Agriculture Not What It Used To Be

It seems to me….

Conventional agriculture has never succeeded in feeding the world, and it’s never produced anything good to eat. For the future, we need to look toward alternatives.” ~ Dan Barber[1].

The future of agriculture, specifically traditional farming, is definitely not what small independent farmers who belong to organizations such as Future Farmers of America want to promote. There’s growing consensus that our current food production paradigm is unsustainable. The U.N. estimates that by 2050 it will necessary to sustainably produce 70 percent more food by calories than today just to keep up with global population growth and increasing economic preferences.

This is a complicated problem as there will be less land available for farming due to urban encroachment into prime agricultural areas. Farmers are also aging globally as younger generations migrate to cities primarily resulting from a productivity boom over the last century that has kept food prices low making farming less economically attractive.

While the reasons still remain somewhat unclear, global agricultural productivity growth is slowing for the first time in decades. This most likely is a systemic problem related to the rise of monocultures and the overuse of fertilizers that have added harmful salts to soils. New genetically modified crops will result in an overall continuation of productivity increases but there are questions related to their general acceptability.

Many of the major changes are technology related. An increased use of robotics[2] will be necessary and both governments and tech industries are pushing robotics development to take over from humans as rising concerns in various locations such as Japan that an aging population will soon result in a potentially crippling labor shortage.

Another major change will be development of inner-city farms in both warehouses and on rooftops[3]. Indoor cultivation enabling all-year crop growth will be necessary as world population increases and arable land does not.

The basic concept of hydroponics was originally developed around 1940 by William Frederick Gericke, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. Though much anticipated as a method to substantially increase agricultural production, it failed to change the way food was grown and was primarily adopted by pot farmers even though it resulted in yields that surpassed conventionally grown crops at the time.

Not only are those farms cultivating produce, some are also raising fish and other seafood. It is generally anticipated that as availability of edible marine sea food declines, not only will fish farms raise ocean-captured fish in coastal nets called net pens but a substantial quantity could also be raised in indoor marine aquaculture systems.

Demand for fresh, locally grown food has increased among urban consumers and warehouses using advanced hydroponic and aquaponic methods have stepped in to compete with conventional farms. These farms have some advantages over conventional farms: they are able to grow 200 percent more food per square foot than traditional agriculture without use of chemical fertilizers. Vertical farms on-average also use 98 percent less water and 70 percent less fertilizer than outdoor farms. Weather fluctuations are not a factor and neither is soil management. They can harvest crops up to 20 times a year and with their stack-it-high layout, occupy a fraction of the land required by traditional agriculture.

As other factors such as climate change and prime arable area reductions negatively affect rural farmland, vertical farming is able to make efficient use of urban spaces by occupying previously neglected warehouses, underutilized rooftops, and other vacant areas.

Problems still remain before urban farms can totally compete with traditional ones: high upfront costs, environmental control, technology dependence, and high energy costs are only some of the major ones. Without sunlight, plants require intense lighting for 16 to 18 hours a day. Improvements to indoor farming technology, including cheaper, more efficient lights, as well as monitoring equipment that measures and adjusts growing conditions, have brought down costs in the past few years and further innovations are under development.

While urban agriculture will never be able to totally replace rural agriculture, without major changes there will not be enough countryside to grow all the food required to keep everyone fed, growing lettuce away from urban centers still remains more environmentally friendly. Today, for-profit urban food companies that want to make their product affordable must structure their business plans to accommodate the extra costs that come with subsidizing a product.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the first major use of this technology might not be on Earth. NASA has contracted to create a hydroponic bioregenerative life support system for astronauts on extended missions to the moon or Mars. Various companies are attempting to perfect closed-loop systems where plants consume an astronaut’s carbon dioxide and body wastes and the plants in turn provide the astronauts with oxygen, fresh water, and food.

Regardless of how we think of traditional agriculture, the next generation of U.S. farmers will most likely be of a new breed. For now, peri-urban (urban adjacent) greenhouse operations are able to produce higher crop yields, have more productive potential, and also avoid the significant environmental and monetary costs that indoor farmers are forced to incur. Still, the future of farming will undoubtedly be substantially different than today.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Dan Barber is a chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.

[2] Nichols, Greg. Japan Announces First Farm Run By Robots, ZDNet,, 25 February 2016.

[3] Wells, Jeff. Indoor Farming: Future Takes Root In Abandoned Buildings, Warehouses, Empty Lots & High Rises, International Business Times,, 9 August 2014.


About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Aquaponic, Astronaut, Berkeley, Bioregeneration, Carbon Dioxide, Crops, Environment, Farm Land, Farming, Farms, Fertilizer, Food, Food, Future Farmers of America, Genetic Engineering, GMOs, Hydroponics, Japan, Life Support, Mars, Monoculture, NASA, Robotics, Space, Sunlight, Water, Weather and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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