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The Future of Food Production is Promising with These Innovative Advancing Technologies

by Agritech Digest

Advancing technologies are shaping food production in unimaginable ways, compared to decades ago, while also repositioning the food system to adapt to current realities, providing for the demands of the future.

By Oyewole Okewole

My dad, now in his seventies, had been engaged in livestock production for years. But he could not believe his ears when I told him about the advent of autonomous tractors two decades ago.  In one of our hearty conversations, we talked about the ways advancing technologies are increasingly altering food production, how these technologies are being adopted, and the prospects for food production in the next fifty years.

Today, farming technologies are revolutionising food production. Driverless tractor, for instance, is one of such technologies that can perform on-farm mechanised operations, while being remotely controlled. 

Autonomous farm tractors are equipped with sensors, integrated systems, and computers with various software applications. They are also equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) -enabled robotic cameras and lighters to navigate and monitor the environment. The GPS is a US-owned utility that provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing services. The system consists of three segments, namely: the space segment, the control segment, and the user segment. These tractors are equipped with interconnected capabilities to store data and transmit it into a central processing system where they are monitored and controlled.

Also, farmland soils with varying degrees of compositions and characteristics, (texture, pH, and nutrient levels) may be sampled from the same piece of land. Similarly, the needs, requirements and status of individual cattle in a flock may differ at every point in time. These differences were not so considered in farming until precision technology took centre stage. Agricultural operations have developed to a point where the “one-size-fits-all” strategy inhibits effectiveness and optimisation.

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According to the United Nations, the world’s population is three times larger than it was in the mid-twentieth century. It is expected to increase by nearly 2 billion in the next 30 years. That is, from the current 8 billion to about 9.7 billion by 2050.  The resources such as land, water, inputs, feed and grassland used in food production are under tremendous pressure, now more than ever. The resources require some form of regeneration, which, given the present circumstances, has become difficult. This is due to the effect of man’s industrial activities over the millennia. 

Using drones in agriculture. Image from Agric Farming

(Read also: The Future of Animal Technology: What’s Next?)

Human activities have produced greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, etc.) that have negatively affected the earth’s ability to release internally generated infrared radiation from the earth’s surface. Heat energy so produced becomes trapped within the earth’s surface; this has resulted in the alteration of the earth’s climatic conditions. It had made significant changes in the conditions that have defined food production today.

Climatic farming conditions can no longer be accurately predicted as before. There are shorter rainy days and increasingly dryer days. The global average temperature has increased, dissolving the polar caps and causing a subsequent rise in the water level. Floods have increased and biodiversity is being threatened by these changes.

The needs for adaptation, resilience, precision, optimisation and sustainability have defined the future of farming and food production. In the quest to build a better future for human survival, innovative technologies have been placed at the centre to redefine the agrarian future. Furthermore, the manufacturing processes and operations of these technologies are monitored to further mitigate greenhouse gas emissions using renewable energy sources and biodegradable materials across various applications.

Some of these technologies came about from the advancement made in other fields such as medicine, education, sports, retail, and military operations. But they now have direct applications in food production,  in particular, to address the challenges of climate change, increased pressure on natural resources, supply and value chain constraints, post-harvest losses, population growth, and consumer behavioural changes. 

Satellite and GPS technologies, drones, sensors, smart irrigation, artificial intelligence (AI), and many others, provide means for precision farming. Precision agriculture technologies positively contribute to greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, and aid effective resource utilisation; farm productivity; economics and sustainability. These technologies reduce the indiscriminate use of harmful agrochemicals, help farmers make informed decisions, and also assist farmers to plan for extreme weather conditions. 

(Read also: Advancing Animal Health Through Feed Technology)

The technological advancements today are integral to achieving sustainability goals in agriculture.  With the interconnectivity and communication with satellite and image processing, one can interact through various interfaces, and better manage the state of crops and soils. They ensure more effective pest management and disease control, and monitor the quantities and applications of nutrients of each crop per the required needs. In addition, the health of livestock can be monitored; appropriate administration and accurate interventions for feeding, vaccination, treatment of diseases, and understanding behavioural patterns can be achieved. 

