The Growth of Robot Farming

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The Growth of Robot Farming

By 2050, according to projections from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the global demand for food will increase by 70 percent.1

In addition to population growth, the migration of that population to cities is driving that demand. According to the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects report, in 1950, only 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2014, the urban share of the population had climbed to 54 percent, and by 2050, it is expected to rise to 66 percent.2

Put another way, the number of people living in cities—and away from the source of production of food—grew from 746 million in 1950, to 3.9 billion in 2014, and is projected to reach 6.4 billion in 2050. Specifically, the UN expects 404 million more urban dwellers in India, 292 million more in China, and 212 million more in Nigeria.

At the same time, the agricultural production of food is constantly at risk from contaminants like E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. Even in a developed country like the United States, where sanitation protocols are among the best in the world, 200,000 Americans are afflicted with food poisoning every day, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.3

During one study period, from 1990 to 2002, 11 percent of produce-related food-poisoning outbreaks were caused by lettuce, while outbreaks from salad accounted for 28 percent, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.4

More recently, the FDA banned shipments of cilantro from Mexico after it determined that hundreds of Americans were sickened with cyclosporiasis, a disease caused by a parasite.5 The FDA’s investigation found human feces and toilet paper among the crops at eight of eleven farms and packing houses in the state of Puebla.

Clearly, farming will need to become both more productive and less vulnerable to human contamination. Fortunately, there’s a solution to both problems: vertical farming with robots.

The concept of vertical farms—in which crops are grown indoors, using artificial light, on several layers of racks stacked on top of each other—has been around for at least a decade. Proponents of vertical farming contend that it provides locally grown produce to city dwellers even in areas where the climate is cold in winter.

In many cases, however, simply applying agricultural robots to traditional farms is sufficient. And for crops like wheat and corn, the economics don’t make sense. But for a crop like lettuce, vertical farming offers advantages, including:

  1. Food safety: While human and animal waste can contaminate crops grown on conventional farms, food grown in indoor farms can be monitored constantly and kept protected from bacteria like coli...

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