The Agricultural-Tech Revolution
How the digital age is transforming our food system
The digital age began within the last century and has only taken off globally within the last decade, a blink of an eye compared to the rest of human history. Technology is in its infancy. But even with its recent emergence, it is breaking through previously impenetrable barriers. Our world is bursting at the seams with new ideas, brimming with possibilities. As these dreams rapidly materialize, technology is disrupting industries and reshaping society.
Historically, technical revolutions in agriculture have defined civilization. The domestication of plants and animals led to the development of cities by allowing groups of people to remain in one place. The Industrial Revolution rose in light of the industrialization of agriculture. Consistent access to food inflated the human population, and the industrialization of agriculture continued to expand in order to feed our growing species.
Industrialization initially appeared to be the solution to global food security, yielding produce quickly and consistently. The pitfalls of this system are, however, unavoidable. Industrialized agriculture aggregated power into a centralized food industry, leading to a number of environmental and economic issues that are outlined in this post.
The digital age has given power to the people. Consumers are becoming aware of the environmental implications of food they eat and are demanding more transparency. With ease, they can compare cost and quality. Virtually every other aspect of the modern consumer’s lifestyle has become faster, more connected through technology. Meanwhile, our food system remains painfully antiquated. We are overdue for the next technical revolution in agriculture.
Within the last couple decades, the proliferation of 3D printing has brought control to the user and cut the cost of prototyping. By making local manufacturing commonplace, 3D printing is redefining production for individuals and businesses of all sizes. The previous installation of this series examined the problematic nature of a centralized food system. 3D printing tells a prophetic tale of the future of food. Similarly to manufacturing, technology will decentralize and modernize the food industry by transforming food from a telegraph to a smartphone, or horse to a spaceship. Here’s how:
Tools for Farmers
Technology is revolutionizing how growers manage crops. Farmers are employing GPS, aerial imagery, and electromagnetic soil mapping to collect highly precise data about their farms. Drones can use this information, and then be deployed to harvest, plant, and fertilize highly specific areas. This minimizes the use of resources while also allowing farmers to grow more responsive and resilient to changing climate conditions.
Precision agriculture is lowering barriers to market entry for smaller farmers by giving them tools and resources to manage larger areas of land. Giving power to small farmers through tech allows smaller food businesses to compete with the prices of larger food conglomerates, assisting with the decentralization of agriculture.
Tech is also allowing other farmers to abandon conventional farming methods. Indoor vertical farms use LED lights to replicate the sun and a hydroponic watering system. This allows fresh produce to grow 365 days a year in any environment, spawning a decentralized food network. Growing produce vertically is tremendously more space efficient than traditional farming, maximizing cubic footage in addition to square footage.
Indoor vertical farming provides a number of substantial benefits for growers. Transforming farms into intuitive pieces of technology reduces the complexities of becoming a farmer, expanding and ensuring the future of a critical workforce. Indoor vertical farming tech also provides unparalleled transparency for farmers. Farms can be connected to an app on the farmer’s smartphone, feeding them specific data about their crops and allowing climate to be controlled remotely.
Tools for Environmental Sustainability
Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to global climate change. The meat industry alone is responsible for 15% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and ranks as one of the most water-intensive foods in the world. Businesses are gaining traction that use a variety of plant-based proteins to perfectly replicate meat, without egregious environmental implications.
There are also moral implications to how animals are treated in slaughterhouses and factory farms. Other labs are harmlessly cultivating stem cells from animals, replicating them, and using 3D printers to produce “murderless meat.” Plant-based or lab-grown meat could allow meat-eaters to continue a carnivorous lifestyle without these hefty environmental and moral ramifications.
The growth of smaller, independent meat businesses will serve to deconsolidate the meat industry, supporting a decentralized food ecosystem.
Genetic modification may also provide a key toward environmental sustainability. By modifying a plant’s DNA, the same way evolution has modified every species on Earth, it is possible to introduce new, environmentally beneficial traits to crops. Crops can be modified to withstand arid conditions, reducing water usage and increasing environmental resilience. Genetic modification can also improve the nutrient content of crops; this can be pivotal for malnourished communities around the globe. Lastly, GMOs can increase crop yield efficiency, lowering the price of produce and enabling wider access to fresh produce.
Tools for Consumers
In the past couple decades, smartphones and internet connection became ubiquitous across the globe, generating the age of information. Armed with digital knowledge, consumers are demanding more transparency from the products they buy.
Spectrometers are devices that shed near-infrared light on the surface of an object in order to determine its molecular composition. This powerful tech has been reduced to an affordable, handheld device that can connect to its users smartphone. Spectroscopy has the capacity to give consumers a detailed analysis of the ingredients in their food.
In the future, smartphones will be able to capture this type of data without an auxiliary device. Eventually, the devices we carry in our pockets will provide us with a greater wealth of information than molecular composition. Soon we may be able to hold an apple in front of our phone and learn how many miles it has traveled or what the working conditions were for the farmer who picked it. This will equip consumers with the information necessary to make the best possible decision for themselves and the environment.
Precision agriculture, indoor vertical farming, murderless meat, and genetically modified organisms are just a few examples of agricultural tech that will update our food system to meet modern needs. Some of these ideas may be unnerving, change is seldom comfortable. But as the global population rapidly approaches 8 billion, there is a pressing need to reexamine our food system through the lens of science and technology.
The industrialization of agriculture in the past century has maximized the production and profit margins of food. It allowed for the prices of certain goods to fall dramatically and increased the accessibility to food across the socioeconomic board. This modern, centralized food system continues to support the global economy, distributing lucrative commodities around the globe.
However, we are facing disquieting truths about modern agriculture. Our current agricultural complex is an undeniable contributor to global climate change. In 2014, agriculture was responsible for 9% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., not including the transportation of produce. The industrialization of farming is an episode in human history that appears to set technology and nature at odds with one another. But we are standing on the threshold of an era in which technology will be used as a vital tool for environmental sustainability.
Recent innovative steps in agricultural technology illuminate a future that sustainably feeds our grandchildren, not compromise their well-being. Developments in agricultural tech will unlock doors in urban and rural communities alike, facilitating social and economic growth. The future of global food security lies in technology.
Where do you think we should be able to grow? Lets start the conversation #growfoodhere