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Autonomous Agriculture

Absolute size and share of the agricultural labor force in England, the Netherlands, and France, 1500-2000. Credit: Simon, graphic – Our World in Data

Our world is so much different from the past but I think that one of the thing that would strike one of our great-great grandfathers if they were to come back and walk around would be seeing the incredible magic of cultivated fields with no one tending them and the bounty of farming products in the shops. How could that be?

At their time most of Earth population was working in the fields, and yet meager harvest were the norm. Take a look at the graphic showing the percentage of people working in agriculture over the last 700 years. In Italy, the green line, 2 thirds of the population was working in the fields.  It all started to change as the Industrial Revolution took hold, in the XIX century. As people moved from farms to factories, technology moved from factories to farms making it possible to produce more with less labour. Today’s labour force working in agriculture is measured in the single digit (as low as 1.2% in England (in the US the labour force in agriculture back in 1800 was 83%, today is less than 2%) and the yield per hectare has increased 10 fold. That is close to 1,000 fold improvement in efficiency (it is actually more if you take into account the tremendous improvement in the distribution chain!).

It would seem that no further progress is possible and evn if it were its impact would be negligible. Not so! The digital transformation is affecting the whole agricultural value chain and it is going to have an impact as profound as the one brought by the industrial revolution. How can “bits” substitute groceries, vegetable, wheat, rice…? At first glance this seems impossible, and indeed, bits are not substituting food, at the end of the day we want to eat spaghetti, not succulent bytes!

Notice that the same applied to the industrial revolution: it didn’t shift our eating habits from wheat to iron! What it did was to change the processes for growing wheat (and the likes).

The digital transformation is doing the same, affecting the processes throughout the value chain and it is doing so by

  • automating the farming 100%
  • changing the seeds through genomic engineering
  • changing the way agriculture products are transformed into food

A few companies are moving from more and more sophisticated farming machine to a completely automated farming, from sowing to tilling, from fertilising and spreading pesticide to watering, from harvesting to packaging. Take a look at the clip of DOT and of the future of agriculture.

Genomic engineering in agriculture has been pursued for the last 10,000 years. For the first 9,990 we didn’t know it was genomic engineering, our farming ancestors discovered through chance and perseverance to mix plants and steer their evolution to the point of selecting specific varieties and perfecting processes to grow them (apple trees in the US were imported from UK, the indigenous apple were not good at all, and along with apple seed honeybees for pollinating them had to be imported, to the surprise of native Indians who called them “English flies” ). Now technology is accelerating that process of selection and creation of new varieties, aiming at increasing yield, decreasing use of water, making them more resistant to bugs (hence decreasing pesticide use) and even creating shapes better fit for packaging!

Research and industry are also at work to find alternatives to food raw material, creating look-alike produce, like artificial meat and artificial vegetable. Robots are being designed to prepare food in more efficient ways. The whole food chain is being monitored and technologies like blockchain are used to control it. Artificial intelligence is applied to understand how crops can be affected by a variety of condition and how best to grow them, saving on resources….

Well, I hope you get the gist: bits are becoming part of our dinner, even though we may not notice them!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.