Iron farming

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Marvin A. Tort


Iron farming

This piece has little to do with mining or “farming” for iron. Although, mining becomes crucial in the way that it significantly contributes to technological advances, which, in turn, help boost agricultural productivity. Metallic soil is not conducive for food farming, anyway. So, farm or mine the iron and other elements, then use these elements to improve farming for food.

Why this proposition? Well, it seems we are in the era of high-technology farming, where robots — naturally made of iron and other metallic elements — are beginning to play a bigger part in the food production process. Perhaps not in a big way, just yet, but I suspect this is the trend for the coming years. Robots will eventually replace farmers, who are already diminishing in numbers.

A report in this paper a couple of days ago noted that agricultural employment continued to contract or fall in 2018, based on statistics from the Bureau of Local Employment (BLE). Natural calamities, which negatively impact on farming and harvest, are among the culprits, BLE Director Dominique R. Tutay was quoted as telling BusinessWorld.

The employment in the Agriculture sector — which includes Agriculture, Hunting, and Forestry; and Fishing and Aquaculture — was down to about 10 million workers in 2018 from about 11.3 million workers in 2015. A big drop was seen in Fishing and Aquaculture, about 14.7%, compared to 11% in Agriculture, Hunting, and Forestry.

This contraction may be seasonal in nature, or more related to weather, but I still believe that in general, the numbers will continue to drop as farmers and fisherfolk tend to favor white-collar or highly skilled work for their children. Thus, there is little incentive for continuity, where children continue on to become farmers or fishers themselves, after receiving an education.

And this is where technology can help. In a separate report in another newspaper, a farming expert was quoted as saying that digital agriculture and disruptive breeding technologies were crucial to addressing food scarcity and in raising agriculture’s contribution to creating jobs and promoting economic and national development.

Dr. Paul S. Teng was quoted as saying that in a consultation organized by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study & Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), it was noted that the use of technology was now a factor in determining agriculture growth. And such “technology” can be as simple as the use of the Internet to boost knowledge among farmers and fishers.

An example is the use of the Internet for more accurate weather forecasting. This ties in with the BLE finding that natural calamities, such as typhoons and earthquakes or landslides, significantly impact on agricultural employment. Of course, it is one thing for ordinary farmers and fisherfolk to know how to use the Internet, but it is another that they actually have access to it. They can be taught to use it only after they are provided access to it.

Obviously, farmers’ access to computers and smart mobile phones and connectivity are seen as crucial to adopting and promoting use of technology. Cooperatives may be encouraged to pool resources and invest in technology that can be made available to members, like Internet access to information on weather and farm management, and to establish an electronic library or a database as a resource on new farming technologies.

The report also quoted Teng as saying that other technologies like “gene-Editing biotechnologies (CRISPR, TALENs, Zinc Finger Nucleases) provide capability — the ability to edit native crop genes coding for important traits and generating non-transgenic plants. Genome-edited (important) crops include, soybean, maize, wheat, rice, potato, tomato, and peanuts.”

Over in San Carlos in California, technology is already playing a big role in determining the future of agriculture. I note with interest the piece by Erin Winick in the MIT Technology Review, of which he is Associate Editor, that was published recently. Winick’s background is in mechanical engineering. He had been a freelance science writer and was previously into 3-D printing.

In an article titled “New autonomous farm wants to produce food without human workers,” he wrote about Iron Ox, a robotics company with a facility near San Francisco, California, that “produces and sells food.” He quoted the firm’s cofounder, Brandon Alexander, as saying that despite the robots, the company is “a farm and will always be a farm.”

Alexander was also quoted as saying that automation solved two problems: the shortage of agricultural workers and the distances that fresh produce currently has to be shipped. But rather than eliminate human jobs, robots are seen as filling gaps in the farming workforce. In short, technology augments and complements, rather than take over.

Winick wrote: “The company’s 15 human employees share their work space with robots who quietly go about the business of tending rows and rows of leafy greens.” Iron Ox’s first production facility — an 8,000-square-foot (about 800 square meters) indoor hydroponic farm attached to its offices — is estimated to produce roughly 26,000 heads of leafy greens annually.

“That’s the production level of a typical outdoor farm that might be five times bigger,” Winick wrote. “The opening [of the facility] is the next big step toward fulfilling the company’s grand vision: a fully autonomous farm where software and robotics fill the place of human agricultural workers, which are currently in short supply.”

The way the farm is put together, Winick noted, robotic arms “individually pluck the plants from their hydroponic trays and transfer them to new trays as they increase in size, maximizing their health and output — a luxury most outdoor farms don’t have. Big white mechanical movers carry the 800-pound water-filled trays around the facility.”

And to make the farm work properly as an automated facility, Iron Ox has developed a software — nicknamed “The Brain” — to operate and keep watch over the farm, monitoring nitrogen levels, temperature, and robot location, among others. Winick noted that the software “orchestrates both robot and human attention wherever it is needed.”

And while workers still help with seeding and processing of crops, Iron Ox plans to automate these steps as well in the future. Also, Iron Ox is not selling any food yet, but it is in talks to supply restaurants and grocers, Winick noted. Meantime, whatever is produced goes to a food bank and the company cafeteria.

Winick added that it was Iron Ox’s belief that if technology could allow people to grow crops in indoor facilities that were closer to urban areas, using up smaller lots and minimizing labor costs, then these automated farms could provide cheaper and fresher produce, and deliver them quicker, than big farms outside cities.

There is logic to this, without doubt. But, “the problem with the indoor [farm] is the initial investment in the system,” Winick quoted Yiannis Ampatzidis, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Florida. “You have to invest a lot up front. A lot of small growers can’t do that.”

Ampatzidis added that the rise of technology could actually widen the gap between big farming corporations and small family-owned farms, which lack the capital to invest heavily in automation. However, the academic also acknowledged the role of technology is addressing the shortage in agricultural labor.

And this, to me, is the crux of the matter. The Philippines is obviously losing farmers and farmlands to urbanization and development. However, food remains the most important input to sustaining the population, followed by clean potable water, then healthcare and education. We cannot produce farmers or farms overnight, and without heavily investing in people and land and infrastructure.

Technology can help bridge that gap. Robotics can address the issue of labor supply, and automation can help improve productivity and efficiency, even with limited land and infrastructure. Technology for indoor farming also mitigates the impact of adverse weather conditions.

I believe in the value of technology, and I realize the importance of its role particularly in food production. The use of high technology in agriculture is not only inevitable, it has in fact become necessary. As Assistant Professor Ampatzidis noted, “If we don’t find another way to bring [in] people for labor, automation is the only way to survive”.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.