The robotics lab at MIT might seem a world away from a farmer’s field. But believe it or not, the work happening inside high tech labs at MIT and elsewhere is set to completely change the way we grow and harvest food in the coming years.
The field of soft robotics, for instance, is combining artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and some creative engineering to produce machines smart enough to look at a tomato plant and identify the ripe fruits, and sensitive enough to pick them without turning them into ketchup.
To me, developments like this are some of the most exciting work happening in the world right now. But to many in the agriculture field, the introduction of digital technologies to farming can feel like a threat to a time-honored way of life.
I get it. With 9.8 billion people expected to be on the planet by 2050, farming is arguably the world’s most important career — but it’s also one of the most difficult. Farmers today are bombarded with stressors like dwindling margins, labor shortages, increasing land costs and an unpredictable climate. Given all this, it’s no wonder inventions like robot-pickers or vertical farms can feel like competitive forces poised to hasten the demise of the family farm.
I don’t see it that way. We in the AgTech field don’t always do a great job of advertising this, but the technology we’re working on isn’t designed to replace farmers. It’s designed to support them — not just in meeting the challenges of feeding a growing planet, but also in ensuring that farming remains an economically viable career for future generations. To me, this isn’t just spin. Family farms produce 80 percent of the world’s food. The only way forward is to find ways to better support those small farmers. On a personal level, my company, Terramera, has a mission to sustainably feed an additional 1 billion people in the next 10 years. We need the help of both large and small farmers everywhere to get there.
Right now, advents like robot-pickers might be limited to labs, but as costs come down and technology improves, they’ll work in tandem with traditional farming practices to help farmers cut down on labor costs, maximize harvests and, very importantly, increase viability and profitability. Meanwhile, other inventions like AI-powered fruit and vegetable grading can help pull out rotten produce that wouldn’t have been caught by humans before they impact a whole crate. My own company is working on harnessing big data and AI to learn exactly what inputs plants need to be able to withstand threats like plant diseases, blight and the extreme weather of a shifting climate. The end game is to take the guesswork out of farming, to help farmers minimize synthetic chemicals and grow higher-value, clean, healthy crops more reliably — putting health, environmental sustainability and economic profitability on the same side of the ledger.
Too often, technology and tradition are framed as opposing forces, but when it comes to the future of agriculture this isn’t the case. According to a McKinsey & Company study, agriculture is dead last in digital technology adoption amongst major industries. That is beginning to change, enabled by new innovation, and it will need to change to sustainably and cleanly feed the world. We need all the help we can get — human, data, machine, and otherwise — to continue to produce clean, affordable food for the world. But we can’t reach that goal unless we also ensure a sustainable, economically viable future for the people who grow it.
I am the founder of Terramera, which focuses on using technology to grow affordable, clean food for everyone. Follow me on Twitter for more like this.