As the change in climate and weather patterns becomes undeniably evident for all to see (in Zimbabwe at least), there is an increased need to adapt and come up with new ways of farming. We must embrace technologies that will allow us to tame our environment and secure our food supplies. Just four such agricultural technologies—agritech for short—are presented here for you to muse over or even implement on your farm.
In a farm, pests can lay waste to an entire crop if left unchecked. In commercial farms, various insecticides are used to combat pest outbreaks while communal farmers can only afford prayers and optimism. The chemicals used by the former are usually damaging to the environment and are also poisonous to human beings and animals alike. That is why we are always on the lookout for more elegant alternatives to this form of pest control.
Biological pesticides or biopesticides is the term used to refer to the organisms (or substances) which are intentionally used to fight problem pests. The organisms used are usually the natural predators, parasites or competitors of the pests which you want to eliminate. Yes, in a lot of cases this means using actual diseases to eliminate your problem. Of course, the diseases and organisms used must exclusively affect the pest in question—you do not want your efforts to combat the bird population that is wreaking havoc on your grain to start killing poultry and innocent wildlife as well.
Bacteria, fungi, viruses and other disease-causing organisms are all used to eliminate or control pest outbreaks. This use of your pests’ natural enemies to do your dirty work for you is practically biological warfare, albeit on a minuscule scale. The input of experts is needed and no organism must be intentionally released without sufficient studies being done beforehand. We look forward to the day that local university and other research labs start studying and breeding versions of these biopesticides that are suitable for local use.
The overuse of chemical fertilizers not only negatively affects the land upon which they are applied but they also cause pollution in water sources. These fertilizers wash away into water bodies and can initiate a chain of events which end with such bodies being unable to support any form of aquatic life—they poison water bodies. One of the most touted alternatives to these is organic fertilizer i.e. manure. Unfortunately for large tracts of land, there is usually not enough organic fertilizer to go around. Its cost can also be prohibitive.
Like the biopesticides discussed earlier, biofertilizers also utilise natural organisms in their function. Scientists observed that legumes have nodules where bacteria which turns nitrogen in the air into a form which the plants can utilise live. Inspired by these nitrogen-fixing bacteria and other similarly acting microorganisms, they developed what are literally “living” forms of fertilizer. Instead of chemical fertilisers like ammonium nitrate to provide nitrogen to plants, naturally occurring bacteria can be used to do this in a far more sustainable manner. Scientists were more than happy to research even more ways in which similar microorganisms can be used to replace or reduce the use of chemical fertilizers.
Living organisms like bacteria, cyanobacteria and fungi have all been used to enrich farming soil in an environmentally friendly manner. As the case with biopesticides, adopting this entails breeding these organisms—except these soil fertilizing organism are unlikely to be as risky as their pest eliminating counterparts.
One of the first things many learn in high school science class is that our senses cannot be trusted. That is why even on farms instruments are increasingly being used to measure any of several variables which can affect the quality of the crops. Advances in technology have made many sensing devices accessible to the average farmer. These can range from those that are placed inside measuring instruments to those that are permanently inserted into the farm soil or even attached to crops. These provide useful information, most of which cannot be gathered using the human eye alone.
Examples of some of the sensors that are used include the soil moisture sensor, pH sensor and even the leaf sensor. The last one can be used to tell if a plant needs water by measuring what is called water stress. Another group of sensors that are gaining popularity are those that can capture what are called hyperspectral images or videos. These are special kinds of cameras. In some cases, it is possible to tell at a glance whether or not a plant is healthy by using images from such cameras.
The soil moisture sensor provides information which can also be used to determine whether or not watering is needed. With such precise information, watering will only be done when needed thus saving precious water. In smarter farms, such a sensor can be used in automatic watering systems.
It should come as no surprise that drones have found uses in agriculture. Next to actual satellite imagery, these provide the next best option for a farm owner or manager to have a birds eye’s view of his property. Problem spots on a farm are easier to notice with an aerial photograph e.g. the colour variation of the crop across the field can describe which spots need more water, fertilizer or even which ones have become the hotspots of pest and disease infestations.
The earlier mentioned sensors can also be fitted onto these drones so that they can provide even more information. Hyperspectral cameras are currently the favourite in this category. However, these drones do not come cheap, depending on their sophistication and number of features they can set you back anywhere between 1 500 – 25 000 USD.
While a lot of attention is afforded to how fast technology is advancing, the face of agriculture is also changing. This sector is forced to feed an ever-growing population while rainfall has become unpredictable to the extent that in some places each farming season is a gamble. These and other technologies can be used to regain control of our food supply instead of leaving it to the whims of Mother Nature.