The Economist on the Future of Agriculture

The Economist magazine seems to have taken a page out of Unnaturally Delicious.  Their quarterly technology issue focuses on agricultural innovations.

A few excerpts: 

MICROBES, though they have a bad press as agents of disease, also play a beneficial role in agriculture. For example, they fix nitrogen from the air into soluble nitrates that act as natural fertiliser. Understanding and exploiting such organisms for farming is a rapidly developing part of agricultural biotechnology. . . .The big prize, however, would be to persuade the roots of crops such as wheat to form partnerships with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. These would be similar to the natural partnerships formed with nitrogen-fixing bacteria by legumes such as soyabeans. In legumes, the plants’ roots grow special nodules that become homes for the bacteria in question. If wheat rhizomes could be persuaded, by genomic breeding or genome editing, to behave likewise, everyone except fertiliser companies would reap enormous benefits.

More robots may hit the farm.

A truly automated, factory-like farm, however, would have to cut people out of the loop altogether. That means introducing robots on the ground as well as in the air, and there are plenty of hopeful agricultural-robot makers trying to do so.

At the University of Sydney, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics has developed RIPPA (Robot for Intelligent Perception and Precision Application), a four-wheeled, solar-powered device that identifies weeds in fields of vegetables and zaps them individually. At the moment it does this with precise, and precisely aimed, doses of herbicide. But it, or something similar, could instead use a beam of microwaves, or even a laser. That would allow the crops concerned to be recognised as “organic” by customers who disapprove of chemical treatments.

For the less fussy, Rowbot Systems of Minneapolis is developing a bot that can travel between rows of partly grown maize plants, allowing it to apply supplementary side dressings of fertiliser to the plants without crushing them. Indeed, it might be possible in future to match the dose to the plant in farms where individual plants’ needs have been assessed by airborne multispectral cameras.

There is a lot of other interesting discussion in the piece about CRISPR, indoor farming, drones, soil sensors, precision agriculture, improved photosynthesis, fish farming, animal welfare, lab grown meat, and more.