It's Time For the Future of Farming to Be a Dinner Table Topic
With supply chains slashed and increased droughts, the public needs to take an interest in how they get their food.
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Dinner table discussions in my house feel like they've taken on a greater importance lately. At work, I'm hearing about farmers bulldozing orchards of dying trees because they don't have enough water to keep them alive. At home, I'm trying to get my kids to grasp the importance of understanding where their food comes from — and how they can continue to eat fresh produce at a time when farmers around the world are struggling with a tangle of complicated issues.
To me, right now is a teachable moment about how a tenuous international supply chain, a shifting climate, a growing population and mounting concerns about health and sustainability are placing massive pressures on agriculture. The implications could change not only what we eat, but how we live.
Now is the time to remove the disconnect between our food with the people and technology responsible for putting it on our plate. It's time for farming to be a topic around everyone's table.
"The pandemic has sunk its teeth into supply chains all the way from the field to the consumer."
Our food has a sustainability problem
Farming has never been easy. I like to say that optimal growing conditions combine the heat of Las Vegas with the moisture of Seattle — something that happens naturally in very few places on earth. But climate change has made these conditions even harder to achieve. Record droughts throughout the West and painful decisions on water allocation are a sign of things to come.
Yet this is only one hurdle facing our food supply right now. The pandemic has sunk its teeth into supply chains all the way from the field to the consumer. There are fewer people available to do the work that needs to be done, with no end in sight.
Shifting consumer tastes and soaring expectations present another challenge. The organic revolution has seen consumers demand healthier food grown in more sustainable ways — without the use of synthetic chemicals that traditionally enabled agriculture at scale. Yet, as I've seen at my own dinner table, we still expect a cornucopia of fresh produce year-round, at a price that's accessible.
To all of this, add one more especially thorny challenge: farming is both a victim of climate change and in the cross-hairs as a culprit. The latest climate change report issued by the United Nations calls for converting farmland back to forests — at a scale nearly 10 times the size of California just for crop land. At a time when agriculture is more challenging than ever, farmers are literally being asked to do more with less: less water, less land, less labor and fewer emissions.
Importantly, this isn't just an academic problem. If we continue in this direction, the kind of produce shortages and price surges we've seen over the last year may become the norm, not the exception. Experts believe you can eventually bid farewell to grocery store favorites like cherries, chocolate and even your beloved morning coffee. Processed goods will fill the void, which comes at a steep nutritional cost.
The future of farming isn't sci-fi — it's already here
Plotting out the path ahead requires deeply considering how we farm and how we eat. The good news is promising strides are already being made.
Farmers have always been early adopters of technology, from the first irrigation systems 6,000 years ago. Over the centuries, they've embraced mechanization, fertilizers that vastly improved yields and, more recently, genetic innovation. Today, there's a new agricultural revolution afoot, but one with a difference: it involves leveraging digital technology and data-driven approaches to allow farmers to do more with less.
Farmers are using Artificial Intelligence for driverless tractors and smart irrigation systems to cut down on water. Machine learning helps assess and predict things like the health of livestock, while IoT enables networks of sensors gathering crop data in real-time. This tech revolution really is the only way forward.
"The future of agriculture is everyone's future. I think that's something worth talking about."
I've seen this up close among the farmers I work with. Drought conditions have led to a dramatic rise in pests — including navel orangeworm, a moth that causes millions of dollars in damages to tree nut growers each year. A conventional approach would call for a proportional increase in pesticide use, with the contingent impact on health and environment, not to mention growing resistance among the pests themselves.
Instead, these farms opted to install hundreds of cameras and sensors in their orchards, all networked together to work as a team. The fully automated system can detect when the moths are about to strike, alert the farmer directly on their phone, while targeting the pests with organic pheromones. This confuses and disables the pests, protecting the plants with far fewer chemicals than a traditional approach. That's just one example of technology that's available right now.
Why agtech matters, for the rest of us
So why should the average person care enough to talk about it at their dinner table? Simple. Consumer demand dictates what farmers grow and how they grow it. Public sentiment also heavily influences government support, which can help the widespread adoption of this new technology.
As consumers, we're increasingly conscious of what we put in our bodies and where it comes from, as labels like "organic" and "fairtrade" suggest. The next step is to care just as deeply about how efficiently it's grown and the impact on agricultural ecosystems, both in our backyard and across the globe.
And what does it look like if we get this right? Data-driven decisions will optimize sustainability and profitability, which means we'll continue to see fresh food on grocery shelves, while beating back price instability. It means our plates continue to be full with the products we've become accustomed to. The ripple effects extend outward from there — more land returned to nature, fewer emissions, cleaner air, more fresh water in our lakes and rivers.
The future of agriculture is everyone's future. I think that's something worth talking about. If not, the abundance embodied today in something as commonplace as a bowl of fruit on your kitchen table — full of color, flavor and nutrition — may one day be a thing of the past.