A future view of farming

This is leading to the need for advancements in farming as well as new approaches to agriculture and the use of land and soil. The recent shortage of grain reserves brought on by severe weather conditions in the largest producers of crops creates a very real threat of food shortages and high prices.

As prices continue to rise, producers and suppliers face a backlash of consumer rejection. For many consumers the steeply rising cost of living has forced them into considering other methods of food procuring which includes growing their own. Over the last decade and a half, the price of corn has multiplied at least 7 times. In January 1995 the price of corn was R378.27 per ton and currently, it costs R 2 653.95 per ton.

More importantly, to cut costs, improve yields and get products to market quicker and without labour issues many large scale farmers are turning to automation in order to sow, grow and harvest their crops. This is creating an unusual catch 22 cycle in many industries turning to automation as it decreases labour resources which in turn fosters unemployment and leads to less cash in the economic system to purchase the goods being produced.

For large scale producers, the rising demand and prices have meant having to try and increase yields from their lands or expanding the farming area. In some cases this has meant the rehabilitation of land that was previously un-farmable.

In Africa specifically this is becoming increasingly important, not only for food security of the African continent, but also other countries around the world. Africa with its vast tracts of unutilised land is increasingly being viewed as the future bread basket of the world and more and more countries are investing in land on the continent and bringing in technologies to convert these areas into sustainable farming lands.

Water is also becoming a concern, as larger volumes and areas of crops require increasing amounts of irrigation. This has lead to further research in reducing the amount of water required for irrigating crops.
An ever-growing population, that is set to reach and exceed the nine billion mark by 2045, coupled with the fact that nearly 40 percent of the world’s land is depleted, means the farming sector is under an enormous amount of pressure. More food is being consumed than is being produced, which is why the levels of produce are struggling as land is either being used for industrial development or has been over-farmed.

The first extremely high spike of the cost of maize was between 2007 and 2008, which pushed an estimated 100 million into poverty. The world food prices increased dramatically causing social unrest in some countries. A report by Oxfam, released in March 2012 indicates that the food prices will more than double in the next two decades. With poverty already rife and so many people living on the breadline, the price increases will plunge many more people into poverty.

The increase in commodity prices, the rush for land and water and the unpredictable changes in the weather patterns are clear indications that the world is heading for a food shortage crisis. Solutions to grow more crops and to grow them faster are becoming the main focus. Numerous solutions to the looming crisis have been presented which are a change to current methods of farming.

Precision agriculture
Precision farming and agriculture involves the integration of satellite observations and high tech machinery. Precision farming aims to increase output while conserving resources. It includes field level management of crop science – by matching the farming process to the crop needs, thus applying the right amount of fertilizer, water and seeds to ensure maximum efficiency and therefore enhancing the quality of the farm products.

Automated farming will mean that machines perform all farm operations. Robots will merely be supervised and will not need any direct operating. Through GPS positioning and telemetrics, farm equipment can be controlled and managed with precision by either a human operator or a computer one.
The benefits of automated labour include:

  • Plant – level management – robots will be to determine the right amount of water and pesticide and monitor the plants life cycle.

  • Round the clock operating – they will work 24/7 week in and out.

  • Selective harvesting – the robots will be able to harvest crops at the best time for picking which will result in more quality farm produce.

  • As mentioned earlier though, the down side will be the reduction in the need for human labour.

Vertical farming
Also known as sky farming, this method of farming means that crops can be grown in high rises in urban areas. Food such as vegetables, fruit, fish and livestock can be raised using green house methods. The result of this method is fresh, cost saving produce.

The benefits of vertical farming include:
Protection from weather related problems – the crops will be grown in a controlled environment thus they’ll be protected from extreme changes of weather patterns
Environmentally friendly – land that would otherwise be left standing will now be developed to produce food. Growing crop indoors means that there will be no machinery used leading to the lessened use of fuel on equipment
The one benefit that is also seen as a disadvantage is the reduction of transportation cost. The transport industry forms a big part of the economy and therefore people working as delivery drivers or garbage collectors will be at a disadvantage, as their work will take a cut.

Hydroponics grows plants in the absence of soil or sunlight, although, these ingredients can also be incorporated into hydroponic environments. However, it allows for the nurturing of plants without two of the most basic requirements usually required to grow crops. Using various substances such as nutrient rich jellies and hydroponic lights means plants can be grown anywhere, whether it be in disused shipping containers or underground. Although hydroponics has to a greater or lesser extent been practiced for many years and has a place in the modern world, there are still doubts about consumers obtaining the full nutrient benefits of crops grown under natural conditions. It is also and expensive way of cultivation which is usually aimed at higher end income consumer who is after food that is our of season or climatically unsuited.

Genetic engineering
Changing the genetic structure of a plant has attracted both positive and negative publicity. Rice is one such crop where a lot of research is being done into changing its genetic makeup to improve it. It is a staple crop in many parts of the world and it is estimated that it takes 1500 – 5000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice. Scientists are now working on finding a way to grow more rice but use less water. The new plant is being called “super rice,” which will have a completely different make up to the rice grown currently. In addition to making the rice plant more drought resistant and produce larger seeds, scientists are also looking to incorporate genes that are disease and insect resistant. We do not think that genetic engineering will decrease and in some respects it is making crop production more effective. We do however see many scientifically based reports that highlight areas for further investigation, such as ‘genetic drift’ and the ability of pests and micro organisms to adapt to the genetic modifications that are effected. There is undoubtedly BIG money behind genetic engineering and the shareholders of the companies concerned will expect a return.

Subsistence farming
People will have to start taking a more active role in producing their own vegetables and fruit. Farming their own goods will make them more self-sufficient, teaching people to rely less and less on commercial farmers and supermarkets. In many developing countries, subsistence farming is more prevalent and is a means of creating an income for many. The benefit of people growing their own crop is that the people that are growing them use crops and there is less chance of crop failure. The combination of short-duration and long-duration ensures that needs are met over an extended period of time. One of the challenges in this type of approach is to structure it in such a way as subsistence farmers can effectively make use of technology which is often developed to address the needs of large scale agricultural operations. There are ways of doing this but they require organisation.

Changing areas of land from unsuitable farming lands to arable areas takes specialist knowledge and a good deal of investment. However, it is very possible. Middle eastern countries have even had success planting crops in deserts, areas which most farmers would consider to be the most un-farmable piece of land. Currently, large parts of Africa are being bought up by foreign countries and transformed into arable farming fields.

Self contained systems
From farms that produce feed, animals, plants, and processing plants all in one farm to cities and ocean vessels, the future is increasingly moving towards self sustainable, all-in-one units that can exist without any outside influence.

The future of farming will be a much more inclusive practice. Consumers will need to engage in taking responsibility for some of their own food requirements. For many parts of Africa this is already common practice, however it is going to become necessary on a much larger scale in order to prevent future shortages for the everyday consumer.

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