Agriculture 4.0: The Dawn of the Digital Farming Revolution | Full Documentary
[calm music] [narrator] For thousands of years, people lived as hunters and gatherers. Up until what is probably the greatest invention in the history of humankind. It is safe to say that no other invention has shaped our civilization in such a profound way. [calm music] [narrator] But this milestone in our civilization comes at a high price. [ice splashing into water] [crackling fire] [blowing storm] [narrator] At the same time the population is growing – at a very fast pace. The demand for food is incredibly high. So this is a real challenge.
We've got to find a way to keep feeding everybody well. But in a more sustainable way for the long term. [narrator] A new global movement is giving us reason for hope.
New technologies are expected to bring higher crop yields while going easy on the environment. [cartoon character noises] But how did we get from here... ...to this cockpit? What does a coconut have to do with cough syrup? And can new technology really save our planet – and sustain humankind? [theme music] [calm spheric music] [narrator] Revolutionary agricultural technologies are called "Agriculture 4.0". This refers, for example, to sensors that monitor the condition of each single plant. Systems that milk cows and check their health in record time – faster than any person could.
And autonomous field robots that remove weeds mechanically. [laser buzzing] And there's this thing now called Agriculture 4.0 which is the idea of sort of using, it is almost like putting farming on the internet and digitizing information as much as possible to make the whole process more efficient in a hope of finding a way to feed the world but not completely wreck the planet in the process.
[working harvester] [narrator] Agriculture has a clear goal: sustaining people. Already 7.7 billion people populate the earth today. By 2050, this number will climb to nine billion. [calm music] It means that even bigger quantities of food are required because of growing populations. And that's a real challenge for farmers.
[narrator] That the demand for food is growing this quickly is a rather new phenomenon. [calmly pulsating music] [nostalgic music] Just 300 years ago, the global population stood at one billion people. Their tools were simple. Like the plough, for example. The plough is one our oldest pieces of agricultural equipment.
It is used to loosen the soil in preparation for sowing. The plough is a very basic invention but it's been really significant not just for agriculture, but all of humankind. [narrator] About as early as 6000 B.C., Egyptian farmers used ploughs to work their fields.
In the beginning, they used a simple hoe to remove the stones and dig holes for planting. Later oxen were used to drive heavy wooden plows. Over millennia, hardly any changes were made to the plough. There were, however, changes with regard to the animals that pulled them. In Egypt, camels joined the ranks. [arabic music] In 18th century Europe, along with oxen, horses also pulled the heavy wooden ploughs.
This film footage from 1935, gives an idea of how strenuous this work was. After ploughing, the field is harrowed to make the soil more crumbly for sowing. But this method leaves seeds behind on the surface. These seeds will not germinate. And if this is followed by a harsh winter,
failed harvests and famines are inevitable. If you go back to the 18th century, lots of small farms producing things and actually a loss of yield in crops, it's gonna have a dramatic effect on them. Remember that they're not only producing for their local community, they're producing for themselves as well. And you don't have things like supermarkets just around the corner where you can go and pick up whatever you want. So even a small yield in crop is going to have a really big effect on those farmers and whether they're able to even survive themselves, let alone as a business. [narrator] Three-field crop rotation helped farmers to minimize the risk of crop failure and thus also famine.
In the autumn, one third of the field is sowed with winter-hardy grain. Once it has been harvested in the spring, it’s time for the second third. Now they plant potatoes, for example, for the autumn harvest. The last third is left to lie fallow to regenerate soil fertility.
This method established itself over the centuries. By using the three-field-system, farmers could historically produce two harvests a year, so they could keep their family and community fed year around. [narrator] In the 18th century, no farmer could dispense with this standard agricultural hand tool – a scythe. In Great Britain it consists of three layers of steel – a hard center layer and two outer layers of softer steel. A scythe is indispensable for harvesting but it’s certainly not suitable for all terrains.
You can divide the world farming land into two types and using, what we now think of fairly archaic farming tools, as there's the scythe zone and the machete zone and it really just tells you about what sort of plants you're dealing with. You know, scythes are designed for low level plants on the ground, so you're harvesting those. Whereas if you've got tall vegetation, that's when you use a machete. [narrator] The machete is an all-round tool. It can be used to chop open a coconut – and even to mow a lawn. [mowing grass] In Nag Hammadi, Egypt, farmers still use a machete-like tool to harvest sugarcane today.
