“All of which is to say: our current methods of commercial farming got us to where we are, but the way we farm now isn’t sustainable for the planet, for individuals or for societies long-term … The reality is that we have to quickly and efficiently bring farming from the industrial age into the digital one.”
~ Karn Manhas,
Entrepreneur, biologist, founder of Terramera
In the movie, Interstellar, set in the future, farmers have adapted to climate change by becoming high-tech. Drones monitor the fields for moisture, growth and ripeness, and plowing, fertilizing and harvesting are done by programmed machinery — essentially computer-controlled tractors. In truth, we may not be that far from that future, now.
Some farms already employ vertical farming, farm drones, sensors, artificial intelligence, biotech, and robotics, and use GPS and advanced monitoring and data science to measure soil moisture, conductivity and temperature, allowing farmers to save water.
Karn Manhas cautions, “Yet a yawning tech gap in farming has emerged in recent decades, with real-life consequences. In our approaches to land management, resource use, labor, transportation and more, we’re firmly stuck in an outdated industrial model — emphasizing large-scale farms and massive output at all costs, while ignoring externalities from environmental impact to financial repercussions and human tolls.”
Whether through human action or just natural cycles, the earth’s climate is changing. Regardless of blame, we have to figure out how to address the issues, particularly with an ever-increasing human population. Manhas notes, “With a predicted global population of 9.8 billion by 2050, we’re going to need to figure out how to feed a much larger population, and fast. Studies show this could mean we need to grow as much as double the amount of food we do today, simply to avoid food security issues and mass social disruption. Already, more than 3 million children die worldwide each year because they don’t get enough to eat. At the same time, climate change is making it harder to feed the world through conventional means — in fact, with our current rate of crop yields, we’ll only have enough food for half of that projected population.”
Technology can and already has helped small farmers. Much urban farming, including home gardens, relies on methods that are infeasible on a large scale. Small plots can use weeding instead of herbicides, more precise planting and watering, and reliance on individual labor instead of a labor force or machinery. Even on a larger, but non-industrial scale, technology can help. Manhas explains, “For example, Cainthus, an AI facial recognition software for cows, allows small farmers to maintain larger herds and track the health of individual animals, right down to how much they’ve eaten each day and how much milk they’ve given … Phytech is optimizing crop production with its ‘Plant Internet of Things’ — smart devices in fields that send simple color-coded alerts to smartphones with recommendations and warnings. Meanwhile, the Israeli-based CropX uses hardware and software to measure soil moisture, conductivity and temperature, allowing farmers to save water.”
However, technology and climate aren’t the only issues for farming. The costs associated with farming, particularly the startup costs for land and machinery, can be overwhelming. Fewer young people are becoming farmers, and rural kids are drawn away to cities and higher-paying jobs. Restricting immigration reduces the seasonal labor force, and has already resulted in fruit and vegetables going unharvested.
Science and technology can only take us so far. At some point we need to assess what the impacts of climate change and human population growth mean for the future and start doing something about it.
Alternately, we can just slide into the future predicted by all those sci-fi dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies and novels. A recent study published by Open Culture estimated that the average lifespan of a civilization is 336 years. The United States has been around 243 years.
Time to get your “Mad Max” outfits ready? “Soylent Green,” anyone?
Karn Manhas, Why the Agtech Boom Isn’t Your Typical Tech Disruption, 2/25/19, World Economic Forum
Open Culture, The Lifespan of Ancient Civilizations Detailed in a Handy Infographic: Are We Headed Towards Our Own Collapse?, 2/25/19
Steve Tarlton, Down on the Farm, 6/30/16, Writes of Nature