British entrepreneur and fourth-generation farmer Sam Watson-Jones believes that the robots his company has created will farm up to 5 percent of the UK’s wheat crops in the next five years. This may seem like a bold prediction, but the agriculture industry is increasingly going high-tech.
From planting bots to robotic crop pickers and precision sprayers that can drastically cut the amount of pesticides used, farming in the 21st century is becoming positively futuristic. This technological explosion comes at the right time, too–recent labour shortages have left farmers to watch in horror as their crops rot in the fields because there aren’t enough people available to harvest them.
These labour shortages are occurring around the world—New Zealand is currently struggling to find enough workers to pick its abundant supplies of apple and kiwifruit—but are particularly acute in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown has decimated the pool of farm labour in heavily agricultural states such as California and Iowa. Desperate farm operators in California have tried to entice workers by offering once-unthinkable benefits, such as salaries well above minimum wage, paid time off and 401(k) retirement plans. Despite these efforts, last year saw record labour shortages in California’s largest agricultural region, the San Joaquin Valley. California’s $45 billion agriculture industry produces about half of America’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, 95% of berry pickers are from other EU countries. Fearing xenophobic attacks after the Brexit referendum and demotivated by the drop in the pound sterling over the last two years, far fewer of them are choosing to spend the summer picking British fruit. As a result, British agriculture experienced a labor shortfall of up to 29% in the summer of 2017, according to the National Farmers Union.
These labour shortages come at a particularly bad time. Fruit is rotting on the vine at the same time that the world population is skyrocketing. Consider that in 1950, each farmer had to feed 27 people compared to 150 today, and the pressure on the agriculture industry becomes painfully clear. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, farmers will have to sustainably generate around 50% higher yields by 2050 in order to feed the global population.
Fortunately, technology is stepping in to alleviate some of that pressure with promising new tools. Despite the challenges involved in automating the harvesting of soft fruit—berries often hide behind leaves, easy to find for human pickers but harder for a machine, and the fragile fruit can easily be bruised—at least two companies, one in California and one in Belgium, are currently testing strawberry-picking robots. The Belgian robot is still slightly slower than a human picker, but already more economically profitable.
Robot crop-pickers aren’t the only way that technology and automation are bringing the agricultural sector into the 21st century. Across the globe, traditional agro-businesses are partnering with technology start-ups and universities to develop, pilot and perfect innovations that are making farming more efficient and effective. American tractor titan John Deere, for example, has purchased a California start-up called Blue River Technology. Blue River’s particular innovation, referred to as “see and spray”, uses cameras affixed to crop sprayers to identify both plants and weeds. If it sees a weed, it sprays it with pesticide. If it sees a crop, it drops fertilizer on it. This seemingly simple determination could significantly reduce labour costs, as well as cutting the amount of chemicals sprayed by up to 90 percent.
In Germany, companies Bayer and Bosch have joined forces to develop a similar smart spraying system that also limits the amount of pesticides used on crops. Bayer and Bosch’s system will go beyond simply seeing and spraying. Its crop sprayers will capture a continuous series of photos, analyze them, and select the best herbicide for each type of weed—all in a matter of milliseconds.
David Dorhout, a self-taught robotics researcher who grew up on a farm in Iowa, developed Prospero, an autonomous micro planter that is designed to swarm over every inch of farm fields to analyze subtle variations in soil and moisture and decide what variety of corn to plant in each section of a field to optimize productivity.
The Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of agricultural giant Monsanto, offers farmers detailed insights about their crops, gleaned from the Climate Corporation’s vast collection of agronomic data as well as from aerial footage taken by flying drones. By exploiting this trove of information, the Climate Corporation can tell farmers where their soil is too dry, for example, or which seeds would go well with their fields’ water-holding capacity, or what dates would be ideal to plant their crops—all of which can help farmers dramatically increase their crop yields.
New avenues for innovation are opening up all the time; how far agro-tech goes seems to be limited only by the imaginations of engineers and programmers. Many developers are racing to create technologies that will completely automate future farm operations. AGCO’s Fendt division, for example, is creating small robot fleets that operate in swarms to perform high-precision tasks such as planting corn and picking berries. AGCO’s website boasts that its robots can plant “round the clock, seven days a week, even in conditions that conventional machines find difficult.”
Despite such technology’s promise to overcome the problems of widespread labour shortages and a ballooning population, there are still significant wrinkles to be ironed out. Citrus harvesting machines, for example, have made huge strides since they were first conceived of more than 40 years ago. Concerns persist, however, that automated harvesting damages trees and leaves them vulnerable to disease.
The sheer variety of innovations springing up in the agricultural sector, however, as well as the way in which actors from throughout the industry—farmers, startups, and multinational corporations—have embraced technology is an extremely positive sign for the sector’s ability to feed an ever-growing population.