Harvest hands need to be able to use it quickly and safety since they don’t have a lot of time. After sunrise, the sweet juice flows from the stem back into the roots. Once the harvest is complete, juice is extracted from the sugarcane. It’s not only delicious but healthy, too. Among other things, it can be processed into cough syrup. For farming one doesn’t just need tools. One also needs fertile soil and water.
In the Nag Hammadi region, both are provided by one of the world’s longest rivers – the Nile. For millions of years, it has been replenishing the soils of the Nile Delta with vital nutrients. About some 5000 years ago, Egyptian farmers developed a sophisticated irrigation system for their fields.
To this day, pumps direct the nutrient-rich Nile water into a wide network of channels. So, the Nile Delta was historically this famously fertile patch of land that fed the whole area very well, but it's running out of the water it historically had. And then on top of that, the soil is becoming more salty. So, it's a sort of twofold problem farmers are facing. [narrator] While the plants are still thriving at this point, growing salinity will eventually render the soil infertile.
Currently farmers are remedying this with more fertilizer. Over the long-run, however, this causes further damage to the soil. This problem isn’t limited to Egypt. It’s a global phenomenon. In January of 2018, Cape Town was on the brink of disaster. The countdown to »Day Zero« – the day on which no more water would flow through the water mains – was three months. Strict water conserving measures were able to defer water shut-off.
But for how long? [burbling of water] Heatwaves are one of the main reasons for the falling water level. In 2019 month for month, new record temperatures are being set. Paris reached a new record high when temperatures soared to 42.6 degrees Celsius. In New Delhi temperatures even rose to 48 degrees Celsius.
Across the globe, extreme heat destroys 18 to 42 percent of crops, depending on how robust the type of plant is. [threatening music] Farmers are certainly seeing various environmental challenges becoming worse and worse, such as sort of soil degradation, sinking groundwater levels and of course more unpredictable weather fluctuations because of climate change. [narrator] Another problem for farmers is the lack of farm land. This is also the case in Brazil. In 2019, more fires broke out in the Amazon rainforest than ever before.
Climate activists believe that illegal clearing fires were started to make room for larger fields and cow pastures. They speculate that the government of Brazil and farmers are behind these activities. All the while, the world’s largest rainforest has an important function. Plants absorb the greenhouse gas CO2 and convert it into oxygen. It’s the reason why the Amazon is often referred to as "the Earth’s lungs". Fires, on the other hand, emit carbon dioxide, which further heats up the earth.
Greenhouse gasses are one of the causes for global warming. A main producer is agriculture – and not just because of forest clearing. In 2019, agriculture ranked way up there with another main culprit, the transport sector. If we continue to produce greenhouse gasses at the current rate, the earth will warm up by approximately 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Current forecasts are based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
[Martin Archer] That doesn't sound like a lot. But let me tell you that it is because that is averaged over the entire planet and over all of the seasons. 4.5 degrees is just the average. What you're actually going to see is much more extreme weather events, extreme heat, extreme things like tornadoes and hurricanes and also potentially large parts of our planet becoming inhospitable to humans and any other life.
[narrator] But it’s not too late yet. We are on the verge of an agricultural revolution. Agriculture 4.0 will fight two of the biggest problems of our times: The climate crisis and the growing demand for food. But how will it work? [calm music] Precision farming is this idea of harnessing data using lots of sensors of your specific fields, your crops, but also the environment around you like weather data and things like that. Harnessing that to actually try and maximize your yield is really exciting.
[narrator] Scientists at the University of Bonn are developing such a precision tool. It goes by the name of »CropWatch«. The objective is to use as little water, fertilizer and pesticides as possible while keeping the harvest stable despite the unpredictable climate. [drone buzzing] We have hot spells that damage our plants – especially in certain stages of their development. We are dealing with a scenario in which we increasingly see insane amounts of rain that the ground can’t properly absorb. And we also have storms and hail events that can destroy entire crops.
CropWatch can help identify specific stress situations for plants. [narrator] Scientists want to get to the bottom of potential problem areas. To this end, they survey the ground and plants with the help of sensors. Sensors collect data. So, on your smartphone, your fingerprint pad knows that it's you.
It can track the way you use your phone and sense what kind of person you are in terms of your activities and your preferences. Now, those sensors can also be applied to plants so that we can really get a good idea of what plants need in terms of food and nutrients. [drone buzzing] [narrator] The drone is equipped with a camera. Just like this elevated tractor. Cameras take photos of each single plant that grows in the field.
