Population growth and climate change are placing pressure on the agricultural industry. Automation provides a path forward.
In November 2022, the global population crossed the 8 billion threshold. That number is projected to pass 10 billion sometime in the years after 2050. Meanwhile, shifting climate conditions and ecosystem disruptions are having a drastic impact on crop growth. Flooding, drought, destructive storms, and invasive species are all taking their toll on crop yields for farmers at a time when increased output is desperately required to stave off mass food shortages.
If all this sounds apocalyptic, there is plenty of reason for hope. The current situation is far from the first time in which humanity has approached its Malthusian limit—the point at which population has outpaced the ability of the world to feed it. Happily, the lessons from the past indicate multiple paths forward for the future of farming.
Agricultural Revolutions: A Brief Overview
Farming, perhaps the world’s oldest industry, has seen many sudden and transformative advances. Since the First Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 BC, cultures all around the world have contributed to more sophisticated techniques, including the cultivation of new crops and the invention of irrigation systems.
While there is no official Second Agricultural Revolution, the two main contenders are the Arab Agricultural Revolution from the 8th–13th centuries which diffused new plants as well as scientific agricultural and horticultural knowledge across Europe, and the English Agricultural Revolution during the 17th–19th centuries, which introduced more efficient land use, scientific breeding methods, and the adoption of new machinery and systems of crop rotation.
The Third Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Green Revolution, was the defining force behind agriculture in the 20th century. It introduced genetically modified crops with higher yields and pest resistance, as well as newer fertilizers and pesticides. While the result helped to stave off famine in the following decades, it did so at a high environmental cost.
To feed the coming population boom, a new agricultural revolution is needed. Fortunately, there are signs it is already underway, both in traditional agriculture, and through new vertical farming systems. While the advantages these new technologies may have for agriculture are hard to overstate, there are still unsolved questions ahead. Nevertheless, the combined capabilities of automation and Industry 4.0 have the potential to transform agriculture, the environment, and food quality for billions of people worldwide.
4 Agricultural Challenges Aided by Automation and Industry 4.0
The primary focus for agricultural automation is to solve for many of the most pressing issues threatening global food networks. Already, many of these issues are causing significant ecological and economic problems worldwide. Here’s how automation can help.
1. Crop yields.
Currently, crop yields are being damaged by climate conditions, such as flooding or drought, and biological conditions, such as pests and disease. On the side of traditional farming, scientists are working to develop crops that are more resistant to disease, or that can tolerate a broader range of environmental conditions, including rice that can withstand higher salt concentrations in areas prone to flooding.
Meanwhile, vertical farming grows crops in a protected environment, safe from pests and other harsh conditions. Indoor farms can also grow crops year-round, including in locations not suitable for agriculture such as the desert or the arctic.
2. Effective land and water use.
It only takes flying over the great plains to notice the drastic effect modern agriculture has had on land usage. Traditional farming requires huge swaths of land and also billions of gallons of water each year in the United States alone. Both these factors put hard limits on how much food can be sustainably grown using traditional methods.
Vertical farming effectively circumvents those limitations. While the numbers vary by crop, vertical farms use roughly 90% less land than traditional farms, and 95% less water. The water factor is especially important, as most water in traditional farms is lost to evaporation and runoff. In controlled environments, that water can be recycled for use within a closed system.
3. Labor efficiency.
According to a recent report from Meili Robots, the global supply of agricultural workers is projected to decline significantly over the coming decade, as more workers move into professions with better wages and less punishing working conditions. As this happens, the farmers who remain will need to look toward automated solutions to fill the labor shortage.
Vertical farms have the potential to be fully automated, with relatively minimal on-site staff tending the crops and ensuring that everything is working well. But traditional farms are also set to benefit from automation, whether in the form of autonomous farming vehicles, drone pollination, or robotic harvesting.
4. Environmental impact.
As effective as the Green Revolution of the 1960s was in solving world hunger for the short term, we have since had to come to terms with the environmental impact that pesticides and fertilizers have had across ecosystems of all kinds. Moreover, monocropping practices have also undermined biodiversity while flirting with the specter of catastrophic crop failure should a staple crop fall victim to a new disease.
Vertical farming can protect crops from failure, but it also enables a wider variety of crops without the need for pesticide and with less reliance on fertilizer. Meanwhile, the land no longer required to grow traditional farms can be returned to nature, allowing richer biomes to flourish.
3 Consumer Benefits of Automated Farming
While automated agriculture has the potential to stave off many negatives, it also makes possible some revolutionary benefits that simply aren’t possible via traditional farming methods. While these advances sound like ideas from a science fiction novel, many of them already exist in early stages.
1. Local food sources.
Transporting food hundreds of miles from where it’s been grown is obviously not good for the environment, but it’s also not good for produce. In order to withstand the jostling and days of sitting in crates, many fruits and vegetables are grown for durability, putting flavor into the back seat.
Vertical farms can be located closer to population centers, lowering transportation costs (which contribute to the cost of produce) and providing fresher, tastier fruits and vegetables.
2. Specialty produce.
If you’ve spent much time looking carefully through the produce section of your grocery aisle, you may have noticed a variety of fruits and vegetables that you’ve never heard of before. Many of these are recent imports from other parts of the globe, but others are recently developed, such as broccolini (a hybrid of two different broccolis).
The control vertical farms offer farmers over growing conditions makes it easier to experiment with new hybrids, but it also enables them to adjust other factors, too, such as light spectrums and nutrients. This allows smaller farmers to create vegetables finely tuned to match local preferences.
3. In-home growth stations.
Sometime in the 20th century, gardening moved from a practical necessity to a popular hobby. Many people garden for the joy of it, but also for the convenience of having fresh produce within arm’s reach, and the pleasure of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables.
As automated farming becomes more compact and efficient, there’s reason to believe we could begin to see indoor growth stations enter the consumer market. With sensors in place to monitor light, hydration, nutrients, and readiness, indoor gardening could be a sustainable, year-round way for households to supplement their grocery budgets.
The future of farming is not without its hurdles, but technological breakthroughs show promise.
As with any technological forecast, it can be all too easy to view the future with rose-tinted glasses and ignore the many barriers that exist to implementing these changes. For instance, despite its promise, indoor farming still has to become much more conservative in its energy use to be environmentally effective. It is also true that many tall grain crops, such as wheat or corn, are not as efficient in indoor farms as other more compact crops.
However, many of the underlying technologies required to support vertical farming already exist, and it’s clear that the concept itself is viable. Meanwhile, as those underlying technologies become more refined, the startup costs for vertical farms as well as their energy use will go down. This makes many of the future predictions for farming less of a pipe dream, and more of a near-future likelihood.
As automation experts, we work with both the agricultural industry to develop vertical farming systems, and other manufacturing industries such as energy and advanced technology. Our cross-industry expertise gives us deep insight into a range of manufacturing solutions. If you would like to find out more about how these learnings could be applied to your sector, contact us today for a consultation.
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