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Technology For the Sake of Technology Will Not Add to Profit


The September 1st edition of The Economist outlines the contribution of space technology to intensive agriculture. Thrive MV is one of seven companies supported by the European Space Agency in a business incubation center outside Harwell in Oxfordshire. The objective of the collaborative is to find applications for space technology in industry and agriculture. Admittedly some projects such as remote sensing using drones to assess the health of crops is justified. Some of the projects however which are under development appear to be make-work and Rube Goldberg in concept.

Thrive Multi Visual is devising a chicken robot based on a NASA Mars Explorer. The tracked vehicle will move around the house and determine the weight of chickens based on visual images. Have these guys not heard of automatic hop-on-hop-off weighing scales?

Other technology is being applied to develop environmental control systems which at present can be bought off-the-shelf and which contribute to acceptable growth and livability parameters close to genetic potential.

The Economist writer blames farmers for not adopting advanced technology. Claire Lewis, CEO of Thrive MV believes that agriculture is “no way near as tech-enabled as it should be”. On the one hand, Ms. Lewis probably does not know enough about intensive agriculture to be able to make the assertion, since computerized ventilation systems are extremely sophisticated. Another reason for the reluctance of farmers to purchase sophisticated technology is that farming is at best a marginal business and beneficial return to cost ratios are a significant consideration in capital investment.

During the past decade, the public sector has extended seed financing and has housed start-ups in incubators to exploit technology and to develop saleable products. Very few of the “seeds” actually germinate and become commercially viable companies.

Farmers are extremely willing to adopt proven technology which offers a return on investment. This is evident in walking the aisles at the IPPE and the Midwest Poultry Federation Conference Exhibition. Each year, new products and concepts are offered, but unless these companies are back the next year, there is obviously little or no commercial adoption. Some of the concepts are well-meaning, but impractical. Others, such as contact lenses for hens to prevent cannibalism were outright scams.

Funding for agricultural and livestock research is critical to feeding our existing population of whom at least 25 percent are food insecure. Advances in productivity and yields will be required to feed the next generation and the projected nine billion on Planet Earth by 2050. Technology may be beneficial but it has to be practical and financially attractive.