Honey, I shrunk the farm—Supporting “small” for large gains in agricultural transformation

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A farmer monitors crop quality with the help of a tablet computer. Photo: Venusvi/Shutterstock
Photo: Venusvi/Shutterstock

Scientist Wayne Szalinski had a vision that he could shrink the molecular capacity of living beings and inanimate objects without destroying their physiological and material make-up. While Wayne’s efforts seemed laughable to fellow scientists in the film Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the impulse behind this vision could shift the agricultural transformation trajectory.

By 2050, the planet will need to produce nearly 70% more food than it did in 2009. Labor costs have been rising and are expected to increase by 6.6% in 2019 to about $31 billion in the United States while high-powered tractors cost in the upper $200,000 range, on average. Who will bear the burden of increased food production – the 500 million small farmers or the 70 million large ones? In the United States, the last half century has steadily concentrated agricultural assets such as land, labor and capital in the hands of fewer larger industrial farms (Figure 1). Can this well-worn path be shifted through the advent of deconcentrated nano-technologies and services so that small farms can meet our growing productivity needs?

Evolution of the number of farms and average farm size in the United States. Source: USDA Census of Agriculture
Evolution of the number of farms and average farm size in the United States. Source: USDA Census of Agriculture

Small and inexpensive technologies may be the key to reducing the substantial labor and capital costs associated with increasing productivity. Think of how computers and phones have transformed in the last 80 years. Now, everything from home security to email can be accessed by an affordable, pocket-sized device from almost any location. Another example is the “uberization” of transport from cars to bicycles, further advancing access to mobility by introducing micro-mobility. With these technologies, people are less constrained by expensive, large and stationary equipment, increasing their overall productivity, efficiency, and flexibility.

Similarly, farms can and are becoming more efficient and productive. For example, Berry 5.1 is able to harvest strawberries without damaging the fruit, automating the work of a laborer and reducing the uncertainty linked with hiring and labor costs. Vertical farming allows for crop production in urban settings, remedying the outdated sole reliance on rural agriculture production and using less space than standard farming. Precision agriculture tools reduce the amount of waste in water and chemical spraying, lessening the rate of resource depletion. Geographic Information System (GIS) and sensor technology collect crop data, monitor the production process and activate farming equipment.

But there’s a long way to go. Many smart farming or precision farming technologies, such as Berry 5.1, are still physically large and might require hefty investment and maintenance costs. But the proper pull factors are  in play. The market for technologies for precision farming and utilization of the wide interconnective world of the Internet of Things (IoT) is increasing globally while trends in owning big agricultural machinery decline. With the right push for innovation, the agricultural sector may begin to see an even more transformative age.

Let’s envision the thousand-year old agricultural sector undergoing a “shrinking” transformation similar to that of computers and phones. Imagine the ease in controlling all farm production on a phone with the power of nanotechnology. With a touch of a button, a farmer could send robots to plant and harvest. Ant-sized decomposable tractors that rest under the soil can be activated to till the land. Bee-sized drones could monitor crops, detect crop diseases, and control mechanized irrigation systems. Nanotechnology could use molecular level data gathered from drones to expand and adapt to different environments. These small yet powerful technologies can improve efficiency, reduce waste, promote technological deconcentration and empower small farmers.

Creating affordable nanotechnology for agriculture will not be easy. Some innovators like the Small Robot Company, which has uberized machinery and assembled smaller products that are less costly to adopt, are on their way. On a pay-per-hectare model, the company sends out robotic farming equipment, eliminating farmer maintenance costs and the risk of owning outdated material. In addition, solar water pumps allow farmers to have smaller technology for irrigation that has a lower price tag than a traditional irrigation system. Solar water pumps have lower maintenance costs and significantly reduce negative environmental costs, all in a small package.

Continuing this transformation will require both public and private sector efforts. There will need to be large initial investments in research, education, publicly available data, information dissemination, and resource training. We will need to consider how to manage existing infrastructure and promote sustainable practice. This transformation could revolutionize the agricultural world, significantly reducing barriers to entry, cost of technological access, and the burden of large capital requirements in agricultural investment.  If done correctly, we could address the needs of the majority of the world’s farmers, most of whom live in poverty. We could make agriculture sleek, innovative, and more efficient. Yet, if we do not prepare ourselves for the transformation, something that was once easily manageable, like what happened to Wayne’s lawn or food security in the movie, can become a treacherous jungle where ‘small’ struggles to compete. This reality can be avoided if we empower and protect the potential of ‘small’ to nourish the agricultural future.

 

We hope to crowd-in some of the world’s best minds to participate in a global conversation on food and technology through the “What’s cooking? Rethinking farm and food policy in the digital age” blog series. We invite people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to join us and share their comments.

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Authors

Ina Ajazi

Graduate Intern, Education Global Practice

Julian Lampietti

Manager, Global Engagement in the Agriculture and Food Global Practice

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