The First Agricultural Revolution dates to 8,000 BC where humans moved from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary lifestyle where plants and animals became domesticated. Though it was very labour intensive for a small yield it was the largest factor that lead to the expansion of human populations. The Second Agricultural Revolution then developed in line with the Industrial Revolution. Here new technology reduced the labour load, improved yield and increased productivity. Again, this resulted in global population increases. The Third Agricultural Revolution came in the late 20th century and resulted in biotechnologies such as genetic engineering, GMO’s, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This led to further intensification and maximised yield.
Although these advancements have been paramount in human development, improving well-being and providing food globally at an affordable price it has had negative effects on the environment. Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change from both production of greenhouse gases and the removal of forests for agricultural land. It can also negatively affect nearby environmental systems due to over-use of fertilisers and poor land management; reducing biodiversity and affecting water systems. Intensive farming practices are also having a negative impact on soils resulting in a 33% loss of arable land over the last 40 years due to erosion or pollution. Not only does this have impacts for the environment but also for global food security.
But hope is on the horizon. We are now heading into a Fourth Agricultural Revolution where technology will be a paramount tool to improve agricultural efficiency, reducing waste and reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers. In a concept called precision farming, technology and data collection can be used to accurately examine crop conditions and determine the correct management, water or fertiliser use, with the aim of optimising returns while reducing inputs. Examples of technologies include the following:
Using smart sensors and devices to obtain large amounts of data gives farmers better decision-making capabilities. The data can be used to predict yield, prevent food spoilage and to provide risk management.
These are self-driving agricultural robots that use advanced tools to identify and harvest ripe fruit, carefully picking them from branches in order to improve fruit quality and avoid disrupting the environment. They can also be used to monitor crops, water and soil to improve management.
According to PwC analysis drone technology is valued at $127 billion across industries. In agriculture drones are used to take high quality images on the farm that assist in providing farm maps and layouts to analysis soil quality, to inform irrigation and nitrogen management. These images are also useful in monitoring crop condition; identifying problem areas where efficiency and productivity is low. In addition to providing visual imagery drones are also being developed to take an active part in farming. Start-ups are developing drones that shoot pods that contain seeds and nutrients to allow the plant to grow, into the soil. This reduces soil disruption and erosion and is more precise than heavy machinery. Drones can also be used to more accurately dispense fertilisers by aerial spraying of the chemicals.
These are just a few of the applications of technology in agriculture that are currently being developed. This digital revolution will not only be important for improving environmental well-being but will also profitability of farms and assessing the risks associated with climate change on farm systems.