🔮Technologically Clairvoyant

Farms

June 17, 2019

Hello 👋

Brandon here.

Welcome to a special edition ✨ of Technologically Clairvoyant🔮

In this special, we’re going to look at farms 👨‍🌾👩‍🌾

The format is the same. We start off with some near future news.

But, this time, we dive right into the distant, distant future. Using what we’ve learned from the near future to try and predict what the distant, distant future is.

Let’s get right into it 🎪

Farms

Farmers are a weird subject to imagine as hackers. But it’s true. They are hackers.

In the 1870s when telephone companies wouldn’t provide service to isolated farmers, the farmers took things into their own hands. They created a telephone network using the miles of barbed wire they had.

In more recent news, farmers have been hacking their tractors. John Deere, the most popular producer of tractors, has taken the Apple route. They’ve made it almost impossible for farmers to repair their tractors at home. Instead, they would have to travel hundreds of miles to get it fixed. Instead of waiting for the Right to Repair (a law that enables consumers to repair and change their devices) farmers have taken things into their own hands.

Farmers are replacing the firmware on their tractors with illegal firmware made in Ukraine, brought from the darknet. This new firmware enables farmers to fix and repair their tractors.

Farmers have always been hackers. Which is why farming will be revolutionised in the future. In this special, we’re going to explore the future of farming.

More and more of farming is becoming automated. In 1900, 14.3% of the US population worked on a farm producing food for 76 million people. In 2017, 1.7% of the US population work on a farm producing food for 321 million people.

🍓 Autonomous Pickers

In the UK around 35,000 pickers work every day. These people pick fruit from trees (as an example). Uk Researches Have Created An Autonomous Picker which gathers strawberries twice as fast as humans. The challenge is creating an autonomous picker which can pick all kinds of fruit, as well as commercialising it.

🌿 Autonomous Weed Killing Robots

The UN estimates 20 - 40% of global crop yield is lost to pests and weeds. Automating weed killing is one of the main steps in the process to increase global crop yield. In a smart farm, there are systems being built to observe when and where pests occur and inform the farmer to let them deal with it. It’s not hard to see into the future where pest control is automated by a robot.

🚜 Harpers Collins University Creates A Farm That Only Uses Robots

The university has marked off a field where humans cannot enter, only machines. These machines are 100% autonomous. Planting crops, watering them, and yielding the crops. In the future, it’s easy to see farmers becoming mechanics. There are fewer farmers now then there were 100 years ago. This number will only decrease until farmers who can maintain equipment are left.

🥜Automated Water For Almonds

Almonds are thirsty. 6 years ago a pair of Dutch researches suggested that growing a single almond requires them to consume 4.5 litres.

Some farms are wired up like lab rats. Moisture sensors are planted throughout the nut groves to keep track of what is going on in the soil. They send their results to a computer to be crunched. The results are passed back to the farm’s irrigation system - a grid of drip tapes.

Every half an hour, a calibrated pulse of water based on the computer’s calculations, and mixed with an appropriate dose of fertiliser, flows through the tapes. Delivering a precise sprinkling to each tree. This technique uses an average of 20% less water than normal.

🎈 Why We Need Farming More Than Ever

The Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations’ agency published a report in 2009 which suggested that by 2050 agricultural production will have to rise by 70% to meet projected demand. Since most land already suitable for farming is being farmed, something has to change. Normally, we’re thinking of higher yields. Agriculture has gone through yield-enhancing shifts in the past. Mechanisation before the second world war, and the introduction of new crop varieties and agriculture chemicals. One of the ways to increase yield is Genetically Modified Crops.

Genetically Modified Foods

Understanding a crop’s DNA sequence also means that breeding itself can be made more precise. You do not need to grow a plant to maturity to find out whether it will have the characteristics you want. A quick look at its genome beforehand will tell you.

