ST. LOUIS — Agriculture is quickly shifting from brawn to
brains, Christophe Pelletier believes.
The internationally known futurist sees the role of the
farmer changing from one who toils in the field to one who pulls the strings in
a grand performance.
“We’re at the crossroads between the strong and the smart,”
Pelletier said at the InfoAg Conference here. “In the past, we were thinking
about adding muscle to farmers. It started by oxen and horses. We replaced the
horses with tractors and now bigger machines.
“For me, the future is about building a nervous system.
Before, we were bulking up the muscle. Now we’re working on the super brain. It
offers an extension of the senses.”
Pelletier, a Dutch native who was educated in France and
holds joint U.S. and Canadian citizenship, has written two books on the future
of food and farming. He operates the website, The Food Futurist.
Rapidly advancing technology allows farmers to expand their
reach through machines and information. In the future, he may spend little time
getting his hands dirty.
An expansion of existing technology that allows an
agronomist to diagnose plant diseases could further remove farmers from their
Not only may problems be seen remotely, but they also may be
treated remotely, through use of a targeted fungicide treatment via drone, for
“He doesn’t have to be in the field,” Pelletier said. “He
can operate in the control room, like a conductor, with machines as the
orchestra. It frees time. The farmer in the future will visit the farm without
being on the farm at all. A technician may be miles away, but sees the problem
and solves it.”
Not only will agriculture be smarter, but it will be
smaller, he thinks. The past few decades have delivered bigger equipment such as
tractors and planters.
That will change in the future. Indeed, drone technology
already has begun that trend, as the hand-launched vehicles fly over a growing
number of acres.
Among examples in the research stage are tiny, flying robots
the size of bees, intended for use in Chinese fruit and vegetable
“Before, it was all about bigger, machines and everything,”
Pelletier said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more machines, but they’re
going to be smaller and lighter.”
Advancements that appear more science fiction than science
include horse-size robots spreading across a field, accomplishing a number of
tasks formerly done by a farmer on a large machine.
“There is going to be more and more interaction. Project a
whole group of robots working the fields and the ability to exchange
information,” Pelletier said.
“They basically would be working as a team. Maybe in terms
in equipment in the future we’ll have something like the Transformers, machines
that consist of different units, units that could get loose and go in different
directions in the field to do other duties and come back again. That’s probably
something we’ll see at least investigated in the real world.”
Robot “mules” now in use in the military to carry equipment
over rough or dangerous terrain likely will be adapted to farming, Pelletier
believes. A host of other machines may soon be accomplishing various
And while such equipment may not be cost-effective now, they
probably will be in the future, as more and more farmers discover their
Pelletier likened that to cell phones, basic models that
cost thousands a few short years ago. Now virtually everyone can afford a phone
that does a number of things.
Evolving technology also will improve planning for the
future. Forecasting — markets, weather, pest infestations and even projected
resource use — is certain to become more precise, Pelletier said.
In addition, the market will be impacted, with consumers
demanding to know more about their food and the possibility of such things as
“personalized food” designed to avoid triggering allergic reactions.
Innovation also brings with it dangers. Among those concerns
are privacy, spying, transparency and secrecy.
“There is a question about where the lines should be between
those things,” Pelletier said. “We’re going to see discussions about that.”