Engineering has cultivated agricultural evolution for centuries, with tractors and milking machines making farming less backbreaking, and with sustainable fertilizers and genetically modified plants making farming more productive. The next tech revolution may allow farmers to trade water rights with the help of algorithms and electronically tend their fields. Sensors will alert farmers when plants are thirsty and autonomously detect and capture salmonella and other pathogens, eliminating contamination before that tomato lands on your plate. Assisted by computer vision and robotics, farmers can precision-thin and treat lettuce and corn for maximum yield.
The word's population is expected to exceed 10 billion by 2100. As demand for food, water and energy grows, agriculture will need to become more efficient and productive. Innovative engineers are finding sustainable solutions in agricultural materials, from waste wood to fungi. They are even finding ways to restore lands damaged by industrial waste to support agriculture and bioenergy crops. Researchers are sustainably harvesting marine life, getting help from robots, and, as perhaps the ultimate in low-water, low-energy food production, are growing beef through tissue engineering, with nary a cow in sight.
Increasingly harsh environmental conditions create an enormous need for technologies that support resilient agricultural systems. Drought and pollution are among the nation's greatest challenges. Often, it seems, the antidote lies within nature itself. The flesh of the prickly pear cactus is an effective, inexpensive way to clean water, while reprogramed microbes can destroy contaminates in water and soil. New methods to detect trace pollutants offer means to keep water sources safe. Engineers are using computational models to study food systems and make distribution more flexible, from farms to food banks.
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