Saturday, April 16, 2005

Farming

For millions of years humans and our evolutionary ancestors have relied on plants and meat for our sustenance. At first we did the hunter/gather thing, and then we invented farming. Farming has been with us for thousands of years as one of mankind's earliest innovations.

It is safe to say that, within 50 years or so, farming as we know it today will be completely eliminated.

Just think about how sad farming is. We start with a huge piece of ground. We plow it up. We plant seeds. And then the problems begin:
  • If it gets too cold, the plants get frostbite and die
  • If it gets too hot, the plants bake and die
  • If there is too little water, the plants dehydrate and die
  • If there is too much rain, the plants drown and die
  • Plus there is the incredible length of time -- measured in months -- that it takes a plant to grow and bear fruit
  • Then there are the funguses...
  • And the diseases...
  • And the insects...
  • And the weeds...
  • And the animals (everything from mice to gophers to deer eating the crop)...
  • And the wind...
  • And the need for special pollinating insects...
  • And the fertilizer...
  • And the runoff...
  • And the seasons (you can't grow anything in the winter, for example)...
  • And the storage space (because the crop comes in at one time of year, rather than being spread out evenly over the course of the year)...
  • And so on...
In other words, farming is a total crap shoot. That is why farming will be completely replaced as soon as we have the technology to eliminate it. Farming is an insanely unreliable, slow and expensive way to create food.

What will replace farming? On the plant side, what we will have are machines that produce food. A plant is mostly glucose molecules chained together in different ways (sugar, starch and cellulose are all different variations on glucose chains). Our new machines will nano-assemble glucose molecules into any form imaginable. The basic inputs to a food machine will be electricity, water, nitrogen from the air, a trace mineral cartridge or two and a source of carbon. The carbon will either be extracted from the air or supplied in the form of oil, carbon granules or some other carbon feedstock.

On the meat side, the barbaric process that we use today will be replaced by machines that either grow (cellularly) or nano-manufacture the meat.

In 2050, people will look back at "farming" and "animal husbandry" as we practice it today in amazement. They will look upon us in the same way we look at Neanderthals killing mammoths with stone spears. Farming will look ridiculously primitive to people in 2050.

One of the funny things about farming is that we take it so completely for granted. It is like gravity -- we cannot imagine it going away. Even NASA scientists (who really should know better) are trapped in this mindset, believing that we will be farming on space stations and moon bases. For example, you see photos like this:



NASA's caption for the photo is: "When living millions of miles from Earth, you can't afford to have a bad crop! Scientists are using high-tech methods to find the right plant varieties and growing system to ensure reliable and efficient harvests." Please. See Leafy Green Astronauts for details.

Obviously we won't be doing that, because farming has so many huge problems. If there are ever human bodies in space for extended periods of time (which is itself doubtful), then these astronauts will use little machines that produce all the food they need in any form they can imagine. There will be no farming in space.

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11 Comments:

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admit that I have never thought about farming in this way. It did not occur to me that farming might go extinct. Your list of problems makes it seem inevitable now. Quite insightful.

 
At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like my meat. I would like it better grown in a vat rather than coming from a slaughter house.

 
At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Farming is also two dimensional rather than three dimensional, so it takes up lots of space.

 
At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Jay said...

It would sure be nice if nanobots were building foodstuff for our guys in space, but we haven't exactly reached that level of technology yet, Marshall.

If we want to do some serious space travelling in the near term, we're stuck to growing food.

By the way: why are you asking yourself what people in 2050 will think of us? By that time, the Singularity will have most likely already occurred, and you'd be asking virtual posthumans what they think of their biological forefathers.

To me, it would make more sense to use the 2030 timeframe. This, I think, will be the crossover point to the posthuman era.

 
At 5:50 PM, Anonymous gary said...

"soylent green" ;)

 
At 9:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think we understand the chemical makeup of our food well enough to "manufacture" what we now "grow", & that is why farming will be with us for quite somw time yet.

 
At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A large portion of the available land surface of Earth is used for agriculture because a lot of energy is needed to create food for humanity, much more than is generated by all existing power stations. To blithely say agriculture will be replaced by factories is just ignorant.

The photosynthetic efficiency (conversion of solar energy to chemical energy) of most plants is about 0.25% on average, for corn during the peak growing season it can reach 5%. Theoretically therefore we can improve productivity over 10-fold using bioengineering and/or PV systems, but it will still use a large land area. Certainly we can create almost self-picking crops. In practice it may be more cost-effective to simply switch to harvesting algae from the sea.

 
At 6:26 AM, Blogger Roland said...

I reckon nano-fabricated food is the way to go.

In the shorter term we really need to reassess our farming practices because they're not very environmentally friendly, or very efficient. They also rely on fossil fuels which are limited.

I think first we'll see increasing use of both GM and organic methods - polar opposites of each other, but both very good and achieving the same things, solving the same problems.

We'll see meat grown more and more in vats because livestock is so inefficient.

And then eventually farming will be reinvented by nano-fabricated food. Yay, can't wait! Nano-factory, give me a slow-cooked chicken tagine and a three-foot high summer pudding, right now! Yum!

 
At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don'd like the idea of making food, I mean what will all of the farmers do when nowone will buy their crops and have to sell the farm because they make no profit and run out of money?

 
At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, with nanofacturing:
1) It isn't magic: the raw matter must be taken from somewhere.
2) All manufacturing takes energy.

and

Life on planet earth today is dependent on animal-plant interplay (co2-o2 exchange).
So we must have plants as long as we still have some biological resemblance to our ancestors.

I'm going to assume that there still are biological humans in 2050.
If posthumans don't want to kill of the biologicals we'll need plants.
Logical place for nanomachine raw matter would be any matter near it, including plantlife.
If energy has been already spent on growing plants its not going to be sound practise to use more energy on nanofacturers just to modify the already excisting plant.

 
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