The SPREAD vegetable farm, currently under construction on a science park about 25km outside Kyoto, Japan, will occupy 4,400m2 – all enclosed in a vast, warehouse-like building. Inside, under LED lights, shelves will rise to the ceiling, each one a soil bed full of lettuces. The workforce will move seedlings, feed plants and pick 30,000 lettuce heads every day.
The striking thing, besides the scale of the operation, is that none of those workers will be human: people will plant the seeds, but after that, robots will tend the crops, control the temperature, humidity, light and CO2, and sterilise the water supply. This is not a vision of agriculture in the distant future: SPREAD’s “controlled-environment farm” will begin shipping lettuce in 2017.
To feed a world population forecast to hit 9.6 billion by 2050, global food production must increase by 70 per cent. Our planet’s finite nature of land is the most obvious barrier to that, but there’s also a serious rural labour shortage; across the world, people are moving from the countryside to towns and cities. By 2017, it’s estimated that even less-developed countries will have majority urban populations. In the UK, a 2013 government report put the average age of farmer at 59.
Much land is already “precision farmed” – monitored by sensors, data-analysis and satellite mapping, and cultivated with machines that use that data and GPS technology to plant, spray and harvest more efficiently. Driverless tractors are already in use in Europe and the US, but at John Deere – the agricultural machinery manufacturer – the talk is of sensors and the internet of things enabling whole farms to run almost entirely unmanned.
The application of fertiliser, for example, will be carried out not by large tractor-like machines whose weight increases soil compaction, but by fleets of drones. And forget broad use of dangerous herbicides – weed-recognition software could enable robotic devices to travel fields applying a laser, or single dots of chemicals directly to the offending plant. A prototype robo-weeder is currently being built at Harper Adams University, a specialist provider of agricultural education, in Shropshire.
Livestock handling is also being automated. Robotic milkers – the first robots to make inroads on farms – are now affordable to even small-scale producers, and are able to imitate the milking action of a human. Dairymaster’s MooMonitor sensors detect when a cow is in heat and ready for insemination, and alerts the farmer via text message. Irish shepherd Paul Brennan, of Carlow, uses a drone to replace sheepdogs for round-ups.
Of course, some of this farming technology will be redundant if lab-grown meat becomes a more affordable and appealing option.