[tractor engine noise] The mobile weather station also provides weather data. And these ground sensors collect data on soil moisture. An experienced farmer can walk into their field to determine whether there are pests. This is how it has always been done.
The second thing is that he can also determine what type weed he’s dealing with and the extent of the infestation. Problems arise when the farms get too big, when there is too much acreage to keep an overview. And peering into the soil is not possible either. In other words, the farmer won’t know how much water is left for his plants. For that he would need sensors.
[tractor engine noise] [narrator] Not all farmers would want to use this technology on their own. A realistic solution would be some kind of service package. Farms could hire a small team along with the equipment that harvests the data. Farmers are not computer programmers, they’re farmers.
So, I definitely see that sort of model of these businesses that provide the service is certainly the way forward. [narrator] The new technology could recognize problems at an early stage – long before a professional farmer would see that something is amiss. Agriculture 4.0 is likely to replace humans in terms of farming in the future.
But this is the same thing that happened in the 19th century in the UK with the onset of the industrial revolution. [narrator] The revolution of machines: A distinguishing feature of agriculture. At the beginning of the 19th century, the plough is still an ingenious farming implement.
Within the past hundred years, the basic wooden plough evolved into a turning plough made of metal. The new plough had the big advantage of not only breaking up the soil but also turning it. This kills the weeds.
So, although ploughing using a mouldboard plough was faster, it was still relatively slow and clunky because it ultimately relied on humans and animals and their muscle power. [narrator] Trevithick, a British engineer, is convinced that there is a better solution. Ten years earlier, he had already invented the first steam locomotive that actually worked. And it is Trevithick, once again, who is the first to deploy a steam engine for farming. He uses it to fire a wheat thresher.
At first no one really cared about the steam engine, and human labour was much cheaper. But then as time went on, it became harder and harder to find farmers and laborers. [narrator] In the outgoing 18th century, the Industrial Revolution attracts people into the cities, where they hope to find better paid jobs, greater prosperity and educational opportunities for their children.
In Europe and in the US there are more and more shuttered farms. Farming is a dying profession. At the same time, the rural exodus is fueling the Industrial Revolution. The growing factories are dependent on those who used to work as farm laborers. They need more and more manpower for rising production. [banging tools] For the farmers that were then left over. They now had extra important work to do
because they had to feed all these people in the cities as well as themselves. And so, they started to harness all these new technologies such as the steam engine to increase the output from their farms. [narrator] It wasn’t until now that steam engines took on greater significance for farming as well. Their owners set up rental services. Horses pull the heavy engines from one farm holding to the next, where they run from early morning to late at night. Since leasing fees are steep, farmers try to make the most of this investment. I mean, these machines were integral to farmers’ businesses.
So, the owners of these machines were treated kind of like royalty and they were often given the best food or livestock was slaughtered for them, whenever they came around. [narrator] In the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Engineers are operating at full stretch to develop new steam engines. But the steam engines of the time were quite dangerous things. You're regularly getting sparks coming off of them and that's not great because they would set fire to the crops.
They were also prone to explosions. And that's obviously not only going to ruin the crops, it's going to ruin the farmers as well. There were a lot of deaths and these explosions were almost a daily occurrence. [narrator] Exploding steam engines are an omnipresent danger: in cities as well as in the country. John Froehlich, an American engineer, is also familiar with the danger of flying sparks from steam engines. In the autumn of every year, he travels to South Dakota with friends to help with the harvest.
In the prairie the danger of fires s particularly high. But also, handling these monstrosities is arduous. Froehlich was frustrated with having to maneuver heavy steam engines.
He wanted to design something that could go backward and forward and was powered by gasoline engine. And so, he came up with the tractor. Unfortunately, it didn't go too well for him. There was not the demand. It was not selling. So, he was on the right track, but unfortunately, it didn't work out for him.
[narrator] But Froehlich didn't give up. In the following 26 years, he continued to build new, agile tractors with safer petrol engines. -[cheerful music] -[gunshots] WWI shocked people around the globe. Only now does the demand for reliable agrarian machines like John Froehlich’s tractor grow. Farmers and agricultural workers are drafted into the war.
