At Northerly, we’ve seen the evolution of agricultural technology—or AgTech—firsthand for five generations. We’ve seen plenty of advancement over the years. From the open-air tractors where farmers contended with dust and the elements. All the way to the GPS-guided, sensory-equipped John Deere tractors we use today. But we’re still poised at the precipice of innovation. In fact, some experts claim that AI, IoT, and digital farming could lead to the biggest revolution since the industrial revolution.

True, we’re not quite at the point that robot farmers are trundling through fields. using AI-sensors to handpick the highest-quality crops. But the last few years have seen incredible advancements in the AgTech industry. From fully-autonomous tractors to satellite-imaging and the ever-evolving role of IoT, it’s an exciting time to be in the industry. Plus, 8% of farmers are digitally-native Millennials. That means we expect to see even more innovation and technological evolution in the coming years.

What’s driving advancements in AgTech?

While the obvious answer is “human innovation,” there are some specific issues that AgTech can—and must—address. These include an aging workforce and shrinking labor pool. Plus, the challenges posed by climate change, and removing obstacles to feeding a growing global population.

The changing face of farming

According to a 2019 article by the Fern’s Ag Insider, “One-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65, long regarded as retirement age, and nearly a million more of them are within a decade of that milestone, according to new USDA data.” As this generation of farmers retires or changes careers, the face of farming will continue to change. Considering there’s not enough labor force to replace them, AgTech will be crucial in maintaining food production levels with fewer hands in the field. That may be why many experts believe the future of farming is educated and requires digital natives who are tech-minded. It’s engineers and problem solvers focusing on efficiency and sustainability.

The looming threat of climate change

We shouldn’t need a declaration from 11,000 scientists from around the world to see that climate change is real. Or to understand that it represents one of the modern world’s most pressing emergencies. Over the last few years, farmers across the globe have lost crops to flooding, drought, and unpredictable cold. These weather fluctuations lead to heartier pest populations that target many of our global staples. With all of this in mind, AgTech is essential for a variety of reasons. Not only can it reduce farming’s environmental impact. It can also help us grow heartier crops while conserving vital finite resources.

The difficulty in feeding a growing population

Experts predict the world population will hit 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. That means we need to upscale food production—and curb food waste—to keep everybody fed. Advances in agricultural technology will be essential to our success.

So what advances can we expect to see in 2020? While we can’t predict the future, we can look at trends and predictions from around the world.

Autonomous robots

With long hours in tractor cabs, lifting and moving equipment, and inspecting the fields, it’s no secret that farming is physically-demanding work. In fact, a recent report by the National Agricultural Workers Survey found it can lead to lifelong problems. 11% of agricultural workers have chronic pain from repetitive stress injuries after their first year on the job. That number jumps to 19% after ten years. So how do we protect farmers by wiping out daily, manual labor tasks?

One company, Naio Technologies, proposes autonomous robots as the solution. Naio designed these agricultural assistants to weed, hoe, and help during harvest. They’re particularly helpful for farms and orchards growing fruit and vegetables. They don’t get tired. They don’t have to worry about the back and shoulder strain of bending, squatting, and stooping to weed or harvest. Plus, with these robots on-guard around the clock, we’ll be able to reduce our reliance on weed killers, insecticides, and pesticides. Best of all? They replace repetitive physical jobs with more skilled positions. Instead of being manual laborers, farmworkers become technical engineers. They tend the robots that tend the fields.

This France-based company has begun its international expansion. They’re looking for distributors around the world. Their Dino, a large-scale vegetable weeding robot, already landed in Salinas, California, just this year. As automation continues to evolve, we predict robotic assistants like these will play an integral role.

Advancements in BioTech

As CRISPR technology continues to expand the horizons of gene-editing, researchers are finding practical applications for it in agriculture. In fact, the first batch of CRISPR edited crops will likely hit shelves in 2020.

Haven Baker, the co-founder and chief business officer of agritech company, Pairwise, notes in an article for TheScientist, “We regularly eat between 50 and 100 food products from 50 to 100 different crops… and there’s CRISPR research going on in almost all of them.” That includes corn, soybeans, tomatoes, pennycress, and camelina, according to the USDA-APHIS. Using this bio AgTech, scientists can improve plant yields and make foods more flavorful.

