Mechanical drones, weed-killing lasers and robotic milkmaids – they're just some of the answers to the world's alarming food problems. By Cathrin Schaer.
The video begins with dawn breaking over rows and rows of white-roofed greenhouses. They stretch as far as the camera can see. Music swells.
Then, the voice-over: "Vegetable cultivation is becoming increasingly important," a sensible man with a British accent stresses. "More efficient production is essential due to the rising population and lack of space. Forecasts and data play a crucial role in this. Their quality and reliability determine how close the process can be pushed" – our narrator pauses slightly for dramatic effect – "to the edge."
And that is why tomato farmers need the – wait for it! – Plantalyzer, he says. Okay, so it sounds like a 70s game show, but, in fact, the Plantalyzer that this online advertisement is trying to sell to tomato growers is an example of the latest in agricultural technology: advanced crop estimation.
Every night, the Plantalyzer, which looks like a souped-up golf trolley, slinks around greenhouses surreptitiously taking pictures of baby tomatoes in the dark. A combination of robotics, smart cameras and forecasting software, it then delivers information about how ripe the tomatoes are to its human managers in the morning.
"It's a whole new world," the Plantalyzer salesman enthuses on the video. Indeed it is. Thanks to technology, the way we produce food is changing rapidly. Besides the Plantalyzer, this brave new world is also inhabited by such wonders as mechanical drones that can pollinate plants as though they were bees, roaming robots that kill weeds with lasers, pixel farming and robot milkmaids.
All of these apparently unnatural beasts are necessary because existing agricultural practices have become problematic for one reason or another, or they soon will.
"Food systems are currently not fit for purpose," say analysts at international consultancy McKinsey in a January 2020 report. For one thing, there will be close to 10 billion people on Earth by 2050, up about 2.2 billion from today. And they'll need to eat.
This adds up to greatly increased production of nutrients, with some estimates suggesting the world will need to produce 60% more food than it does now. That number might be even higher if living standards continue to rise and the whole world wants to eat the same way that people in developed countries do today.
What to eat?
The tricky question is how to make so much more food, and with what? About a quarter of all arable land has already been degraded, often as a result of the cultivation of either soya beans or corn, and it can't be used to grow anything without significant regeneration. It takes something like 500 years to create just a couple of centimetres of healthy topsoil.
To meet future food demand, at least two million square kilometres of new farmland – an area about the size of Mexico – will likely be required by 2050, possibly a lot more. But that expansion will continue to harm the world's other animals and damage the biodiversity we need to survive. After studying the habitats of almost 20,000 different species, British scientists working on a 2020 study found that 87.7 per cent of those creatures would lose part of their natural habitat to those expansions of human farms. There is less water available for irrigation, and the costs of energy, labour and other inputs to agriculture keep rising.
Climate change is also making the situation more volatile for food producers around the world, and social pressure – what the McKinsey report describes as "the push for more ethical and sustainable farm practices, such as higher standards for farm-animal welfare and reduced use of chemicals and water" – is also having an effect.
It's enough to make you want to retire to your organic, off-grid fantasy farm and raise goats. But is that the right answer to the world's food problems? Or will the Plantalyzer and its robot kin save us? Should our response be ecological or technological?
Nature vs nurture
Ask your neighbours and they may express concerns about the "unnaturalness" of a technological solution, something that surveys of consumer attitudes towards emerging food technologies have found to be a major concern for many. There is often also a stated lack of trust in food producers using new technologies. As a result, many people find themselves shopping on one side or the other of the ecological-technological divide.
However, European experts working in the field will likely give you a surprising answer: the dichotomy between nature and technology is not just an artificial division, it's considered downright old-fashioned.
"It isn't a case of back to nature or forward to high tech," says Julia Wright, an associate professor at Coventry University's Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience. An expert in agroecology, she has been working in the field of sustainable agriculture and food security for more than three decades. "In fact, this idea of polarising, of either-or, is part of the old mindset, which is what we want to move away from," she says. "There is opposition because there are different understandings of what the world is about and what we are doing here. But with agroecology, we move forward to a renewed relationship with nature whilst developing appropriate technologies."
And those technologies, Wright tells the Listener, "are developed with the health of humans and nature in mind, rather than with financial concerns as the goal".
Aidan Connolly, president of US-based agribusiness investment firm AgriTech Capital, agrees. A more balanced conversation is lacking because people are often either "too pro-tech or too anti-tech", he says.
