Tech May Transform Agriculture

AI technology is transforming farming. But who can afford it?

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
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No industry will see a greater impact from breakthrough technology in the coming years than farming. From genomics to facial recognition software, digital tech is changing how people farm in a post-industrial world. New technologies adapted for industrial equipment such as tractors and combine harvesters will allow for the treatment and cultivation of individual crops. Yes, treatment for individual crops.

But the costs of these new technologies can be too steep for some countries, and that can threaten to curtail progress.

And I’m back, because you know how often do you get a backdrop like this?

We’re going to talk about agriculture today.

Some of the questions that have been coming in or what sort of technologies do I see on the horizon that can actually move the needle considering some of the more dire predictions I’ve made and really the only big ones I see are in AG and it’s the marriage of digital technologies to agriculture.

So, when we were new before the industrial revolution most agriculture was really more like gardening, with people tending to each individual plant. 

And it’s not that that’s a bad system; that’s a great system. It generates massive amounts of agricultural surplus when plants get individual attention. 

But it does mean you need a lot of labor so the only places that still do that sort of agriculture today are in China with some of the rice fields and in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea.

Pretty much everyone else has moved to industrialized agriculture — tractors, combines, fertilizers, pesticides.

That generates slightly larger yields per acre, but with like one percent, two percent of the labor input. So it’s a different cost structure, but it also requires global supply chains.

The combines, the tractors are only made in three or four places: Brazil, Germany, France, United States, China… i guess that’s five. But the real problem is all the other inputs. Fertilizer is derived from natural gas. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are largely derived from oil. 

These are things that have to cross international boundaries. And about 80 percent of the calories that we generate as a species have at least one imported input usually that fertilizer pesticide set. 

If you remove those things from modern industrialized agriculture yields drop by over half almost overnight and that assumes you can still get the equipment and the fuel to run it.

So if you de-industrialize an industrialized agricultural system, output drops by 90 percent in a very short period of time because there isn’t the labor in place to do gardening.

In the world I see, the number of calories that we’re able to generate as a species is going to drop by at least half minimum. Because you’re going to break down those systems and allow it all to happen.

That brings us to digital technology.

There are two changes in digitization that are now being married to agriculture that will allow at least some places to counteract this trend of general collapse. 

The first is genomics and that’s everything from gmos to gene editing. It’s gotten so good that we’re probably going to see yields in the places that can apply it double in just the next 10 years. 

The big difference between the two is GMOs you take like a gene from an unrelated species and you put it in so it like generates natural pesticide.

Whereas gene editing you’re messing with the genome of the plant itself and doing something that theoretically could evolve on its own even if it takes like 100 or 200 generations.

As a rule, the folks that are opposed to GMOs think that gene editing is just cool. Honestly, i don’t see the difference really between the two but hey i’m not a protester. 

Anyway, so that’s number one. Number two is facial recognition.

It’s gotten so good that you can put a camera on a tractor and drag a unit behind it that will take a photo of each individual plant and just… if it needs a little bit of fertilizer, it gets a squirt of that, if it needs pesticide it gets a squirt of  that, herbicide a squirt of that, is it a weed, you know really hit it with a herbicide. And you can reduce the inputs by like 80 percent while doubling the yield.

It’s digital gardening.

Individual attention to each individual plant but on an industrial scale and that is going to be able to double output in the next 10 years.

The problem with both of these technologies is they’re not cheap. A lot of equipment, a lot of upfront work, a lot of maintenance and so it can only be applied in places that have deep financial access. 

That’s primarily the First World and very, very, very large fields so you can spread out the cost of the equipment over a lot of a production zone. 

That’s Australia, that might be parts of France, that’s the United States and Canada, maybe Argentina,  maybe a little bit in Brazil, and that’s about it.

So you’re looking at 15, maybe 20 percent of the world’s agricultural land being able to explode at what they can do and everything else looking a lot more like that.

All right. That’s it for me until next time.

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No industry will see a greater impact from breakthrough technology in the coming years than farming. From genomics to facial recognition software, digital tech is changing how people farm in a post-industrial world. New technologies adapted for industrial equipment such as tractors and combine harvesters will allow for the treatment and cultivation of individual crops. Yes, treatment for individual crops.

But the costs of these new technologies can be too steep for some countries, and that can threaten to curtail progress.