no living being among them!”
A hundred years later those flights of fancy are no longer fictional. Self-driving tractors and crop-monitoring drones are moving toward wide-scale adoption on farms in the US and abroad.
“People don’t realize how much innovation is happening in the field, and how much innovation is still possible,” says Justin Krell, a 31-year-old fifth-generation farmer from Minnesota. “The key to being sustainable going forward now, in my eyes, is the use of evolving technology.”
The amount of herbicide and insecticide that we’ve cut out of our operation since my grandpa farmed. It’d make your head spin.Justin Krell, Fifth-generation farmer
But what about the century to come? What mind-blowing advances will drive the next agricultural revolution? And most importantly, how will American farmers keep defying the doomsayers by sustainably producing more food with fewer resources?
Many believe that millennial farmers like Krell are at the beginning of a “fourth agricultural revolution.” If recent discoveries are any indication, the biggest leaps forward are likely to come from four sectors: automation, data management, genomic editing and soil health. Together, these innovations will work in concert to address the same challenges: more mouths to feed, less land and water to use, and ever more extreme weather to contend with.
From the horse-drawn plow to the gas-fueled tractor, non-human-powered farming machines are nothing new. The difference with next-gen machines is intelligence. While driverless combines already roam fields thanks to GPS guidance systems, future field hands, or “farmbots,” will use AI and networked IoT (Internet of things) technology to carry out tasks both remotely and autonomously.
Fruit growers who lose produce because they can afford only one picking will employ robots with special vision systems to pick continuously throughout the harvest season. Weeder bots able to discern crops from unwanted plants will mean less reliance on herbicides and stoop labor, while LiDAR-driven (light detection and ranging) rovers will gather data about plant health and needs. Drones now used to map terrain and monitor fields will eventually perform targeted planting, spraying and irrigation with plant-by-plant precision.
Individually, the drones and farmbots aren’t that “smart.” They rely on real-time connectivity to machine intelligence stored in data clouds. This brings us to the nexus of agtech and information: data management.
There’s no question data analytics will be a huge driver in optimizing future food production. The reason for this is simple: the more precisely a farmer can deploy resources, the more effective — and economical — those resources will be.
“As far as our fields, we go from irrigated sand to heavy clay in our north end of the farm,” Krell explains. “So even in our own operation, we can’t treat everything the same.”
In a cornfield dotted with 5G-enabled sensors, water and nutrient levels can be transmitted to on-call drones and bots with lightning-fast connectivity. On dairy farms, cows wearing Fitbit-like collars can stream 24/7 biofeedback to just-in-time feeding, milking and cleaning devices. Heat sensors can identify illness and fertility, while other sensors monitor digestion and herd behavior, along with milk quantity and quality.
Data wrangling at this level of granularity and speed is a win for all ag stakeholders, from improved yields for farmers, to reduced spoilage for processors, to fresher food and a cleaner environment for consumers and the planet. One possible side benefit: college-bound farm kids may reverse the brain drain to pursue high-tech careers back home in the fields.
Despite the controversies, there’s no denying that genetically modified crops have boosted farm incomes, increased food security and reduced the amount of chemicals introduced into the environment.
“I look at the amount of herbicide and insecticide that we’ve cut out of our operation since my grandpa farmed,” Krell says. “It’d make your head spin.”
The drawback of GMOs in a food-hungry, climate-shifting world, is time. The process of injecting a plant with foreign DNA in the hopes it expresses a sought-after trait takes time. After that, the average wait for FDA approval of a biotech product is three years. Currently the vast majority of both corn and soybeans grown in the United States have been enhanced with genetic material to increase herbicide tolerance or insect resistance.
In addition, consumers have reacted with unease to the idea. Although scientific organizations including the American Medical Association have issued studies concluding there is no evidence that GMOs pose a safety risk, a strong majority of consumers support mandatory labeling of products containing GMO plants.
Faced with growing demands and a ticking clock, seed companies are turning from gene modification to gene editing with a technique known as “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR, for short.
Unlike genetic modification that essentially combines the DNA of two or more species, CRISPR technology tinkers with an organism’s own gene set, turning traits on and off until a desired phenotype is expressed. This shaves years off the screening process, and also the regulatory one, since CRISPR is considered non-GMO. This means drought- and pest-resistant seeds can get into fields with an urgency that meets the moment.
When scientists discuss climate change, they often focus on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and vegetation. In reality, soil contains more carbon than Earth’s vegetation and atmosphere combined. When we stand on soil, we are standing on an important reservoir of the carbon cycle.
Seed-coating is one of the innovations being explored to restore soil’s carbon-retaining properties. By covering seeds with a coating of plant-beneficial microbes such as bacteria and fungi, microbial communities are reintroduced into tillage-depleted soil stocks. These organisms are vital for turning organic matter into humus, soil’s natural “carbon sink.”
This new understanding of the soil microbiome has shed light on regenerative farming practices that promote carbon retention and sequester harmful greenhouse gases. In addition, there are new systems that can measure the amount of carbon farmers are able to capture in their soil.
Companies and organizations like Indigo Ag and Nori are supplying measurement technology and market mechanisms for monetizing carbon capture. Through instant, non-invasive soil sampling methods like spectral analysis, carbon content can be quickly and easily assessed and credited to farmers for cash.
The biggest thing for every generation is the ability to adapt and change. Whether it’s new technology or new concepts. If we shut the door on creativity, that’s where we stop.Justin Krell
Beyond the Fields
When Thomas Malthus issued his famous warning in 1798 that finite resources wouldn’t keep up with exploding populations, he left out a variable that doomed his prediction: the ingenuity of the farmer. Not only has innovation allowed farmers to keep pace with demand, but people around the world are better fed than ever in history.
Among the crises confronting farmers in these uncertain times — water, land, climate — there is, thankfully, no crisis of imagination. Further out, farmers and scientists are exploring food production concepts that go beyond the farm itself. Aeroponic and hydroponic farming uses nutrient sprays and LED lights to raise crops without soil. Vertical growing spaces free up land to recover from degradation.
“The biggest thing for every generation,” says Krell, “is the ability to adapt and change. Whether it’s new technology or new concepts. If we shut the door on creativity, that’s where we stop.”