"The idea of 'back to nature' can be a very strange thing because it is based on the presumption that if we all eat from small, organic farms instead of larger farms, it will be better for the planet."
But this is not necessarily true. Although organic farming is certainly better for the environment in general, it simply cannot produce as much food as larger, more industrial farms can.
"Many of the positive environmental effects of organic production disappear when evaluating per kilogram of food, rather than per hectare of land," according to an April 2021 European policy recommendation in the scientific journal Trends in Plant Science. Organic farms produce between 20% and 50% less food, the researchers say. And the fact that more land is then required offsets some of the distinct advantages of organic farming.
In fact, "modelling studies tend to overestimate the benefits of organic farming", say researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford in another study, published in the Journal of Environmental Management. What is needed are "high yields with low negative environmental impacts", the British researchers conclude. And production should draw "on techniques from both organic and conventional systems".
"You may not love the idea of a cow being milked by a robot, compared with a person," Connolly says, "but the cow prefers the robot."
He's talking about what's known as a voluntary milking system, where cows stroll into a robotic milking booth when they feel the need to empty their teats. "That doesn't bring us the ideal of the tiny organic farm, but it does bring us a lot of the benefits that we are seeking from that kind of organic farm," he says. "I'm interested in making larger farms – ones that can produce more food, more affordably, in a more animal-welfare-friendly and environmentally friendly way, and more transparently."
Joris Lohman, co-founder of Netherlands-based networking and training organisation Food Hub, believes a whole new approach is needed in the way we think about food and farming. "Technological advancements are great and can certainly help agriculture to move forward," he told animal-nutrition and feed-management magazine All About Feed. "But it is key to implement techniques in the right way and also realise that [technology is] not the single solution for a sustainable system. Can we take the best of both worlds and where can we learn from each other? We need to be less narrow-minded and think more in 'systems'." And that, according to those working in this area, is key: systems thinking. Which is basically another way of saying we need to take a much more holistic view of food production, one that includes the many actors involved, their differing motivations and ideologies, animal welfare, social equity, environmental effects and nutritional value, among many, many other things.
There has been too much emphasis on production, writes John Ingram, head of the food systems programme at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, in an essay for science journal Nature. "More emphasis should be placed on changing consumption patterns – identifying problems at the consumer end of the supply chain and working backwards to the producer from there."
"Farmers are often blamed for most of the negative environmental effects of the food system, yet the decisions they make about how to farm are not made independently," say analysts at Boston Consulting Group in an October 2020 article, "The true cost of food". "Food companies, retailers, consumers, politicians and regulators all influence growers' decisions and the options that are available to them."
It's only in the past five or so years that these ideas about systems thinking have gained more currency, says geneticist Imke de Boer, a professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The university is located in what is sometimes called the "Silicon Valley" of the European food industry and with its rows of greenhouses, test fields and classrooms, it is something of a giant laboratory for the future of food. De Boer has worked there for almost three decades and recently she and her team won a place in the prestigious Food System Vision Prize, worth US$2 million. In total, more than a thousand projects applied, but theirs, which focuses on the future of Dutch food production with the tagline "From More to Better", was one of 10 eventual finalists.
"In the beginning, I must say this work [on food systems] was not so well rewarded or acknowledged," de Boer told the Listener. "If you applied for a grant, you might have people say, 'Well, this is not new; you're just integrating things.'"
But that is exactly the point, she says. For too long, different aspects of the food system and food research have been separate and specialised, driven by economics. That now seems to be changing.
De Boer believes in the virtues of technology. She thinks it will be incredibly important to regenerative farming, but, she adds, "Our starting point is that this technology should support ecological principles and what you might call the social foundation."
Small organic farms might engage in systems thinking more than a large, industrial farm by default, perhaps because they're arguably more tuned into what's happening around them and possibly also because they are at the mercy of nature. But de Boer doesn't think humankind is going back to that model of food production.
The future of food "will be about how the two farming systems [technological and ecological] work together", she says. But it will also be about a lot more, including how things are processed, how they're consumed, whether they're wasted, alongside all sorts of other considerations such as animal welfare and environmental conservation. "It's about all of those things," de Boer says. And, of course, when you start thinking about all these things, you also arrive at other, harder questions, she says, such as: "What kind of economic system supports this? Do we need to rethink that? And do we need to think harder about what we will value in the future?" Food for thought.