The workforce is stretched thin. »Deere and company« are one of the biggest manufacturers of farming implements in the world still today. And back then, they were keeping an eye on Froehlich’s Tractors.
And when the time is right, they wanted to buy his latest tractor, which they called the »Waterloo Boy«. [narrator] The »Waterloo Boy« is a runaway success. The Deere company alone sold around 5600 of them in the first year. For the first time it is tractors that pull ploughs over the fields. Over the course of the following decades, tractors change dramatically. Ever new and improved tractors facilitate a farmer’s work.
[cheerful music] It’s a true all-rounder. Regardless of the weather. The tractor began its triumphal march all across the globe. It was deployed for the coffee harvest in Brazil, or to plough rice paddies in Laos. The tractor is the most important piece of farm machinery since the Industrial Revolution.
Today it takes just one person to move across a huge field with a 12-cylinder engine that sends 600 horsepower to its wheels. Hybrids made of tractor and farm machinery have smart systems that help with the maintenance of plants. But these giants are reaching their limits. Along with the Agriculture 4.0 movement it's clear that bigger, faster, further is actually reaching its limits. Arable land is becoming more and more rare as is water and soils are becoming infertile.
So now, the perception is that less is actually more. [narrator] We have reached a turning point. We have to rethink our farming practices. Not only is the size of the machines under consideration. The use of water and chemicals is also undergoing a paradigm shift.
"Less is more" is the new mantra. »CropWatch«, a project run by the University of Bonn, focuses on targeted – and thus sparing – use of water and chemicals. The main work begins after surveying the field. Scientists look for recurring patterns that point to problems. The plant is less green than expected. That’s our criterion in this case.
It forms chlorotic spots as well as necrotic tissue, which makes it look yellowish or brown and the tissue later dies. It is precisely these areas that we want to identify. [narrator] Scientists feed their program with the found patterns. So if the software now finds yellow leaf tips it knows that the soil is too dry. This information can be accessed by the farmer on a Smartphone, for example. To prevent this data from falling into the hands of third parties, it is stored locally on a server that only the farmer can access.
Farmers don't want to share absolutely everything. You know, they have their trade secrets, the things that they do that they don't want their competitors to know about. So, data security, trying to protect your data and privacy is also a big problem for farmers, not just for us on Facebook. [narrator] Programs like CropWatch are powerful tools. They enable very targeted decisions about the use of water, fertilizer and pesticides.
In future, revolutionary agricultural technology will help farmers to cut down on their water use by up to 50 percent and their use of pesticides by up to 90 percent. The advantage of Agriculture 4.0 is obviously with designing things to be better for the environment and we're harnessing data to try and do exactly what the best thing to do is. We're trying to remove a lot of the guesswork and try and keep things as sustainable and productive as possible.
[narrator] At this time, farmers cannot dispense with pesticides entirely. This is neither possible in conventional nor organic farming. Organic farmers simply spray different substances such as copper and sulfur. Natural chemicals, however, are not healthier. Farmers these days do need to use chemicals.
Not only because we have a lot of pest problems, but also because consumers expectations are really, really high. Most consumers are very fussy about what their food looks like. They like the apples to be perfectly round and shiny and not bumpy with holes in it and worms and so on.
In order to do that, you need to use various chemical technologies to ensure that there aren't all the bugs in them. [narrator] We cultivated our favorite plants in such a way that they offer higher yields. New techniques even allow us to directly manipulate the plant’s DNA. But these new super plants also have drawbacks.
Many modern crop plants are highly susceptible to diseases and insect infestation. Farmers are obliged to spray them with insecticides. I mean, the trouble with pesticides is that it's very hard to make ones which are specifically killing only a certain type of insect. Typically, if it kills an aphid, it'll probably kills some useful insects like honeybees, too. And that's becoming a problem. And in general, if there's a chemical that is designed to be toxic to biological life, it's probably toxic to us to an extent as well.
[narrator] This has been known for decades. In the 1930s, a typhus epidemic broke out in several European countries. Lice are the main culprits for the rapid spread of this often fatal disease. They weren't able to harness the insecticide at the time because they were incredibly expensive and as well very poisonous to humans. So, it was a real problem that needed to be addressed.
[narrator] Paul Müller, a Swiss chemist, was working for the Geigy company – known today as Novartis – at that time. It’s one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Müller was commissioned to develop an insecticide with a long-lasting effect that is non-toxic for humans and can be cheaply produced.