We want GMO crops because:

  • Bigger crops = more yield = more food = more money
  • Fewer crops die out due to pestilence
  • Could be considered healthier

But at the same time, farmers may not want GMO crops. Some farmers grow crops to get the ’biggest possible watermelon’ (as an example). If your neighbour farmer is using GMO crops to get rich, but you want to work on creating large watermelons then you have a problem.

Gene flow is the name given to when GM crops mix with traditional crops, introducing new unwanted attributions. Large crops are produced when evolution creates a gene which forces them to grow large. GM crops likely won’t have this gene inside of them.

There are a few ways to avoid gene flow:

  • GMO Plants need to be related together to breed together. Cabbages cannot breed with Apples.
  • Terminator seeds. These are seeds which produce sterile plants. No need to worry about gene flow if all your plants die instead of producing offspring. The downside to this is that I can see farming becoming a subscription model, where you’ll have to buy seeds after every harvest.

One of the big questions related to gene flow is

“If a GM crop was to cross with a non-GM crop, is the food that comes from that offspring different from non-GM plants?”

Over 90% of cash crops in the US are immune to glyphosate (a pesticide), so the use of this has increased. farmers have a strong incentive on using this one way only, not balancing enough.

how can the world be fed in future without putting an irreparable strain on the Earth’s soils and oceans? Between now and 2050 the planet’s population is likely to rise to 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion now. Those people will not only need to eat, but they will also want to eat better than people do now, because by then most are likely to have middling incomes, and many will be well off.

GM plants are one of the ways we can deal with this. Better crops mean more food. But, the problem still persists. We have a finite amount of farmable land on this planet. If it keeps on growing exponentially, eventually we’re going to run out. 

Now, put on your seat belt. We’re going on a ride as to what the future will look like.

The World of Vertical Farms

Kimbal Musk (Elon’s Brother) Is Working On Vertical Farming. He’s using shipping containers for his farms in cities, to provide fresh food.

Here’s why putting farms inside of something is a good idea:

  • Very minimal amount of pests. Almost non-existent.
  • No chance of gene cross is the plants can’t physically leave the box.
  • UV lights can be left on 24 hours a day, meaning plants grow 24 hours a day. This means more food, more money.
  • Farms can be stacked on top of each other. Instead of one 2-dimensional farm, you can have 3 or 4 stacked on top of each other.

While Kimbal’s shipping containers is a neat solution, I can see where this is heading. Imagine living in London. And one of the largest skyscrapers there is a farm. A fully vertical farm.

The Shard (London’s tallest skyscraper) has 95 floors. That’s 95 floors of farmland.

Let’s take this one step further.

Farms require people, right? Well, as we saw earlier - no. They don’t. The Shard is designed in mind for people. But, we don’t need people.

The Shard is 1016 feet (310 metres). Let’s assume that you need 6ft of space for a farm. For now, we won’t design the exact layout of the farm. Our job is to visualise what it’ll look like. You’ll have a few feet for the soil and crops. A few feet for the robots. Some room for the UV lights. Assuming 6ft per floor, that means in the Shard we can fit 170 floors of farmland

We’d need some room for sprinklers. And some room for cameras too. We’ll use AI to monitor the crops, to make sure everything is okay. It’s going to be hard for weeds or pests to get into this farmland, as it’s closed off from the outside world. Not even humans can enter the farm (well, unless they crawled).

Okay, we have this super skyscraper producing a boatload of crops. Now, what?

We would distribute it to the city. We could sell them at our own little farmers market or we could provide them to restaurants in return for some money to keep it running.

But let’s look into our crystal ball again 🔮

Deliveroo Is Famous For Its ‘dark Kitchens’. These kitchens are shipping containers in the middle of carparks. They’re not restaurants. You can’t go there to order food physically. These kitchens exist entirely on Deliveroo. Less space. Less cost. More profit.

Into the future, I can imagine a lot of popular brands outright replacing cooks. Habits are so important. Franchises go out of their way to make sure all their stores look the same. Ever been into a McDonald’s? It’s eerily like every other one you’ve been to.

But, the one thing that isn’t guaranteed at each restaurant is the food. Humans all cook food differently, even if they have to follow a recipe.

Machines, on the other hand, will always cook the food the same way. You can reinforce the habit even harder by making sure it’s a perfect, juicy Big Mac every single time.

Now, of course, chefs aren’t going to get replaced. They’re going to work in McDonalds HQ. They’ll build new recipes, try new things, explain how the cooking works in algorithms.

Once robots replace most cooks in stores, we can begin phase 2 of our skyscraper plan. In the top and is now a kitchen operated entirely by robots. Each robot has minimal space to do its job. Fresh ingredients are elevated to the top, where they are cooked into the perfect meal every time.

This meal is then drone-delivered to you within minutes. Imagine that. “Your food was harvested 12 minutes ago, it was cooked 8 minutes ago, it’s now at your door”.

Now, you might be thinking about livestock. How will they live on the farm? Isn’t a Big Mac a burger? Well, yes. There have been studies on farming livestock indoors. Mainly fish. But, if I’m honest with you, with the rise of Impossible Foods we may not even need to worry about livestock in the future. Livestock is unsustainable and we have to change our diets.

By we, I mean, the future us. In 100 years or so. There may be revelations in industrialising livestock as we’ve done with farming in this article. There may not be. I don’t see it. But if you do, reply to this email and I’ll be sure to listen. Anyway, back to our original point of skyscrapers.

It’s possible to eat healthily. To eat locally. To eat organically.

Let’s go one step further. Say you want to lose weight, or you want to bulk up. Or you want normal food to maintain your current health. You can subscribe to a subscription service from this skyscraper. Every morning - fresh food. Lunch - fresh. Dinner - fresh. Food selected so you would remain healthy.

Right now, this model is failing. We all want treats sometimes. And these subscription models don’t provide that to us. I don’t want to eat salad 7 days a week, I want a pizza once in a while. But, this new model, your food hasn’t even been harvested yet. No need to worry about wanting to binge eat. You can change it in an app.

Now, of course, this only feeds cities. It’s not sustainable for the whole world. I propose that the farmland previously used for farming should still be used for farming. This food should still support our system. We should give away food to those in need.

In smaller cities, you can go the route of having shipping container farms. There will still be a need for actual farms. As humanity grows, this 2-dimensional farming space can’t scale very well.

The Problems (Conclusion)

The next big issue is going to be water. We saw earlier how our crops needed more water than ever.

Building vertical farms and condensing these farms into skyscrapers means that the skyscraper would need an enormous amount of water. If there’s more than 1 farming skyscraper, the cost of water is high. I’m not pro replacing farms with skyscrapers, I’m pro building skyscrapers alongside farms. This idea requires an enormous amount of water. For some cities that aren’t near a river or ocean, it’s not possible.

Even so, some cities experience droughts (California).

Building a skyscraper for the sole reason to create a farm is capital intensive. It costs a lot of money.

Energy costs will run very, very high. In the distant future when everything is running on eco-friendly energy it’ll be possible, but right now not so much.

It’s a neat idea, but it’s not going to happen for quite a while.

Not to mention that there is almost no incentive to actually create this thing. There are a few ways you can monetise it. The drone delivery system, subscription models, and farmers markets are good ideas. But are they going to get back the millions and millions they spent on building the skyscraper? Unlikely.

At the moment, shipping container verticle farms work quite well and may be used in the near future. But for now, skyscraper farms is but a distant, distant future.

Until next time,

  • Brandon 🐝

Brandon Skerritt

Written by Brandon Skerritt who loves writing and dogs 🐶 You should follow me on Twitter

🔮 Technologically Clairvoyant is a newsletter about the future. You can subscribe here. The fact that you're reading this is a testament to your hunger for knowledge. Like you, I want to be knowledgable. The reason I write these newsletters is to learn. Join our community of 61,437 monthly readers in learning extremely cool things together!