How Tech is Changing Food Production

According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 795 million people worldwide who don’t have adequate access to food and proper nutrition. One of the major causes of hunger is the increasing drought, flooding, and changes in weather patterns due to global warming. Sub-Saharan Africa, especially the countries of Somalia, Ethopia, Kenya, and Uganda, have been hit particularly hard by food shortages in recent years. As the human population continues to grow, we can only expect to feel more pressure on the food supply. By 2050, we will need to double food production in order to satisfy global demand. As developing more farmland becomes increasingly less feasible because it would require clearing rainforests and other natural areas, we are looking to technological innovations to help avoid a future food crisis.

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Spread, an agricultural technology company based in Japan, is set to break ground this summer on a new factory that will produce upwards of 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. The facility, which is meant to be an improvement on their prototype factory in Kameoka, Japan, will add automation to and cut carbon dioxide emissions from the growing process. The facility will also use low-cost, energy-efficient LED lighting and will include a recycling, filtering, and sterilization system that will recycle 98% of the water used by the plant. The environmentally-friendly, low-cost factory will be able to yield crops year-round thanks to climate control technology. The first harvest is expected to take place in Fall of 2017, and then the company will focus on producing other crops. Spread’s model of vertical farming could provide fresh, pesticide-free vegetables to urban areas while creating enough food to combat shortages around the world.

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For traditional farmers, drones may soon become a low-cost solution to managing crops. After the Federal Aviation Administration’s Section 333 exemption went into effect in 2014, companies are now permitted to fly drones for commercial purposes on a case-by-case basis. Farmers can attach a camera to these miniature, unmanned aircrafts to get a better look at their crops and make more informed decisions about planting and crop rotation strategies, as well as general crop health. Previously, farmers would need to hire extra hands or rely on satellite imagery to monitor large areas. Drones are much less expensive, and the low-altitude view they provide creates a higher-resolution image. This allows farmers to see irrigation problems, pest and fungal infestations, and even infrared data that can reveal disease which is not visible to the naked eye. Drone technology is making farming more efficient, using less water and reducing the amount of chemicals that wind up in our food supply. Countries like Uganda are considering adopting drone technology to combat crop shortages.

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We will likely see other tools to improve farming productivity in the near future. Two women at Imperial College London are developing a device that allows the early detection of plant pathogens, which can help prevent disease. FungiAlert contains chemicals that attract spores from the soil, causing the device to change color. The wireless-enabled model can also send a message directly to farmers’ phones to alert them of the presence of a pathogen. Though FungiAlert is not yet for sale, each device will cost just $5 (with just the color-change component) or $10 (with a wireless chip added). This low-cost device could help farmers cut down on their use of fungicides and prevent resistance by spraying only when there’s a pathogen present, rather than spraying preemptively. FungiAlert could save $5-7 billion per crop per year by detecting just one of the many pathogens that affect plants. Making farming more efficient with devices like FungiAlert could make a serious dent in food supply issues.
The meat industry is also seeing a number of tech innovations. Modern Meadow is engineering tissue to make meat without livestock, with a goal of stamping out the environmental footprint left by the meat industry. Livestock in the United States alone consume enough grain to feed about 840 million people, and the meat industry as a whole accounts for about 18% (though some sources say 51%) of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. As the population grows, and more people in developing countries attain middle class lifestyles, the demand for meat will continue to increase. Companies like Modern Meadow aim to meet this demand while reducing livestock production. There are other companies, such as Beyond Meat, who focus on the use of plant-based proteins to create alternatives to meat, which is perhaps a more palatable option for those who aren’t excited by the prospects of lab-grown meat.
Technology is allowing for environmentally friendly, efficient, and affordable production of food – something that 66% of respondents in a 2014 survey by the International Food Information Council listed as important. A combination of tech-enhanced local farming and eco-friendly vertical farms can ensure that urban dwellers have access to high-quality produce year-round, and that those living in rural areas and developing countries have enough to eat.

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