Farming — they say it’s as old as time itself. Well, actually it’s older, much older…
The earliest recorded traces of farming by people dates back roughly 23,000 years ago. That predates time, our oldest cities, even civilisation itself.
The first farmers were literally just a small tribe of people who sat around in six shelters. Despite this relatively small group of people though, they achieved quite the agricultural marvel.
They managed to gather over 140 different species of plants. Even using primitive tools like a grinding slab and sickle-like blades to harvest their crops. A clear sign that these people planned and managed their harvests.
But, the fascinating part to me was how they discovered these early farmers. The discovery was only possible because of weeds. Those dastardly plants that pop up where no one wants them. As the researchers note:
‘Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation.’
In other words, wherever farming goes, weeds will follow. A problem that we still have to this day!
It’s incredible to think that this issue of undesired plants has been a problem for over 23,000 years. We just simply can’t get rid of weeds for good it seems.
But, while weeds may still be around, we’ve certainly gotten a lot better at managing them. Whether it’s manually picking them by hand, or tilling them out of the soil, or targeting them with chemical pesticides — we’ve tried a lot of things to kill weeds.
Now though there is a new technology on the horizon. One that is threatening to disrupt the weed control industry like never before. And with it, displace a US$100 billion market.
Today, the pesticides and seed industry are the kings of weed control. They make herbicides that can chemically target and kill off unwanted plants.
We can even create genetically resistant crops that can tolerate these pesticides to make farming more efficient. Specially bred seeds that are worth millions.
As I said, it’s a US$100 billion market. With names like Bayer, DowDuPont and BASF all big players in the sector. Companies that all rely on farmers using large volumes of pesticide to protect crops.
Whether it’s crop dusting in a plane, or using the large lines of tractor mounted ‘row-crop’ sprayers, or just manual spraying by hand, it’s all about scale. The goal is to cover as much farmland in pesticide as quickly as possible.
That means farmers need to use a lot of pesticide. After all, they’ve got to cover a lot of land in the stuff most of the time.
Which is also why we need the herbicide resistance seeds, because they’re going to cop some of that spray as well. It’s how we’ve been farming for decades now.
But now we have an alternative. Now we have robots and more importantly, smart robots. ecoRobotix, a Swiss company has designed a new robot that kills weeds like never before. Here’s what it looks like:
As you can see it’s fairly simple. Just a table on wheels basically. And while you can’t see it, on top of the device are solar panels to power it. Plus, it’s completely autonomous, no one needs to steer the robot.
Here’s the incredible part though. This robot is all about killing plants — not just any plants, the bad plants. It kills weeds. Unlike conventional methods of killing weeds, it only kills weeds.
This robot is like a heat seeking missile for weeds. It will target and only spray unwanted weeds. All of the healthy crops are left untargeted — and that has the big pesticide companies worried.
See, because this robot only sprays weeds it could use up to 20 times less pesticide than current methods. That’s a 90% reduction in the amount of pesticide needed. A massive cutting of costs. But wait, it gets even better. The fact that this robot only targets weeds also means pesticide resistant seeds aren’t required.
This machine is going to change farming forever.
Obviously for the pesticide companies this is a big threat. One that they’re going to need to take notice of if they want to stay competitive. Something that some companies are keenly aware of.
Bayer, the world’s biggest seeds and pesticides producer (following its acquisition of Monsanto) is already looking into ‘smart spraying’ tech themselves. A focus that other competitors will need to heed if they want to remain relevant as well.
However, while this robot and potentially others like it will bring disruption, we will still need pesticides. In fact, we may be able to use established products in more targeted doses.
See, weeds are tough things. Pesticides will work for a while, but overtime the plant becomes tolerant and stronger. After a while the pesticide isn’t effective, so you up the dose. That means you need to make sure your crops can handle that dose as well. A cycle that goes on and on.
With this technology, though, we could target weeds exclusively with high doses of established pesticide.
Or better yet, we could even use stronger and more complex pesticides that we created in the past. Products that were shelves because they couldn’t be manufactured at a scale that was profitable. With less demand, these complex pesticides could become extremely lucrative.
The point is, the smart pesticide companies will have options. But, they need to recognise that these robots could cause some serious pain to their bottom line.
For you, me and the world, though, it’s a massive win. Farming becomes cheaper, crops become healthier, and environmentalists and regulators see an end to mass pesticide use.
It’s going to be huge. And the fact that these robots will likely be available within the next two years means it’s going to happen soon.
The latest chapter in weed control is already making history.
Editor, Tech Insider
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