Futurist Christophe Pelletier gestures while giving the keynote speech at the InfoAg Conference in St. Louis. Agriculture is being transformed from the body to the mind, he said.
Futurist Christophe Pelletier gestures while giving the keynote speech at the InfoAg Conference in St. Louis. Agriculture is being transformed from the body to the mind, he said.
ST. LOUIS — Agriculture is quickly shifting from brawn to brains, Christophe Pelletier believes.

The internationally known futurist sees the role of the farmer changing from one who toils in the field to one who pulls the strings in a grand performance.

“We’re at the crossroads between the strong and the smart,” Pelletier said at the InfoAg Conference here. “In the past, we were thinking about adding muscle to farmers. It started by oxen and horses. We replaced the horses with tractors and now bigger machines.

“For me, the future is about building a nervous system. Before, we were bulking up the muscle. Now we’re working on the super brain. It offers an extension of the senses.”

Pelletier, a Dutch native who was educated in France and holds joint U.S. and Canadian citizenship, has written two books on the future of food and farming. He operates the website, The Food Futurist.

Rapidly advancing technology allows farmers to expand their reach through machines and information. In the future, he may spend little time getting his hands dirty.

An expansion of existing technology that allows an agronomist to diagnose plant diseases could further remove farmers from their acreage.

Operating Remotely

Not only may problems be seen remotely, but they also may be treated remotely, through use of a targeted fungicide treatment via drone, for example.

“He doesn’t have to be in the field,” Pelletier said. “He can operate in the control room, like a conductor, with machines as the orchestra. It frees time. The farmer in the future will visit the farm without being on the farm at all. A technician may be miles away, but sees the problem and solves it.”

Not only will agriculture be smarter, but it will be smaller, he thinks. The past few decades have delivered bigger equipment such as tractors and planters.

That will change in the future. Indeed, drone technology already has begun that trend, as the hand-launched vehicles fly over a growing number of acres.

Among examples in the research stage are tiny, flying robots the size of bees, intended for use in Chinese fruit and vegetable operations.

“Before, it was all about bigger, machines and everything,” Pelletier said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more machines, but they’re going to be smaller and lighter.”

Robot ‘Mules’

Advancements that appear more science fiction than science include horse-size robots spreading across a field, accomplishing a number of tasks formerly done by a farmer on a large machine.

“There is going to be more and more interaction. Project a whole group of robots working the fields and the ability to exchange information,” Pelletier said.

“They basically would be working as a team. Maybe in terms in equipment in the future we’ll have something like the Transformers, machines that consist of different units, units that could get loose and go in different directions in the field to do other duties and come back again. That’s probably something we’ll see at least investigated in the real world.”

Robot “mules” now in use in the military to carry equipment over rough or dangerous terrain likely will be adapted to farming, Pelletier believes. A host of other machines may soon be accomplishing various tasks.

And while such equipment may not be cost-effective now, they probably will be in the future, as more and more farmers discover their benefits.

Pelletier likened that to cell phones, basic models that cost thousands a few short years ago. Now virtually everyone can afford a phone that does a number of things.

Evolving technology also will improve planning for the future. Forecasting — markets, weather, pest infestations and even projected resource use — is certain to become more precise, Pelletier said.

In addition, the market will be impacted, with consumers demanding to know more about their food and the possibility of such things as “personalized food” designed to avoid triggering allergic reactions.

Innovation also brings with it dangers. Among those concerns are privacy, spying, transparency and secrecy.

“There is a question about where the lines should be between those things,” Pelletier said. “We’re going to see discussions about that.”