Global impact of farming
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but agriculture is featuring in the news quite a bit recently.
Agriculture is one of the largest end-users for the chemicals industry, it is one of the largest consumers of fresh water and the land it occupies is often a reason behind deforestation.
Given the scale of the industry and the impact it has on our planet, there is much to be gained from finding new, innovative ways to feed us humans without further destroying our planet.
Approaches to this range from – making farming more efficient by using artificial intelligence and cameras to pin point what crops need watering, which ones need fertilising and where to send in the robots to pick out the weeds, to growing more food locally, in cities where people actually need it, to creating artificial meat.
Artificial Meat Meets Fast Food.
One of the biggest players in the race to make artificial, or “lab-grown” meat mainstream is a company called Beyond Meat. A quick Google search for fake or artificial meat will illustrate that this move isn’t particularly popular with certain segments of the global population, and there is much “commentary” coming from them about the negative impacts – especially from regions where livestock is livelihood.
Given the global impact of raising livestock, it is no wonder a significant amount of time, interest and investment is being ploughed into this particular development. For example, the company behind KFC’s fake-meat trial, Beyond Meat recently announced a significant investment from one of the worlds largest grain producers. It’s such a big business that in just four months since Beyond Meat went live on the stock market, their valuation soared to a whopping $9.9bn! (I tried hard to get “Whopper” in to this).
Obviously, the global impact of farming extends beyond the production of meet. Even the humble Basil plant has a carbon footprint bigger than a Yeti.
According to a company I met recently, more than half the cost of a single Basil plant is transport. Add to that the fact that in the UK, 60% of the lorry traffic is transporting food and up to 80% of the transported matter is packaging, rather than food, you can quickly see that moving food from where it is grown to where it is purchased is a massive problem.
The other thing I found mind-blowing is that in order to fast-grow the amount of crops we need to fill the shelves, large boilers are run, burning fossil fuels to fill enormous greenhouses full of carbon-dioxide, CO2. It’s kind of obvious when you think about, because CO2 is the fuel nature needs to grow plants, but still, we’re burning fossil fuels to create CO2…what?
Part of the answer – city farming
City farms are popping up everywhere, and they’re promoting goodness in many areas.
The World Economic Forum highlights the rooftop farms in New York City, talking about how they shorten the supply chain (e.g. reduce the number of lorries needed) as well as solving a major sanitation issue that the city suffers from in heavy rain.
In Holland, where the bee population has been dying at an alarming rate, innovative solutions like the bus-stop meadow are being used to help provide new habitats for honeybees, and there’s been several local city initiatives to promote the values of growing your own veg in the streets and in window boxes.
From soil to pizza in 90 seconds
Recently I met an executive from City Farm Systems to find out more about how they intend to tackle the issues mentioned above.
Their answer was incredibly pragmatic – why transport food to the supermarket when you can grow it there, on the roof?
The cynic in me doubted that even the largest supermarket roof could provide enough space to grow the quantity of crops needed to supply a store for a week, let alone a year, but apparently I was wrong. With their clever ‘rotating crop-tray’ solution they can effectively stack up crops on top of each other meaning that they can grow 500 acres of crops on half the roof of a typical large Tescos – which is more than enough space to grow more than the store can sell. For those of you who can’t comprehend 500 acres, that’s a lot, especially on a roof. But it’s not as huge as you might imagine it needs to be.
Data driven farming
It doesn’t have to be huge, though, that’s the point. Us humans are quite predictable. We buy strawberries when the sun comes out and leeks when the nights close in. By understanding our behaviour, macro events, festivals, holidays and weather you can quite accurately predict demand for fresh food produce ahead of time.
City Farm Systems‘ approach is to create flexible, stacked and rotating farm “modules” that can hold a variety of different types of crop as and when demand dictates.
The pods sit on top of the supermarket roof, and through a combination of infra-red and visual cameras, radio-frequency tags (RFIDs – little tags that have unique signatures that computers can read), robotic harvesting systems can monitor, feed, weed and pick the right harvest at the right time, delivering it straight to the shop floor.
In fact, and this is where it gets really cool, you could walk into a store, order a pizza and have the ingredients delivered straight from the soil to your pizza in the time it takes you to pay for it.
Another benefit of this approach is that instead of firing up a boiler to create CO2, these systems can be fed CO2 directly from the store. With that, these systems can help remove CO2 from the environment, without the need to burn any additional energy, and since all the power they need comes from a few solar panels, they are carbon-negative.
My take on this
I was skeptical on the capacity and also the physical requirements of the roofing systems required to support an entire farm on what was originally supposed to be just a roof, but this is where City Farm Systems’ solution has some advantages – I stand corrected 🙂
I also asked about whether there was a trade off between using roof space for solar power, versus farming. The argument here is compelling too. One square meter of solar panels generate the same amount of energy as about nine litres of diesel a year. That’s not much at all. If you can take just one lorry shipment off the road that’s going to save way more than nine litres of diesel (I imagine lorries use more than nine litres of diesel stuck in traffic).
From a technical point of view, these kinds of farming leverage:
- Computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify crops versus weeds and which crops need watering, feeding, harvesting and disposing of due to disease
- RFID tags can be used to identify the location of crops
- Big Data, and AI can help predict demand and sow the right crops at the right time
- Connectivity like 4G or 5G can be used to link all these things together
- App based solutions can enable you to choose the crop you have custom-harvested
So I’m off to plant more potatoes in my garden, and whilst I’m digging over the dirt I’ll be thinking about how my previous Cybernetics history could be used to help get Basil off the roof and onto your pizza.