As a relatively new technology, the potential for CRISPR to forever alter the agricultural industry is enormous. Considering the public fear and distrust around gene-editing and GMO technology, we’re hopeful that CRISPR’s popularity will hold, even in agricultural applications. With the first CRISPR crops of waxy corn set to hit the market next year, we’ll see soon enough.

IoT and AgTech sensors, in the field and on the equipment

The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed just about everything about our daily lives. It affets everything from the way we interact with our environment to how we communicate with our friends and families. The way we farm is no different. IoT puts unlimited data at our fingertips and equips us with the automation to understand it and put it to use. Thanks to advanced sensors and IoT-equipped AgTech, we’re taking steps to reduce waste and maximize our use of resources.

According to a recent BI Intelligence survey, the adoption of IoT devices in the agriculture industry could reach 75 million in 2020. That means a 20% annual growth. This can only lead to advancements in precision agriculture. It’s a perfect storm, transforming the way we understand and practice sustainable agriculture.

Though drones, automated tractors, and precision sensors are already a staple on farms around the world, these technologies are still relatively new. That means we can expect to see rapid advancements in the coming years. For example, satellite farming is poised to become a $43.4 billion industry in the next five years. That means we can expect even more advancement and nuance in the availability and quality of imaging.

High tech, urban vertical farms

One of the biggest challenges modern farmers face is finding enough land to farm. Land is a finite resource, and growing a crop that pays the bills can require miles of sprawling rows. The modern solution? High tech, urban vertical farms. These indoor farms are starting to replace the fields and rows of the past. Vertical racking optimizes space. It lets farmers to grow closer to urban areas, which shortens supply chains. Altogether, this type of farming combats urban food deserts.

Plus, with controlled conditions, farmers aren’t contending with seasonal weather patterns, the whims of the climate, or losses from birds and insects. That means cutting the use of pesticides and preserving biodiversity as more farmland is made available. Plus, as a closed system, there’s zero risk of run-off and nutrient loss.

And 2020 could be a big year for this farming model. Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering have launched a $40 million joint venture to build the world’s largest vertical farming facility in Dubai, UAE. This facility, which would turn out up to 3 tons of produce each day, could disrupt traditional and organic farming alike. According to the business proposal, just one of its growing units could produce as much food as nineteen acres of farmland, while using less water.

As technology continues to advance, we predict more agricultural companies will choose to repurpose abandoned facilities into high tech farms.

Hydroponics and underground farming

In a similar vein, we expect to see advancement in hydroponics and the creative use of underground spaces. Thirty-three meters below the busy, urban streets of Chatham, London, World War II air-raid shelters have been repurposed for a surprising purpose. Using energy-efficient LED lights and precision sensors, the team at Growing Underground produce pesticide-free microgreens. Up to 1,200 packs of them each day.

Though hydroponics is nothing new—after all, we’ve had floating gardens and farms for centuries—they’re more advanced than ever before with modern technology. NASA is even researching applications for using hydroponics to grow crops on Mars. Sure, 2020 may not be the year that hydroponics enables interplanetary travel. But it’s still got incredible potential down here on Earth’s surface.

And Growing Underground is just one example of the practical applications. While farmers struggle with less land, fewer resources, and increasingly unpredictable weather thanks to global climate change, temperature-controlled underground farming provides shelter from the storm.

AgTech to harvest renewable energy

As climate change continues to dominate mainstream news, the agricultural sector has an opportunity to sound the rallying cry around green and renewable energy. And experts predict that within a few years, in addition to raising herds and growing crops, farmers will be harvesting clean energy for commercial use. This will be a “greener” version of modern cash crops such as ethanol, which are already a widespread source of fuel. Wind energy alone could provide 80,000 new jobs and $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and rural landowners by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

As we close out, not only this year but this decade, we’re looking forward to the agricultural advancements on the horizon. And as always, Northerly plans to be at the forefront of this innovation. AgTech is the foundation of our sustainability practice, and we can’t wait to see how it helps change the world for the better.

 
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