ICT in agriculture. The future is here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

Posted by Rohan Samarajiva on December 1, 2014  /  1 Comments

In 2010 I wrote a piece of science fiction. It was published in an academic book, so it came out in 2013 as “e South Asia: A social science fiction,” in South Asia in 2060: Envisioning regional futures, eds. Najam, A. & Yusuf, M., chapter 26. London: Anthem. This is what I said about agriculture in 2060 South Asia:

The move to a knowledge-based economy did not mean the end of agriculture, but the blending of agriculture and knowledge. The massive computing power agglomerated in the region enabled a solution to the water crisis that had threatened to turn the bread basket of the Punjab into an arid desert and to start another war between Pakistan and India. The inefficient water-use practices on both sides of the border had driven down the water table and made the great Indus a mere trickle. Combining the brains of the region’s scientists, cheap computing and ubiquitous connectivity, the region was able to do more with less water, also cutting down widespread fertilizer poisoning in the process. Gone were the days of free electricity endlessly pumping water from ever-receding groundwater pools. Science decided when the drip irrigation would be turned on and off. Previously flood-causing rains recharged groundwater pools. Life started returning to riverbanks as the region’s rivers began flowing back to the Indian Ocean at fuller strength.

Food was one thing that still had to be transported because people continued to value the tastes, textures and smells. Food never moved without its attendant cloud of data. Machines recorded every chemical that went anywhere near a crop or a farmed fish/animal and traceability of every agricultural product was routinely available. Food now came packaged with stories, who grew it, what the weather was like, and so on. Price volatility, shortages and gluts were not absent, but were increasingly becoming rare. Access to weather and seed information changed cropping patterns. Returning to some of the region’s traditional seed varieties not only restored diversity of flavors but also helped resist crop failures as the climate changed. No longer were farmers poor. But of course farming was now high tech and required considerable capital. The percentage of the population engaged in agriculture had greatly decreased.

I was reminded of this when reading today’s New York Times on ICTs in Agriculture. If I had read this kind of thing back in 2010 I could not claim to have written science fiction.

At a large family farm in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Brian Braswell uses satellite-connected tractors to plow fields with accuracy of one inch between furrows. His soil was tested with electrical charges, then mapped so that fertilizer is applied in exact doses from computer-controlled machines. He uses drones, the newest new thing, to survey flood irrigation.

“It would be easy to put an infrared camera on one of these and spot where crops are stressed,” he said, except that he is wary of Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Brent Schipper takes data readings from his combine every three seconds at his 6,000-acre farm near Conrad, Iowa. In the storm season, he checks the weather app on his smartphone every 30 minutes. With the harvest in, he and other farmers who used to spend winters resting and repairing machines will be adding new sensors to their equipment, and poring over last season’s data, hoping to get an edge on the next season.

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