He was struggling. He would basically set up a whole lot of glass boxes, put various different chemicals, that he had sort of devised, into them, put the flies in and see which ones worked. But it was slow going. [narrator] The chemist’s experiments failed over and over for many years – altogether 349 times. It wasn’t until September 1939 that he finally found the right substance. He had this compound that he'd put in there, it killed the flies, so, he scrubbed clean this glass box.
And even without putting it, it was still killing the flies. It was so effective. [narrator] Müller had discovered the infamous DDT. And he swore that it wasn’t toxic to people. [threatening music] [narrator] WWII ripped the people from their everyday life.
And they weren’t just fighting human enemies. [eerie sounds] So, these poor soldiers, they didn't only have all the bombs and guns to worry about. But there were also these diseases like malaria and typhus, which are spread by pests and insects like lice and mosquitoes.
[narrator] DDT, it seemed, was the perfect solution. The Swiss company Geigy sold this agent both to the Allies and to the German military. Soldiers are now armed with spray cans to target body lice.
Germans also deploy DDT on farms to increase their food production. [propeller-driven aircraft engine] After the war had finished, tons of DDT were being sold to farmers and even to just some civilians because people loved this wonder chemical that could get rid of all these annoying bugs out of their houses. [advertising-speaker] Aerosol of insecticide that will kill the flies and mosquitoes in contact.
And the operation will have to be repeated. [narrator] Shortly after DDT became available on the free market, scientists discover that some insects develop resistance to it. And what’s even more worrying: They find traces of DDT in food. [eerie sounds] The American biologist Rachel Carson is the first to publically criticize the use of DDT and other insecticides. In her book »Silent Spring«, published in 1962, she shines a light on its harmful environmental effects and links it to the extinction of bird species. Carson's work attracted a huge amount of negativity from the pesticides industry, and her credibility as a scientist was completely condemned and she was really attacked.
But then John F. Kennedy kind of sprung to her rescue. He ordered a committee to investigate her data and her findings and actually vindicated her results. [narrator] It wasn’t until 2001 that 120 countries banned the use of DDT. Now it’s only allowed in a few countries such as India to fight malaria. Some environmentalists argue that even just banning particular single compounds is not enough because they think that farmers might just find even more toxic chemicals to apply to their farms if they can't use those pre-existing ones.
[narrator] Agriculture 4.0 offers a solution to mitigate the danger. The program points out which areas of the field actually need the chemicals in question. This includes pesticides but also fertilizers. This saves money and also goes easy on the environment. Instead of just applying more and more fertilizer to instead use data to decide more precise and efficient ways of using less fertilizer in the areas that just truly need it. [narrator] But it’s not just plants that need customized treatment.
Livestock plays an important role in the history of agriculture. But animal husbandry has always been problematic. Livestock in agriculture, you can you can think of them, they act like reservoirs for diseases and they can easily spread them amongst the herd. It's a real issue to try and address. And the weird thing is as well, the increased domestication of these animals actually makes them more susceptible to disease. [narrator] The longer humans and animals live together, the greater the likelihood that they will transmit diseases to one another. Geneticists believe that the measles virus emerged from rinderpest.
While almost all humans survive measles, about 90% of cows die from rinderpest. At the beginning of the 18th century, this deadly pestilence raged across Europe, killing one herd after the next. By this time, humans depended so much on cattle for their food production that when this disease got hold of cattle, it really affected hunger levels and starvation.
And even though the actual disease doesn't affect humans directly, it really did have an impact. [narrator] The Catholic Church is intent on stopping this plague. The wealth of Pope Clement XI is tied up with cattle herds. He commissions his personal physician, Giovanni Maria Lancisi, to examine the deadly disease.
In 1715, Lancisi publishes instructions which still hold true centuries later. His advice: the culling of sick cattle, covering the cadavers with lime, quarantining contagious herds and banning the transport of animals. All sanctions that we’re still using today with the difference that we don't hang and quarter people if they don't obey the rules.
[narrator] The Vatican is able to contain the epidemic. But animal diseases continue to be a constant threat. And it wasn't until about 80 years later that a country doctor known as Edward Jenner noticed that people who had caught and recovered from cow pox curiously never got infected with smallpox. He then, went on to test this theory with some experiments, probably experiments he wouldn't be allowed to do today.
