Agriculture is the foundation of civilization. It is what allowed for the formation of large population centers—cities—which then became centers of art, science, and technology. Hunter-gatherers all had to forage and hunt for food at least part-time, which meant the amount of time they had for things such as art, science, and philosophy was comparatively limited.
At first, farmers were no different, but further agricultural advancements allowed for a food surplus which freed enough people from the land that it was possible to have full-time craftsmen, artists, poets, philosophers, and scientists. Indeed every agricultural advance has transformed society in some way. Agricultural advances in 2017 will be no different, increasing and extending the amount of food produced per acre and per farmer. Just as the plow and horse saddle led to abundance, the satellite and drone will play those roles for today’s farmers.
Historical Transformations in Agriculture
The invention of the plow and irrigation is what allowed farming villages along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to grow into the earliest cities, examples of which include Ur, Eridu, and Uruk. Eridu may have, in fact, been the first urban center in the world.
During the High Middle Ages that followed, many prosperous towns grew up, cathedrals were built, inventions such as eyeglasses and crossbows were made, and philosophers and theologians wrote some of the most important intellectual works of the Medieval period, which created a coherent philosophical outlook unifying Classical Greek philosophy and Christian theology that still affects Western civilization to this day.
The most dramatic transformation from advances in agriculture, so far, would be the agro-industrial revolution in which the global population went from 700 million in 1750 to 1.6 billion in 1900, one hundred and fifty years later. By comparison, one hundred and fifty years before 1750, the population had been about 562 million. That is quite a contrast in population growth before and after the Industrial Revolution transformed agriculture.
The Agro-Industrial Revolution has helped lead to the modern era of relative plenty, at least in first world countries. We are now at a point, however, where the population is growing so much as to overwhelm the ability of current agricultural yields to feed the world’s population. Yet another transformation in agriculture may be needed to stave off a potential food crisis.
The good news is that science and technology may come to the rescue. There are many new technologies being used to innovate agriculture which will be important in 2017. These technologies are not new, necessarily, but their application to agriculture is, in most cases, relatively new and likely to produce positive results. They may not be as epoch-forming as the invention of the plow or plant and animal domestication itself, but they will definitely have an impact on the future of agricultural production.
As satellites become more easy to use, it is more common for them to be used by businesses and private individuals to accomplish their tasks. Agriculture is no different. In India, for example, remote sensing is being used to monitor crops and crop damage. This will make damage to crops easier to maintain.
This is also being used by insurance companies to better assess insurance claims by farmers to cover crop damage. This could also be used to monitor the productivity of different farm areas and find solutions more quickly.
Genetic engineering technologies, such as CRISPR genome editing, make it possible to easily modify living organisms in specific ways. This could be used to create superior strains of crops which produce greater yields and more blight resistance.
Today, most of the world only relies of on a handful of crops—corn, rice, and wheat, mostly. If a blight were to wipe out one of these, it would be a serious problem for humanity. The ability to use genetic engineering to breed disease and pest resistance into staple crops and make different crops commercially useful is, thus, another safeguard against such a disaster.
Automation has enormous potential to transform agriculture. The use of robots to plant, reap, and process grains would make the process more efficient and easier to perform on the scale required to feed the world’s growing population. Robots could also be used to monitor plant growth and the health of the crops. There are proposals to use micro-robots for this purpose, to swarm fields to monitor the crops.
The use of drones in agriculture has already begun and, in 2017, it will only increase. Drones can be used for a variety of purposes in agriculture that lower costs and increase potential crop yields.
One use of drones in agriculture is for soil analysis since they can create high-quality 3-D images of the soil to determine the nutrients in the soil and how conducive it is to crop growth. They can also be used for planting, crop spraying, and crop monitoring; for example, monitoring the health of crops and any fungal growths or infections which may hinder their development.
Drones can even be used in irrigation since they can assess fields and determine which parts of a field are particularly dry and need more water. It is possible that, in the future, swarms of drones will descend upon agriculture fields, performing various surveillance tasks.
The increasing population makes it difficult to find enough arable land on which to grow food. There is a lot of open space in countries like the United States, Canada, and Russia, but not much of it is good for farming. This means we are running out of land on which to farm, and new space has to be created. One solution would be to farm vertically.
Vertical farms and vertical ranches are already being used in countries, such as Japan, where there is little space. Crops are grown inside in multistory buildings such as high rises and skyscrapers, in rooms with artificial lighting or in vertical greenhouses. As urbanization and global population size increases, this trend will most likely increase. It is likely we will see more of this approach in 2017.
Indoor agriculture may also be beneficial, in other ways, since it creates a more controlled environment where the environmental conditions can be engineered to be just right for optimal crop growth. For example, scientific research has shown that light of different wavelengths has different effects on crop growth and the health of the plants. Thus, being able to grow the plants under a specific lighting would be an advantage of indoor, vertical agriculture.
We seem to live in an age of relative pessimism. Many people are predicting that human civilization does not have much time left—maybe one more century. Many are waiting for the coming nuclear or ecological apocalypse.
Technological advancements which can improve agriculture should offset this pessimism, at least a little, since it shows that although technology can cause problems, it can also solve problems. Science and technology which can be used to solve problems in agriculture, medicine, and other important fields should give us hope.