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May 14, 2018 | by  | in Environment Opinion | [ssba]

A Robot Grew My Dinner

My dad is a farmer up North. To farm, he uses a blue Yamaha quad, and dog named Jack rides on the back. Before the invention of the combustion engine, bullocks would have drawn a plow across the doughy paddock. And before that, it was bush. You can trace the history of the farm like the curve of the hills. However, the future of the farm is harder to discern.

By mid-century, the world will be home to as many as 10 billion people — 2 billion more mouths to feed than at present. Farmers in the next four decades will have to grow more food than all farmers throughout history have harvested over the past 8,000 years.

Farming is paradoxical in that it is necessary to sustain our existence, yet also threatens it. Global agriculture is among the greatest contributors to climate change, producing more carbon dioxide emissions than cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes put together. It guzzles our precious water supplies, with 70% of our fresh blue gold pouring into it. Where the great foot of agriculture treads, there is destruction of habitat and species loss. Overzealous dousing of insecticides has caused “dead zones” and toxic pollution. Loss of top soil, erosion, and labour exploitation are also symptoms. As things stand, the planet cannot sustain our appetite for much longer.

But a person’s gotta eat. So how will we produce more food with fewer resources?

The future is bright, beeping, and automated. Precision farming systems are beginning to roll out globally, resembling science fiction scenes instead of pastoral postcards.

Out in the field of a near-future conglomerate, fleets of small driverless tractors crawl across a monoculture sea of wheat. Using sensors, their robotic arms zap out fertilizers and pesticides throughout the night. Drones swarm overhead, assessing crop health and sending photos back to the farmer. Sensors in the soil and in the water collect information on nutrients, triggering fertilizer shots. In the cowshed, which spans the length of several soccer fields, the entire herd sports the latest Fitbit. These collars track movement, internal body temperature, cud chewing, and when the cow is ready for insemination.

The myriad of farmyard data gathers in the Cloud. Information technology recognises that farming is essentially a form of matrix algebra. A variety of complex factors must be taken into account and balanced to yield highest output. Through information technology we can control these factors to exploit the soil and optimize harvests, using less resources to do so. An alert buzzes on Old McDonald’s smartphone, who taps back in real time to check in on the herd.

In Japan, factory farms are stacked upwards in hydroponic skyscrapers. The entire farming process is automated, from seedling to harvest. Thousands of lettuce heads bask in an eerie LED light powered from sustainable sources. Water dribbling through the soil is recycled. Robots zip along checking ripeness, harvesting, and packaging. Free from outdoor vagaries, there is not a caterpillar in sight. This enterprise produces 30,000 perfect lettuces each day.

A future farmer may never set a gumboot in the paddock, or examine a lettuce in the flesh.

Call me rural, but there is something special about boots-on-the-ground farming. The relationship between farmer and land is one of the oldest in existence, with the first farms sprouting in 9000 BC. Moving forward in agriculture, we must reap from the past. We must use technology to deepen our relationship with the land and better understand her needs. Respect the land as a complex ecosystem, encourage diversity, farm organically, and learn when to let her rest. In a word; kaitiakitanga. If we treat the planet right, she’ll return the favour. If not, the future will be bleak.


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