[narrator] Edward Jenner conducts a human experiment. He takes pus from a cowpox patient and injects it into an 8-year-old boy who had never experienced any kind of pox – until now. After he recovers from cowpox, Jenner once again injects the boy with pus. This time from a smallpox pustule. As expected, the boy stays healthy.
Jenner has just invented vaccination. And of course, vaccination has saved so many lives since its invention and has enabled us to not only get so many human diseases under control like polio, but also so many animal diseases that affect the productivity of our animal agriculture. [narrator] In the 1920s, scientists finally discovered a vaccination against rinderpest. A consistent vaccination strategy led to the eradication of this disease in 2011. But today it is also clear that limits need to be set when it comes to veterinary medicine.
Antibiotics are used to plump up pigs and cattle to make dairy cows more productive. Today this particular use is prohibited by many nations. Yet a World Organization of Animal Health study, published in 2019, shows that almost one third of the 155 participating nations still use antibiotics as a growth booster.
It appears that routine use of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance. In fact, we no longer have effective drugs against some bacteria. This applies for human and animal diseases. The development of these drugs is expensive. The drug companies, the pharmaceutical industries, they're not seeing the returns that they want. So actually, they've sort of gotten out of the game a bit.
They don't see pursuing that as very important. So actually, it's a problem that we're struggling to address right now. There are other alternatives for disease prevention in livestock animals.
But once again, the solution is in agriculture 4.0. [narrator] One of the first cowsheds to step into the digital age belongs to the dairy farmer Joachim Klindworth. He is banking on technology rather than drugs to improve the health of his cows and enable them to produce more milk.
A glut of milk and dumping prices makes this critical for survival. [Joachim Klindworth] We are always faced with the question of when this crippling dairy crisis will finally come to an end. How long can we stick it out for? We have been farmers for several generations. Our farms have been passed down from father to son. And that’s what I want to do as well.
[narrator] Giving up is not an option. Agriculture 4.0 is meant to secure the future of this farm. A fully-automated cowshed offers a lot of room, light and fresh air.
Factors that relax the cows and reduce the incidence of stress-related injuries. An automated feeding belt saves space and does the work of people. [calmly pulsating music] Just like the fully-automated grid system that herds the cows to the rather unusual milking parlor. A modern rotary milking parlor is basically a robot that milks cows and it would probably be the slowest carousel at the fairground, but it does resemble a merry-go-round. [narrator] The first "milk carousel" from 1930 was known as the »Rotolactor«. It can already milk 50 cows in twelve-and-a-half minutes.
At the time, milkers still needed to attach the pumps by hand. -[cartoon sounds] -[cheerful music] As Joachim Klindworth’s milk carousel is introduced in 2017, it is not only Germany’s biggest but also the world’s second biggest. It can accommodate 56 animals and milks 250 cows in just one hour – almost completely without human help.
An infra-red camera scans the udder and navigates the pumps to the teats. Once attached, the robot cleans and preps the udder, improving hygiene and preventing infection. At the same time, it checks the cow’s health. Each animal has a digital patient file.
If the system finds indications of disease, it issues a red alarm signal. An employee promptly checks on the cow and takes measures as needed. [spheric music] The new technologies reduce labor costs, increase milk yields and improve the health of dairy cows. This farm has reduced the amount of medications dispensed by 30 percent.
But there is also a drawback. I’m flooded with technology and this ties me to the office. It gives me fewer opportunities to go out. For me it’s kind of hard because I can’t do the things I want to do. I imagined it would be a bit different.
Agriculture 4.0 has changed a farmer’s life. In future, technology nerds could replace the nature lover. [spheric music] Organic farming offers another way to decrease the use of drugs in livestock farming. At organic farms a sick animal must first be treated with natural remedies or homeopathy.
Conventional pharmaceuticals can only be used if that doesn’t help. Organic farming is focused on dealing sustainably with natural resources, an objective that organic farmers have in common with Agriculture 4.0. If this technology is still in its infancy, couldn’t organic farming be a quick solution to the climate crisis? A study conducted by some British scientists concluded that if all of British agriculture shifted to organic, this would create a significant improvement, in fact a 24 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions. But on the flip side, yields would drop considerably as well.
