To anyone born before 1900, the modern farm would be a place of magic. In the last 100 years, farms have not only kept pace with a growing population, but they have also produced enough food for an additional 500 calories per person. These aren’t boring calories, either. Supermarkets are brimming with a never-before-seen variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats pulled from a year-round global supply chain. Average corn yields in the US are now more than 10 tonnes per hectare, up from two in 1900. And this productivity has come with fewer and fewer people employed in agriculture. In many developed economies, fewer than 2% of people now live and work on a farm.
All this abundance has come at a cost, however. The “magic” that feeds 7 billion people today is the use of more inputs; more equipment, more fertilizer and more chemicals. In many situations, the most cost-effective practice is to apply fertilizer and chemicals uniformly across an entire field, without first understanding the needs of each plant. No other industry works this way. Imagine a large city where one person has a headache, and the only available cure is to give all 1 million residents aspirin. Such broadcast application leads to excess use and often results in overspray and runoff of the extra chemicals.
The use of all of these inputs is already negatively impacting the world today. Fertilizer runoff from crops in the US has led to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico roughly the size of Qatar (or Connecticut) where fish are unable to live. Weeds are becoming resistant to the most common herbicides, leading farmers to use more and more potent materials or simply abandon agriculture in weed infested fields altogether. Increased use of insecticide and loss of habitat are the prime suspects in population collapses of key crop pollinators, including honey bees and monarch butterflies. In Iowa, in the middle of the US, approximately 50% of groundwater wells are contaminated with unsafe levels of agricultural runoff including nitrogen, herbicides and insecticides.
Our current methods of agriculture are not sustainable – our tools are becoming less effective, we’re damaging the ecosystems we rely on for food and we’re putting human health at risk. Something must be done.
Robots are the answer. These smart machines are able to sense each individual plant, instantly determine everything about its health, structure and needs, and precisely apply the right amount of care. Rather than treating every plant the same way, robots can nurture each plant with fewer inputs. They can find and treat the plant that needs “bypass surgery” and the plant that only needs an “aspirin”. Our robots are at work in California vegetable fields and we call the type of work they do “plant-by-plant care”.
With these robots at hand we’re entering a new, digital era of agriculture: one with 90% fewer chemicals, less reliance on hand labour for the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, and significant yield improvements. And the best part: through plant-by-plant care, we can produce food that’s healthy for the planet and healthy for us. Our children and our children’s children will continue to enjoy supermarkets stocked with an abundance of delicious foods. Now that’s magic.
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here
Authors: Jorge Heraud, CEO, and Ben Chostner, Vice President of Development, Blue River technology, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer
Image: Freshly harvested vegetables are shown in a basket after they were picked during the fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden at the White House in Washington, October 20, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed