The shape of things to come

  • Grocery stores will stock food cartridges which you fit into a 3D printer to print food

Mar 24, 2019-

Smart farming, drone technology and 3D printing are some of the technologies shaping the fourth industrial revolution. I shared these developments in Nepal after returning from South Korea, but most were quick to dismiss my experiences as they did not believe that these technologies were suitable here. I am not surprised by the reaction because it happens to technology developers too.

The technological changes—in speed, depth and width—are unprecedented. In 2016, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Prof Klaus Schwab, wrote a book entitled The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Following its publication, rigorous discussions and documentations are going on to decide what the fourth industrial revolution will look like. The fourth industrial revolution, collectively referred to as cyber-physical systems, is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Most of us are pretty focused and curious about digital technologies like robotics and internet speeds regarding the fourth industrial revolution. However, it is equally important to focus on agriculture in the era of the fourth industrial revolution because robots enriched with artificial intelligence are likely to take over many tasks. In addition, we have to feed human beings, which is something that agriculture fulfils. Nevertheless, farming itself will not be what it looks like today.

The 2018 World Government Summit tried to outline the future of agriculture in the era of the fourth industrial revolution and termed it Agriculture 4.0. Agriculture is facing several challenges which are igniting and will fuel technological innovation. The need to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050 amid climate change, depleting natural resources, an ageing population, global movement of food, rapid changes in choice of food and so on are key factors that shape Agriculture 4.0.

Traditional production technologies may not overcome these challenges in the near future. Therefore, producing foods differently is crucial. Some of these technologies have already penetrated farms, and some are still under development. Hydroponics, vertical farming, precision agriculture, smart farming and others have already become familiar to farmers in the developed nations. Drones are flying over fields to spray agro-chemicals and take photos and send them to a big data analytical unit, which analyses site-specific nutrient deficiency, moisture status, incidences of diseases and pests, abnormalities in growth and development, and maturation time and yield.

There are a small number of farmers who are growing crops in smart farms which they can control from any place in the world where there is internet access. The internet of things is well incorporated in smart farming. Using data analysis, everything is kept under control with minimal or no effect on the climate. Genetic modification is a very sophisticated plant breeding technology which enables us to generate several plant varieties as per our choice and demand of the climate.

A huge pressure on agriculture comes from the production of meat. The annual per capita consumption of meat is projected to reach 45.3 kg, up from 36.4 kg in 1999. To meet this increased demand for meat, many foods are being turned into feed, which, to some extent, was responsible for the global food crisis in 2008. The 2008 food crisis was also caused by excess biofuel production. Therefore, to fulfil the requirement for meat, scientists are developing cultured meat technology. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Jack and Suzy Welch and food conglomerate Cargill and others have invested in Memphis Meats, a pioneer clean meat company. The success of the cutting-edge technology of cultured meat will greatly impact food security, environment, animal-borne food-related diseases and animal welfare.

Grocery stores will be stocking food cartridges which you fit into a 3D printer to print food. The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research has developed a printing method for microalgae, carbohydrates, pigments and antioxidants; and using these ingredients, you can print edible food like carrots. The blockchain is the technology behind famous cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and the same technology is being tested for use in agriculture and the food industry. The successful implementation of the blockchain will enable users to reduce inefficiency and fraud, and improve food safety, farmer pay and transaction times. It may also improve traceability to allow authorities to easily identify the source of contamination.

It is obvious that developing countries like Nepal cannot invest in such sophisticated and cutting-edge technologies. However, being prepared and adjusting our farming community accordingly is of the utmost importance. Moreover, policy analysis and policy adjustment are crucial to guide the nation and the economy. Unpreparedness may invite technological and economic shock which we may not be able to withstand.

GC is an officer at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development.

Published: 24-03-2019 08:12

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