Incorporating Smart livestock farming, an advancing technology, to agriculture. Image from Urban Farm Online

For example, a study by Shinghal, et. al. (2010), showed that wireless sensor networks can be used in potato farming. According to the author, farmers can potentially identify the quantity of fertilisers needed, and where it is required. Irrigation and other soil requirements, such as depth of water, soil water tension, and system capacity, can all be estimated. This will maintain optimum soil water tension for better crop yield, and increase the application efficiency of the irrigation system by 10%. 

Other technologies that have characterised the future of food production and enhanced its sustainability and safety include blockchain technologies, 3D printing technology, biotechnology and controlled environment agriculture (CEA).

Blockchain technologies are used for food traceability systems in food supply chains. These systems help to track the food value chain, instantly checking for food safety, food fraud, and product alteration. They identify and map out food product wastes in supply chains, decreasing food-borne illness risk by timely identification. They generally help to overcome the constraints of inaccurate record keeping, lack of data transparency, and slow response times during product recalls.

3D printing technology is the technology that prints the food we can eat. These foods are made from standard 3D printers but use edible materials with plastic characteristics that enable them to be extruded through a nozzle, thereby creating food in various shapes and designs. The 3D food printer, like other 3D printers, works by sending signals from a computer-generated food model and by printing the deposited layers of material with precision, to create the final 3D food products. It is applied to producing different food, driving food production automation, redefining nutrition requirements, allowing for easier swallowing, and reducing food wastage and food insecurity while ensuring custom-made food products.  For example, Upprinting Food collects food that is destined for waste, mixes and prepares it into 3D-designed, flavoured biscuits. Australian Researchers from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, have 3D-printed puree food into solid, 3D meals that are safe to eat and visually appealing, with a pleasant texture. The puree was produced to address dysphagia—a condition that causes difficulty in swallowing.

3D Food Printers are advancing technologies in agriculture and food production
3D Food Printers are advancing technologies in food production. Photo from The Guardian

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, biotechnology is the application of a range of tools that integrates traditional breeding techniques to alter living organisms or part of them to produce or modify or improve plants, animals or their products. Microorganisms can also be developed for specific agricultural uses. These tools for genetic engineering include enzymes, vectors and other host organisms. For example, a team of researchers successfully edited the genome of the cassava plant to make it produce a modified variety of starch in its roots. The cassava strain was genetically modified to favourably compete with maize—a starch-rich plant, desirable in the textile and food industry. Scientists have also genetically modified dairy cattle to be hornless and resistant to certain diseases. It is believed that this modification could be beneficial for animal welfare, farm profits and worker safety. The same goes for many other applications in food production and processing aimed at sustainably preserving the food system.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), biotechnology in animal production has advanced further than its applications in plant production. FAO further explains that biotechnology is applied to produce enhanced genetic animal qualities in reproduction, selection and breeding, animal health, feeding, nutrition, and growth. Some beneficial genetic qualities are preserved and biologically integrated to alter the genetic makeup of a plant or animal to exhibit new qualities.

(Read also: Exploring the Potential of Animal Technology in Agriculture)

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is another advancing technology that combines many tools to conserve water and nutrients, while producing food in a controlled environment, alienated from the conditions of conventional farming methods. It includes indoor agriculture and vertical farming. It is a technology aimed at producing food, protected from outdoor elements, to maintain optimal growing conditions throughout the development of the crop.  Advanced farming methods such as hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics and other soilless farming operations help prevent water wastage and overuse of nutrients, while growing plants in a controlled environment. The crops are grown in greenhouses to produce safe, reliable and monitored food products.

The farming operations and buildings can also be stacked, creating vertical farms which allow food to be produced in urban centres. CEA technologies are defining the future of food production in urban centres and many other locations where arable land is rare or unavailable like the mountainside towns and deserts. The application of these technologies will ensure farming in urban areas, shorter food supply chains, and availability of fresh and nutritious food right from the farm to the table.

Advancing technologies are shaping food production in many ways that were unimaginable decades ago, while also repositioning the food system to adapt to current realities and to provide for the demands of the future. Welcome to the Future! 

Oyewole Okewole is an agricultural project development specialist. Connect with him on LinkedIn 

Cover photo from Adobe Stock images

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