The What’s Up with Science? blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series matches technical explanations with relatable analogies to explain opportunities and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
In another life, I’d be a TV producer, or maybe a film director. I came to this conclusion after watching The Truman Show, which chronicles the production of a fictional television show. A subsequent deep-dive into the world of Hollywood magic taught me that producers and directors know everything happening on set by scouring hours of camera and microphone footage, then use that information to make events unfold and tell a story. Like a producer or director, I enjoy making things happen based on complete and detailed information. As it turns out, for much the same reason, I also could have been a farmer.
That’s because more and more farms are revolutionizing the way they operate thanks to agricultural technology. While many facets of science and technology play a role in farming, the agricultural technologies we’ll discuss here are tools that monitor agricultural systems or apply knowledge about a system to optimize growing outcomes. Just as production crews use cameras and microphones to understand what’s happening on set, a farmer can use digital technologies to understand what’s happening in the field.
Plant health, soil moisture and chemical composition, pests, temperature, humidity, and precipitation are just a few conditions impacting how crops grow (and that’s not even considering factors affecting livestock growth, a story for another day). By knowing the status of these conditions in different parts of a field, farmers determine water, fertilizer, and other input needs on a granular scale. As a result, better yields are achieved with fewer wasted resources.
Today, sensors, satellites, and drones routinely collect constant, real-time data about these conditions. For example, a French company uses drones to identify unhealthy patches of vegetation by monitoring infrared light reflection. Because unhealthy plants are less reflective, the drone-collected data help determine exactly where fertilizers are needed, decreasing both inputs and cost.
Unlike producers and directors, farmers do not need to watch a screen day in and day out to make efficient use of these never-ending data streams. Computer algorithms crunch the numbers and help interpret the results. Plus, automation and precision agriculture techniques can be used to plant seeds, harvest crops, and operate farm equipment.
By increasing yields with fewer resources, these diverse tools improve agricultural efficiency and allow for sustainable intensification. This is particularly important as society figures out how to nutritiously feed more than 9 billion people globally by 2050…and creativity is key. Human ingenuity is the only limitation determining how technologies are applied to the food supply chain.
For instance, a farmer may be interested in sustainably growing more food using less space while minimizing environmental impact. They could try vertical farming, which involves growing produce indoors on vertically stacked shelves. Vertical growers control critical environmental factors like light, humidity, and water to achieve year-long harvests, all while using 70-95% less water than traditional methods. Many people can find vertically grown leafy greens or herbs in their grocery stores today.
On the other hand, maybe food safety or origin is of interest. Some companies are using blockchain to track where and when food products change hands before reaching your lunchbox. We’ll cover how blockchain works in a later article, but for now, note that this traceability helps companies pinpoint foodborne illness outbreaks and helps consumers determine whether that “wild-caught salmon” was actually caught in the wild.
While technology has consistently improved farming practices since the advent of early irrigation systems, plows, and other tools, today’s technologies deserve special attention. They help us achieve important societal, diplomatic, and humanitarian goals. That’s why the United States partakes in innovation summits, partnerships, and other projects to advance agricultural technologies domestically and internationally. Plus, check out Feed the Future, a U.S. Government program promoting global food security and helping develop agricultural systems around the world.
Thanks to innovations in collecting and using data—plus a shared ability to bring people together, whether around a dinner table or the silver screen—farmers and Hollywood production teams have never had more in common. How would you creatively use technology to impact the future of food?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Science and Technology Policy Adviser in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State (STAS). She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.