How technology will transform farming

New technology will revolutionise farming to the same extent that the invention of the plough did in the past, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

160921-farming-b

My interview with Nick Train in this week's magazine (out on Friday sign up now if you're not already a subscriber) talks about the extraordinary capacity for transformation in the UK and US corporate sectors. According to Train, digitalisation will collapse costs, free up cash and make stock prices soar; there is a productivity revolution ahead.

After I sent the interview off to the production desk I sat down to read The Farmers Club Autumn Journal (we all relax in different ways). And there I read more about how new technology is going to do exactly the same to farming.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

We've written here before (often) about how robots and new types of "just-in-time" irrigation and fertilisation techniques will transform the yields from all types of crops. But the really interesting stuff seems to be happening in the world of soils.

At the heart of farming, says Hugh Goldworthy, is the living soil itself, something made up of a mix of "viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, earthworms, nutrients and various chemical compostions" and something we know almost nothing about. "Current scientific understanding of bacteria alone in the world's soils is put at 5% at best."

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

What we apparently do know, however, is that things happen very quickly in soil. Bacteria "population spikes" can happen in as little as 20 minutes meaning that taking samples and sending them to labs is verging on pointless. By the time the sample gets to the lab, the soil left behind could be completely different.

So if we want to increase yields by working on maximising the biological balance of soil, we have to test in situ. This is now possible we can see how pH levels vary at depth and assess the bacteria and fungi populations. Then we can use "biomanipulation" to influence soil and plant performance (and to reduce the use of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides).

It looks like it might work. Goldsworthy who reckons that this "technology will be as relevant to the farming of the future as the plough was to the farming of the past" notes the case of a golf course that had been spending £15,000 a year on fertilisers and chemicals using biomanipulation to bring it down to a couple of hundred pounds.

Imagine that kind of saving extrapolated throughout the agricultural sector. Extraordinary capacity for transformation indeed. There's an academic paper on this here for other people who like reading about farming.

Advertisement

Recommended

Visit/519858/how-long-can-the-good-times-roll
Economy

How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019
Visit/514516/the-tech-stock-bubble-continues-but-wise-investors-should-look-for-value-elsewhere
Investment strategy

The tech stock bubble continues – but wise investors should look for value elsewhere

As tech stocks continue to soar, real value has been forgotten. It’s fine to hold tech, says Merryn Somerset Webb, but investors should look for value…
9 Sep 2019
Visit/506332/dont-buy-into-tech-stock-ipos
Stockmarkets

Don’t buy into tech company IPOs

Tech firms are listing on the stockmarket in their droves, with their private-equity backers raking in the cash. That’s perfectly sensible. What’s not…
6 May 2019
Visit/investments/stocks-and-shares/tech-stocks/600900/tech-stocks-will-face-a-backlash
Tech stocks

Tech stocks will face a backlash

Just five tech stocks account for nearly 20% of the S&P 500’s total market value. But the bigger they grow, the bigger the risk of a political backlas…
28 Feb 2020

Most Popular

Visit/investments/property/601065/what-does-the-coronavirus-crisis-mean-for-uk-house-prices
Property

What does the coronavirus crisis mean for UK house prices?

With the whole country in lockdown, the UK property market is closed for business. John Stepek looks at what that means for UK house prices, housebuil…
27 Mar 2020
Visit/economy/uk-economy/601063/the-uks-bailout-of-the-self-employed-comes-with-a-hidden-catch
UK Economy

The UK’s bailout of the self employed comes with a hidden catch

The chancellor’s £6.5bn bailout of the self employed is welcome. But it has hidden benefits for the taxman, says Merryn Somerset Webb.
27 Mar 2020
Visit/investments/stockmarkets/601062/the-moneyweek-podcast-charles-heenan-dominoes-are-falling-be-very
Stockmarkets

The MoneyWeek Podcast – Charles Heenan: dominoes are falling; be very careful

Merryn talks to Charles Heenan, investment director of Kennox Asset Management. Assets are cheap, he says, but you need to be very, very careful about…
26 Mar 2020
Visit/economy/uk-economy/601043/could-universal-basic-income-save-the-world
UK Economy

Could universal basic income save the world?

Long touted as a simple solution to the complex problems that arise in capitalist societies, universal basic income is having another moment in the sp…
26 Mar 2020