Food Without Farmers

"I am hungry.”

A phrase said by many people on a daily basis, whether young or old, whether in the Western or Eastern hemispheres. Indeed, everyone needs to eat, and everyone likes to eat. Macroscopically, under the current situation, there is no food shortage, but only an imbalance in food distribution. Specifically, developed nations have a decreasing rate of population growth, and a surplus in food. In contrast, developing nations have an growing population rate—as much as 50% in African countries, and many families in developing nations already struggle to put food on the table. Even if there is no food shortage under present circumstances, given that food can be better allocated, the concern for the future is still pressing. The population of the entire globe has reach 7.3 billion by 2016, and is expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. Although the population will only rise by 33%, the earth needs to produce 200% more food than it did in the beginning of the 2000 to feed over 9 billion people on the earth. A fair allocation is a rather utopian thought, since the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer. Thus, we need to discuss how advanced machines might help alleviate the dichotomy between the developed and developing nations and how modern technology can contribute to sustainability on the grand scale.

The biggest problem we face now is yield gap, the difference between how much a field is producing and how much it can produce. Due to yield gap, the world is producing more food at a decreasing growth rate. Some nations have already, or will soon reach a plateau for crop growth, contrary to previous environmentalist estimates based off exponential food production. Indeed, in the southern area of China, rice production actually decreases over the decades. In the 70’s to the 90’s, the overall annual average percentage increase rate of yield goes from 3.3% to 2.9% to 1.5%. As the largest producer of rice for the world, it is concerning to have a decreasing growth rate. 

The main causes for yield losses are soil-related, weather-related and pest-related. Soil-related means the deficiency of nutrients in the soil, weather-related problems include floods and droughts, and pest-related problems include bugs and weed. Out of all, soil-related constraints, including shortage in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, account for about 45% of yield losses on average. Many modern machines target specific factors to shorten the yield gap. 

With sensors in 15 rows to inspect plants, LettuceBot can care for 5,000 plants per minute and treats 40 acres per day with a single machine.

To deal with the problem of nutrients deficiency, Blue River Technology invented a machine called “LettuceBot”, a precision thinning machine. In essence, LettuceBot decides which plant to keep and which to thin to optimize yield. If there are too many plants in one field, they will fight for nutrients. LettuceBot selectively chooses the stronger sprouts and allows them to get enough nutrients, targeting the soil-related problem and reducing yield losses. LettuceBot is also more efficient than humans. With sensors in 15 rows to inspect plants, LettuceBot can care for 5,000 plants per minute and treats 40 acres per day with a single machine. Using human hands, farmers can select around 50 plants per minute and select examine one acre of a field per hour. LettuceBot expands the area by using 15 rows instead of one, and increases the speed of the thinning process by 100 times. Machines like LettuceBot are key to producing more plants and closing up the yield gap. 

Soil problems aside, pest-related problems are being tackled by drones! Drones have surfaced to many aspects of people’s life due to how versatile they are, and agriculture is the next field many companies are entering. Drones can be designed to monitor moisture level in the field, spot pests, and spray pesticide on flagged areas. Lehmann Aviation devised the LP960 drone to achieve such purposes, taking aerial images of the field using a thermal camera, which determines heated areas where pests congregate.  It can be used in harsh environments, anywhere from -13 F to 140 F. Spotting pests with human eyes is much less efficient, and humans cannot work in extreme weathers like LP960 is. Other companies, like Blue River, have come up with See & Spray drones, which spot and directly spray pesticides on pest-affected areas. Although drone technology in agriculture is still very avant-grade, it holds much promise in the foreseeable future.  

Yet our food supply problems cannot be solved through increased crop production alone. Economic growth also brings up the standard of living, causing people switch to a highly carnivorous diet. More meat-lovers call for more meat, and livestock is consumed at the expense of human appetite. If the aforementioned crop machines are made to assemble production, slaughterhouses utilize highly mechanical system to disassemble. In Timothy Pachirat’s book Every Twelve Seconds, he narrates his personal experience from working at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska. The book’s title references the fact that a cow is killed every twelve seconds, and goes through 156 stages along the (dis)assembly line. The entire slaughterhouse is filled with machines to chop off body parts, extract the innards, and eventually produce freezer packs for markets all across America. Pachirat recounts how industrialized and callous the entire process is, as the cattle are always referred to as an mechanical entities, desensitizing the workers to treat them as living machines for profit. 

Not only may butchering cattle be considered unethical by some, but raising cows also places a heavy burden on the environment. Since cowsare ruminants, only a minute fraction of consumed nutrients actually enter into the bloodstream. Put it in simpler terms, cows eat way more than they produce. In caloric terms, a portion of red meat requires 28 times more land than poultry, and 160 times more land than potatoes. According to an UN report, they also contribute to the advent of global warming, since cows produce more greenhouse gases than cars. Specifically, cows are responsible for 37% of all human related methane emission, one of the major players in global warming, and 64% of all ammonia emission, a producer of acid rain. Considering this negative impact, could there be an alternative to raising cattle for meat?

Many companies have synthesized plant proteins to resemble real meat.  Impossible Foods is one of a myriad companies that has invested in this technique. It brought to the market the burger that “bleeds”. On first sight, one would imagine it to be a perfectly sizzling steak burger, but it is in fact a veggie burger with zero meat content! “In vitro cultivation”, meaning food cultivated in a lab, is the step up from the conventional method since it leaves significantly less environmental impact than beef raised on the field, and is also more nutritious. For Impossible Food, over a third of its production is done in labs. The researchers use centrifuge to separate plant molecules and another machine called gastro-chromatography (GCS) to add flavor into the “meat”. 

In the lab of Impossible Foods, burgers are synthesized using potato, coconut oil, soy, wheat and their key ingredient called “heme”. It is the magic ingredient that allows the veggie burger to bleed just like real meat. In nature, it is present as hemoglobin in blood, which gives the smell, sizzle and taste of meat. Thus, using extracted heme from yeast cultivated in tanks, real meat flavor can be preserved in these vegetarian burgers. Together, the all-natural ingredients plus the magic touch equate the veggie burger that swept through the east coast and made its way onto the menu of some Michelin-starred restaurants in NYC. Not only does it taste like a good old fashioned burger, it greatly decreases the environmental footprint of cows. 1 kilogram of Impossible Food burgers uses 95% less land, 75% less water, and produces 87% less greenhouse gas emission compared to traditional beef burger. Even on a personal scale, substituting that beef patty for an Impossible Food synthesized burger can make a real environmental difference. 

LettuceBot, drones, and Impossible Foods are all modern techniques designed to prevent food crises in the future. Scientists are trying their best to invent machines to close up yield gap and maximum production, and many organizations are spreading the ideology of a less meat-based diet to alleviate the burden on Earth. While it is advanced machinery that has planted the seeds, it is the advanced thinking that will foster them to blossom in a sustainable future. ﹥