Signs of a next green revolution

December 28, 2018

In 2019, we will continue to witness the negative effects of climate change on global food production. As temperatures rise, droughts will threaten crops and biodiversity loss will decrease yields and erode soil quality. The necessity of sustainable farming practices, that have less negative effects on the environment and that can deal with climate change effects, will thus increase. In the coming years, we will see three shifts in agriculture that will lead to such a transformation: from an overuse of pesticides to precision farming, from traditional to intelligent farming, from high environmental costs to climate-smart solutions. These are the signs of the next Green Revolution.

Our observations

  • According to a 2019 scenario article by Bloomberg, the coming year will bring more food insecurity, food shortages, food-fueled unrest, and migration due to hunger. These predictions are not unrealistic in light of the political environment and climate change related weather events that we have already seen in 2018.
  • Many studies predict that yields will decline when temperatures rise. The MIT 2018 Food, Water, Energy and Climate Outlook predicts that negative climate change effects on yields and productivity are smaller for the developed world and larger for the rest of the world.
  • The majority of farms worldwide are small (less than 2 hectares of agricultural area), of which 74% are in Asia, 9% in sub-Saharan Africa, and 7% in Central Europe and Central Asia. Only 4% of farms are in industrialized countries. Recently, a crowdsourcing citizen science project has shown that the proportion of smallholder farms may be much larger than previously thought. Contrary to most of today’s approaches, to be effective, improvements in agriculture will have to encompass larger numbers of smallholder farms in less developed countries.
  • Though precision agriculture is very costly, its benefits outweigh the costs for most developing countries. And with the costs of sensors, other hardware and software steadily declining, the advantages that come with agricultural technology will be further democratized. Projections show that by 2024, the majority of small farms in the U.S. will leverage precision agriculture. In developing countries, precision metrics are already available to small farms in the form of ubiquitous data from satellite imagery, sent to farmers’ mobile phones. Mobile-enabled agricultural technology is key to the next Green Revolution, as it offers a way to reach farmers in remote areas with low-key technologies. Projects have already proven to be successful in many developing countries.
  • As agricultural technology typically demands big investments, new ways to share costs and information are on the rise in developing areas. For instance, a free peer-to-peer service that enables farmers to share information via text messages, without an internet connection or having to leave their farm, offers a solution to farmers in African countries (e.g. Wefarm). The more elaborate FAO agricultural services apps provide farmers with real-time information on weather, livestock care, markets and nutrition.
  • Sustainability is gaining traction among Western consumers, which is, for instance, visible in the growing popularity of vegan food. According to the Future 100: 2019 trend report by JWT Intelligence, Britain’s vegan population increased from 150,000 to 542,000 in just 10 years. In the U.S., sales of plant based food rose by 8.1% in 2017, topping $3.1 billion.

Connecting the dots

The Green Revolution of the mid-20th century brought an agricultural transformation which more than tripled the world food production in half a century. Food production per person grew sharply, despite the rapid growth of the global population. This success was most visible with rice growers in Asia and the fact that people across the globe were lifted out of poverty. Generally speaking, this was the result of the global introduction of inorganic pesticides, machinery and high-yield crop varieties that had previously only been used in some Western nations. However, as the effects of climate change and the environmental damage caused by farming take their toll, evidence shows that the productivity gains of the first Green Revolution will begin to plateau amid accumulated environmental problems. Because of this, a second Green Revolution is needed to intensify agricultural production in a sustainable manner. Three signs point to this next shift in agriculture.

First, there is a gradual shift from overuse of pesticides to precision farming. The Green Revolution resulted largely from increased use of inorganic fertilizers and manufactured pesticides. Over time, however, the excessive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers brought extensive collateral damage to the environment, leading to biodiversity loss, pesticide resistance, pollution of freshwater supplies, soil degradation and erosion, and harm to our health. Precision farming offers a means for farmers to minimize the use of these products. It employs aerial images from satellites or drones, weather forecasts, and soil sensors to manage crop growth in real time. Low-key precision farming solutions begin with satellite imagery. Ubiquitous data from satellites is then turned into agricultural advice, by indicating what is needed per plot of land and sending warnings for drought, flooding and diseases. It leads to higher crop yields and more efficient use of seeds, water and fertilizers. In developing countries, mobile phone-based services to provide this information are highly successful in empowering farmers to make better decisions. On a more high-tech level, farmers use crop sensors that are connected to robots and apply the exact amount of nutrients that individual crops need, while automated systems provide early warnings if there are deviations from normal growth or other factors. Furthermore, military-grade drone surveillance could provide near real-time information to farmers, commodity traders and food producers, while at the same time dramatically increasing crop yields and mitigating damage stemming from climate change.

The second shift ties in with the first shift to precision farming. The data made available through precision farming will be analyzed, managed and shared, making farming intelligent. Aside from pesticides, the Green Revolution was a result of new machinery. It created a shift from human labor to industrial machinery. The machinery of the next Green Revolution will be digital machinery: 5G, IoT, AI, cloud technology and mobile technology. It enables the farmer to further automate processes and reduce the need for manual labor. We can therefore expect more data-as-a-service parties that offer analytics based on agricultural data by using AI and machine learning, such as Microsoft FarmBeats. Cloud technology allows for these massive amounts of data to be stored and managed from anywhere, from the farmer’s office to an external advisor. Networks allowing farmers to share their data and insights, such as Farmers Business Network, a digital platform dubbed “Google for farmers”, gain relevance as the new technologies born of the information age begin to be adopted in farming.

Third, climate-smart solutions will start spreading across the world. In a world of climate change, climate-smart agriculture can de-risk investments in agriculture and help food-insecure regions. During the Green Revolution, new crop varieties and livestock breeds led to sharp increases in food production worldwide. Again, new crops are necessary and readily available, such as plant varieties that are more efficient at converting nutrients to biomass, tolerate drought and/or increases in salinity, or with resistance to specific diseases. Other climate-smart solutions involve adjustments to the changing climate. Whereas the Green Revolution led to the industrialization of agriculture and strained fresh water resources, new saline agriculture techniques use salt water for irrigation, yielding plants that look and taste exactly like their freshwater counterparts. Another example of a climate-smart solution for protection against droughts while improving yield, is to unlock the potential of microbes by coating seeds with microbes, for instance, as is done by the start-up Indigo. Furthermore, 2019 will further show us how CRISPR, the new gene-editing technique, will prove its relevance in creating sustainable crops, as it offers the possibility to alter the genes of crops in a precise way, e.g. to make them more pest- or drought-resistant.

2019 will be a challenging year for food security, but the mentioned transitions point to the possibilities of a next Green Revolution, supporting not just big agriculture corporations but especially small farms in developing countries to increase food production in a sustainable way.

Implications

  • China is taking many steps to increase the sustainability of agriculture by providing small land-holding farmers with technological support and scientific insights. This initiative already involves 9 million farmers and 37.7 million hectares. The success of these projects in China can also yield significant teachings for India, which also has many small land-holding farmers.
  • Already existing and less advanced technology can contribute significantly to closing the yield gap in developing countries. However, the debate on how to empower farmers is polarized and figures such as Louise Fresco and international NGO Hivos, which is working with advanced technologies in order to support farmers, claim that especially these countries need high-tech solutions in order to emancipate sustainable farming practices.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

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1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Researcher Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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