Imagine the life of a neolithic farmer back in 3500 BC. It consisted of growing crops, rearing animals, clearing forests, producing food for the community and leading a settled life. The Neolithic Revolution marked a transition in human history when humans moved from operating in small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to larger, agriculturally self-sustaining civilisations.
It was the first time humans were thinking of settling into permanent habitats and farmers were the trailblazers in that. They got to observe and learn about the climate and had to produce crops accordingly, and this knowledge passed on through generations.
Now consider a contemporary farmer's job in any geopolitical location in our present world. Interestingly, it doesn't sound much different from the descriptions of life from the neolithic period. Farming has fundamentally been the same since its inception.
That however is about to change in our era of algorithmic prowess and machine learning capabilities.
Algorithms are modern interpretive keys. They have their active signature in almost everything around us, except for their presence in agriculture.
The algorithm-driven technologies for farming are lesser-known to farmers due to their niche practice and smaller market appeal. Digital farming is a relatively new term but it promises transformative changes. Algorithms can introduce more productive and better farming solutions.
For instance, IBM's cloud program, launched in 2011 can ensure significant computing and practical usage of algorithms necessary for farming. With the motto of "More crops. Less water. Better planet", IBM farming and IBM Cloud can forecast water needs and control irrigation in real-time through IoT sensors.
Machine learning and big data have also constantly been used in several developed countries like the Netherlands, China, Japan, the USA and South Korea to produce higher quality and large quantity organic crops using relatively small spaces.
A country better known for its scenic beauty and blazing tulips is now known for its leading role in tomato production and is the top exporter of onions and potatoes. As amazing as it may sound, the truth lies in the inclusion of technology in farming. The Netherlands has been called today the silicon valley of farming.
This country has advanced through its extensive use of AI in the farming industry, which integrates vertical farming in its greenhouses, alternate materials to grow crops, using robots to automate things and the most intriguing part is that the use of AI smoothens and aggregates crop production.
The Netherlands has added its knowledge and technological prowess into making a successful agricultural model which uses minimal or almost no pesticides and leans more into organic crop production.
In our neighbouring country India, there are some new hyperlocal farming ventures like Herbivore Farms who are producing vegetables in a climate-controlled indoor space with a monthly subscription service that home delivers food every day.
The future of farming has been brought into the cities. The tech veteran and restaurateur Kimbal Musk, has started a million garden initiative for everyone, especially low-income families. One of the major ideas of the program is to grow vegetables in any possible place - as stated on their website - "Growing a garden is easy – in your backyard, on a fire escape or your windowsill."
In Japan, truly automated farming has already been made into reality. In Kyoto, a vertical farming company named Spread Co. Ltd. has the expertise to produce 21,000 heads of lettuce per day and under the brand name "Vegetius", can currently be found in approximately 2,400 supermarkets in Japan. This country also has a futuristic greenhouse in Ashai City, Chiba, founded by Dr Toyoki Kozai who is also known as the "Father of the Japanese Plant Factory."
In his farm, the controlled temperature and water is the main point. The water use has been cut down to 95% in comparison to traditional farming.
A farming initiative in New Jersey named Bowery Farming has automated its farming ventures with their own software called the "BoweryOS." This operating system can record "millions of data points through proprietary machine learning algorithms along with an extensive network of sensors and cameras."
Agro Circuit, a Uttara based startup in Bangladesh has been successful in producing and selling 20-30 kgs of hydroponic vegetables in places like Gourmet Bazaar, Unimart and families living in Uttara and Gulshan.
These farms are gaining popularity slowly through a cult following because embracing new technology in farming has its drawbacks, due to cultural trends. But the replacement of the traditional system is imminent.
And these changes promise to actually make farming better and more efficient, especially in terms of its impact on the environment. It is frustratingly true that farming today, with its massive success in food production, hasn't been safe for the planet. Food production has led to several big concerns like heat emissions, soil pollution and erosion.
The crisis is not new. We have been polluting croplands for centuries in favour of mass production. As David Pimentel and Michael Burgess' research claims, humans use 99.7% of calories from land-based food sources. The land use or abuse for farming is quite prevalent everywhere, with 10-40% loss of fertile soil every year.
The climate footprint of food production is increasing with all of the processes involved, ranging from production to packaging and transportation.
Traditional farming requires a large number of lands and heftier equipment and is a time-consuming process. According to the recent study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, the food production system that exists in the world today is responsible for putting together necessary meals for 7.7 billion people and is contributing to one-third of the emissions around the world.
The use of pesticides and other chemically induced materials have made the soil lose fertility. The sudden rush in rising populations and higher standard of living in less developed countries make it increasingly challenging to meet the global demand for agricultural products. It has also become a challenge to maintaining ecosystem services.
Our traditional farming is slow-burning itself into the archives. However, a plethora of breakthroughs in modern agriculture indicates that the farming industry is turning over a new leaf now and then. The fundamental knowledge of crop growing, to some extent, has shifted permanently. These farmers are becoming more entangled with the 'new farming' and can run their business efficiently.
There is also a flip side to this seemingly positive transference. Some people may end up questioning the motive and automation of farming and its overwhelming impact on technologically handicapped farmers around the world, who mostly rely on their age-old knowledge with predated technologies.
They may point out that these developments could leave traditional farmers jobless and food too expensive and inaccessible to people in lower income stratums.
The reality of technology, however, is that the more demand there is, the more economically efficient they become.
Smartphones for instance are the prime examples. The first smartphone that was launched on October 13, 1982, was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X with a price tag of $3,995. In today's market you can get a decent specification smartphone for just $150-$200 or 12,000-15,000 takas on average.
Machine learning technologies for farming can also be made available for affordable prices once we have a policy to embrace advanced methods.
There are several policy changes and awareness programs that need to be introduced. Curriculums have to be developed in every sector of the education tier. If we can embrace new farming methods, the environment can be protected. And if we, like always, ignore these threats to the environment and adamantly continue to do things the way we are doing it now, then our goldfish memories may lie in rest under the ruined ashes of our long lost forests.