Agriculture - Why The Next Revolution Is Now

We came at another turning point of human agriculture technology.

Recap of the evolution of farming throughout history

Archaeologists traced the origin of farming to around 10,000 years ago. Somewhere in the Indus valley, people started to grow domesticated crops to provide themselves with a food solution more predictable than hunting-gathering. Later on, in an area of Mesopotamia known as “The Fertile Crescent'', which was located across what is now the Middle East, one of the biggest cultural and technological shifts in human history took place. Civilizations like the Sumers started to cultivate plants in an organized and planned fashion, integrating agriculture into their society.

From this point on, agriculture started to drive civilization into what society has become nowadays. The planned cultivation of useful plants didn’t come from a desire to create a better society, it was instead the fruit of the need to feed an increasing population, hunting and gathering fruits wasn’t enough anymore. Since then, the population growth drove technological advances in agriculture, allowing our society to thrive and progress by making food available to the masses.

Ridge and furrow technique
Ridge and furrow technique

The Middle Ages saw the introduction of the ridge and furrow technique, crop rotation was introduced in the 16th century to optimize crop selection through the seasons, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century made it possible to unlock more productivity and require less workforce at the same time, laying the ground for the fast development of our society during the past three centuries.

Right now we find ourselves at another major turning point. With a population growth estimated to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, we need once again technological advancements that will allow us to feed ourselves without destroying our planet.

The Innovations

Many innovators are putting great work into finding viable solutions to the food challenge ahead of us. Let’s have a look at a few of the major technological advancements that are taking place right now.

1. High-Tech Traditional Farming

Drones can help improve precision and efficiency in traditional farming.
Drones can help improve precision and efficiency in traditional farming.

The first solution that comes into mind is the most straight-forward one: improving traditional farming through high-tech solutions.

Robotics

Agricultural robots automate slow, repetitive and dull tasks for farmers, allowing them to focus more on improving overall production yields. Harvesting and picking is one of the most popular robotic applications in agriculture. The accuracy and speed that robots can achieve improves the size of yields and reduce waste from crops being left in the field.

Drones

Monitoring crops from the sky using agricultural drones has already helped many farmers across the world improve their productivity. The use of drones in agriculture aims at eliminating any guesswork and reducing uncertainty. The success of farming normally depends on a range of factors farmers have little or no control over weather and soil conditions, temperature, precipitation, pest infection, etc. The key to efficiency lies in their ability to adjust, which is impacted by a large extent by the availability of accurate nearly real-time info. By accessing the data provided by the drones, farmers can increase crop yields, save time and money and act with more precision and accuracy.

Gene Editing

This new technology allows scientists to precisely edit genes in DNA with the goal of creating a better crop variety. In the future, gene editing should enable farmers to select specific crop varieties that have features like resistance to different diseases, drought tolerance or more desirable oil content. Gene editing will provide a greater variety of crops that can be grown by editing out traits hampering widespread production.

These only represent a small bunch of the high-tech advancements that are taking place in traditional farming. This kind of approach is great for improving the efficiency of traditional farming, increasing its output and reducing its impact on the environment. These innovations though, seem to be focusing on the 80% that’s generating 20% of the output (80/20 Principle). In other words, it doesn’t matter how good we’ll become at predicting weather and pest infections, there will still be weather conditions and pest infections.  Most of all, the small percentage of improvement in efficiency we’ll be able to achieve won’t make up for the massive amount of land and water that we’ll still need to use to operate traditional farms. That’s why other actors in the food industry are taking more alternative approaches.

2. Urban Agriculture

Aerofarms is using aeroponics to grow greens in vertically stacked layers.
Aerofarms is using aeroponics to grow greens in vertically stacked layers.

Not enough arable land? Let’s grow food in our cities…. vertically!

Vertical farming refers to the practice of growing produce in vertically stacked layers. This technique can use soil, hydroponics or aeroponics to grow crops in areas where arable land is rare or unavailable. Some companies are installing vertical farms in existing buildings, transforming them into food-making factories.

Some of the benefits of vertical farming include year-round crop production, better-tasting food with more nutrients, reduced water consumption, no need for pesticides or fungicides, production closer to the consumer and more productivity per acreage. These remarkable advantages allowed some companies like Plenty or Aerofarms to land significant funding to deploy their technology on a larger scale.

Although the promising features listed above may sound like magic bullet solutions to our food challenge, some factors are still limiting the development of urban vertical farming.

  • Energy is the main barrier. It’s not easy to replace the sun, using the necessary LED lights to grow the produce makes it expensive and only economically viable in wealthy areas where consumers can afford the extra price.
  • Only certain crops are economically viable in a sunless environment. Produce with a lot of inedible leaves such as potatoes, beans or tomatoes become very expensive to grow, making it inconvenient.
  • The space constraint is probably the biggest challenge to overcome. A Global Geospatial Ecosystem Services Estimate of Urban Agriculture paid for by Google inc, China and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture came out with the conclusion that Urban Agriculture, even if massively adopted, would produce only between 1% and 5% of the demand in crops.

Urban agriculture will definitely play a great role in the next food revolution. An eco-friendly solution that will bring tasty food close to where we live without hurting our planet as much as traditional farming. To tackle the space constraint intrinsic to the current available techniques, some companies are taking a very innovative approach..

3. Underground Farming

Early 3D concept of an underground farm for GreenForges
Early 3D concept of an underground farm for GreenForges

Since the availability of land on the surface represents a major constraint, some people started asking themselves the question “What if we grew food underground?”. And multiple startups have now since refurbished existing underground spaces into farms.

But while unused underground infrastructure is a great place to start, there is not enough of it available to bring ag underground at industrial levels. A scalability contraint.

GreenForges

This is where GreenForges comes into play. Our idea is to build machines that can be easily installed in urban and rural areas and have the same benefits of indoor underground & vertical farming. But more importantly would allow to bypass the scalability constraints, allowing for a path to underground agriculture on larger scales.

Urban Areas

The first GreenForges will be farms integrated with new residential and commercial buildings. And we’re looking at large new builds to take advantage of the following benefits:

  • Major reduction in transportation cost of food, leading to considerable lower GHG emissions for the inhabitants of the building.
  • Symbiotic relationship between the farm and the architecture. The excess heat of the farm can be used to help heat the building. Also carbon dioxide (CO2) from households can be sent to the GreenForges and O2 generated by the farm pumped back to the building.
  • Since its based underground, GreenForges feature a geothermal cooling system that can also provide additional energy savings.

Rural Areas

In the longer run as our company and technology gets more efficient, we hope to reach a threshold which will make GreenForges attractive for rural farmers that want to transfer part of their production underground. Allowing for a stabilization of their income as well as the regeneration of the land on the surface.

So although still early in its development, underground farming has the potential to become one of the major contributors to the agricultural revolution that’s about to happen.

Conclusion

As tough as the challenges ahead of us in agriculture and feeding the world may be, a lot of innovators are putting great work into finding viable and exciting solutions, hopefully leading us to a green and prosperous future.

That’s it for now, please feel free to join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.