And this would require us to increase the amount of imported food that we bring in. And this, of course, brings with it not only the greenhouse gas costs of producing that food, but also shipping it. And so, their conclusion was that it probably wouldn't actually be a good thing for us to switch to organic. [narrator] If we, as consumers, were to eat less meat, fish and dairy products and instead eat more vegetables and nuts, local organic farmers could probably supply us with enough food. [calm music] The reality is that we're not going to change everyone. We've got used to this way of living.
And I think the way forward, rather than trying to be very draconian and make everyone go vegan, and non-vegans have had enough of vegans talking about being vegan, is coming up with these alternatives. So, lab grown meats, for instance, and meat alternatives made from vegetable products that are almost indistinguishable. That is really, I think, the way forward and that's how we'll make real progress rather than trying to cut people out from eating it altogether. [narrator] Agriculture 4.0 is stepping up to solve all these
apparently conflicting demands. One such ambitious project, run by the University of Bonn, is called »PhenoRob«. The little robot is taking up the fight against the climate crisis and the growing demand for food.
Cyrill Stachniss is working on the prototype of a robot that not only gauges the kind of customized treatment a plant needs but also takes on-the-spot action. The first thing the scientist wants to teach the computer is how to deal with weeds. For this he needs to convey to the robot the difference between useful and bad plants. And this is much more difficult than one might think. If you look at state-of-the-art systems on the Internet that recognize images – and also recognize what’s on a picture that’s been uploaded from Google – it’s because these systems have previously seen – and learned from – millions or billions of images.
When we’re on a field, the number of images we have is much smaller. In our case, we have to learn from just a few hundred or a few thousand pictures. Making things more difficult. [narrator] Within milliseconds, the robot must decide if the plant is desired or unwanted. There’s no time for hesitation. The entire field has to be worked. [spheric music] Localization is really crucial in autonomous robot farming because if, for example, you've got a small, tiny plant that is trying to grow and the robot misses it.
Then the use of the robot is completely pointless in the first place. [narrator] Another team is working on getting the robot to recognize where it’s located. For this a drone surveys the field and sends a kind of map to the robot. With this map it can navigate to an accuracy of 2 centimeters.
Currently no other machine is capable of greater accuracy. Now that the robot knows where to look for weeds, the work can begin. As it moves across the field, it recognizes the surface. Whenever it discovers weeds, it activates a precision laser and zaps them to dust. This makes pesticides superfluous.
[laser noise] For me, as someone who works at the university, it’s hard to say when this product will be market-ready. There are some legal questions to answer. Who is at fault if an accident involving an autonomous system occurs? But this was probably already answered through the car industry.
If we can drive on our streets, we can also drive over fields. So we stand a benefit from other developments when deploying autonomous systems on our fields. [narrator] Smart robots like PhenoRob could revolutionize farming and guide it into a new era whose creed is "less – and smaller – is more”. Currently, it is still large agricultural machinery and gigantic monocultures that dominate farming. But these machines weigh tons and cannot be used everywhere.
Light, agile robots can solve this problem. The landscape will probably look different once they are deployed. Small agrarian robots can cultivate and harvest not only in large level fields but also in difficult terrain and small fields – in fields with hedges and wildflower verges where bees and other beneficial insects live. Agriculture 4.0 has the potential to help bridge the gap between conventional and organic agriculture. That basically kind of destroys the difference between organic and traditional farming, right? Because you're not relying on chemicals to do that weed killing.
You've just got a little robot going out there and doing it itself. I think that that's certainly a way forward. [dynamic music] [narrator] The whole world over, scientists are developing drones and robots that can cultivate our fields autonomously. They might look like these field robots which can be deployed anywhere – from rice paddies in Asia to turnip fields in Russia. While people are needed to program these robots, they will no longer be needed for the fieldwork itself.
High hopes are connected with Agriculture 4.0. Scientists are convinced that the new technology will be helpful in fighting climate change and preventing future food shortages. [dynamic music] Trust technology more. We can't rely on big chemical companies and more toxic ways of growing food. We have to get creative and inventive about growing our food and maintaining a sustainable system.
[narrator] Farming used to mean hard, physical work. Dangerous work too, when for example, steam engines exploded. Machines displaced people. Already today, programs are improving the health of cows. In the near future, smart robots will help us to save our planet and – at the same time – sustain humankind.
I think we're gonna be using robots more in the future and as long as we monitor and we try and understand better the algorithms behind and making sure that there are no unforeseen consequences to those. I think that's totally the way of the future and we'll certainly feed to us to make the agriculture more sustainable and better for the environment.