Some technicians dressed like surgeons in an operating theatre are working in a vast tower sealed from the environment. It is full of hydroponic shelves, lights, pumps and small robots controlled by clusters of computers. This is ultra high-tech agriculture (UHTA). We are in a modern agro-factory tower that has replaced the farm with its soil, pests, pesticides, droughts and floods. Inspired by space agro-technology, it has no soil. It uses 95% LESS WATER than conventional high-intensity agriculture (HIA) popularized by the “Green Revolution”.
This is not science fiction (see figure). Such commercial UHT plants supply the markets since 2004 in New Jersy, USA. Similar agro-plants are being set up right inside city centers, within minutes to local markets, cutting transportation and warehousing.
When low-intensity agriculture (LIA), e.g.,organic agriculture (OA) or traditional agriculture had reached the end of their tether, and when the world was at the brink of huge famines, HIA with its green revolution rescued the world. Now the green revolution itself is old technology, and a new UHT revolution is dawning, not only to feed the humans, but also to rescue the threat to the environment caused by the phenomenal human assault on the ecosystem.
AVERTING THE HUMAN-MADE MASS EXTINCTION.
In a previous article (Colombo Telegraph) we examined how a menaced humanity facing a threatened environment foolishly turns to ludicrous remedies based on going back to an imagined “glorious past of plenty” using traditional farming or organic agriculture. In reality, such technologies failed to feed the masses even in ancient times, when the populations were small. In Sri lanka, even if all the tea, rubber and coconut could be converted to paddy, the OA harvests would still leave 75% starving.
Populations in developing countries increased by a factor of five since WWII, vastly encroaching wilderness habitat and triggering a man-made mass extinction of species, further aggravated by agrochemical overuse. In this they merely joined the developed countries that pushed the industrial revolution using the wealth created by slavery that set up vast monoculture of crops that assaulted the ecosystem.
In Sri Lanka, some 600K hectares are under tea, about 600K under paddy, and another 600K are used for rubber and coconut taken together. Forest cover had taken devastating hits with each giant irrigation and ‘colonization’ scheme starting from GalOya. The destruction of Sri Lankan wild elephants by their loss of habitat due to these ‘colonization schemes’ is merely the tip of the iceberg. Similarly, Europe is reeling from a rapid and disastrous loss of wild bees and other pollinating insects mainly due to habitat loss and possibly to to increased use of neo-nicotinoids.
Given the magnitude of the problem, it is imperative to reclaim the wilderness habitat for Nature. The HIA-green-revolution enabled us to use 1/5th the land and water for feeding compared to traditional agriculture (enabling us to feed fives times many mouths). The new UHTA is already capable of reducing the needed land extend to a mere 1/500 of HIA, and 1/2500 of organic agriculture. All the 600,000 hectare of paddy can be eventually reduced to 1200 hectares of grow towers. All the tea plantations can be replaced by a few hundred grow towers clustered around an airport for direct export.
Grow-towers are cut of from the environment and cause no negative effects. As the amounts of light, humidity and temperature inside the agro-towers are internally controlled, weather and seasons are irrelevant to its agriculture. Pests or weeds cannot enter the structure; so no pesticides are used. While conventional agriculture (CA) has an output of 5-10 times that of organic agriculture (OA), experimental UHT plants have achieved 400 times more output than CA and perhaps 2000-3000 times more harvest than OA for the same amount of water and land use. These bumper harvests ensure competitive prices. The products grown without soil are cleaner than from OA crops that bio-accumulate toxins usually present in most soils.
Phenomics is the study of all observable characteristics of an organism. These characteristics (phenotypes) associated with a plant, such as the chemistry, color, genetic code, size, and so on. At AeroFarms Dr. April Caroll determines growth algorithms for plants growing under computer control. These farmers – the likes of Dr Caroll form an team of high-tech scientists drawn from artificial intelligence to molecular biology and plant physiology.
While some 400 plant types have been successfully tested, one may ask, how can you grow fruits and plants which need pollination? While the green-revolution HIA used hybrid seeds, today we can redesign whole plants and insects. Captive bumble bees and other pollinator insects, genetically modified or not, may be used inside dedicated grow towers to pollinate tomatoes or blue berries. The possibilities are endless.
Nevertheless, many intermediate models that straddle the full indoor growth towers and the high-tech outdoor farms will be the norm for a decade. French vineyards are already experimenting with drone-controlled robotic farming. The robots are like little rovers designed for the exploration of Mars, equipped with sensors that test the soil nutrients, microorganisms etc. at each plant and spurt out the optimal amounts of moisture, salts, pesticides, or organic matter as needed. Such vineyards, controlled by artificial-intelligence algorithms based on phenomics use less than a hundredth of the agrochemicals usually employed. These outdoor farms need to get away from being single-crop monocultures.
However, there are significant stumbling blocks to adopting UHTA.
A. Public Fear of agri-foods.
The public is frightened by technology. Modern Luddites have re-named the foods from biotechnology and genetic engineering to be “Frankenfoods”. In India where the green-revolution took successful root, Vanadana Shiva and her likes have become heroes “fighting” agrochemical multinationals and GM foods. They prevented the introduction of “golden rice”, a rice that carries a Vitamin – A gene from carrots, thereby preventing blindness among millions who take simple rice diets. Golden rice was not made by multinations, but by Indian scientists using minimal genetic manipulation. And yet false propaganda against it succeeded. A public that has been eating North American GM soya for decades banned GM golden rice!
In Sri Lanka, France or California we have a “glyphosate saga” illustrating how public fear translates into irrational actions against a very safe herbicide. It is probably the only substance whose safety has been checked continuously for roughly a quarter century on nearly 90,000 members of farming communities (US govt. Health study, Andreotti, 2017). These farmers used glyphosate intensely, and without adverse health effects when compared to the general public. French consumers refuse to believe that the alcohol in wine is a class-I toxin, present at 10% level, but legislate against glyphosate (Class-II, similar to detergents) present at 0.0000001% level!
However, when famine looms near, as it must when current agricultural technology gets over-whelmed, such public opposition will evaporate. Politicians will rally to it, and the new designer crops and UHTA will find its place just as the green-revolution-HIA was accepted by India against the opposition of many local lobbies.
B. Increased Energy Needs.
Another big hurdle that UHT agriculture will face is its energy needs. While increased-efficiency solar panels will help, the environmentally cleanest and cheapest source is from new nuclear plants. Conventional nuclear reactors cost $7 billion or more. But modern mini-reactors with little or no moving parts are much cheaper and meet high standards of safety (Science, vol. 363, issue 6429, p 806, 2019). Nuclear is already the largest source of zero-carbon energy in the Western world, and the second-largest source worldwide (after hydro-power). Developing nuclear power is essential to avert global warming and also to power new UHT agricultural systems. Besides the existing 450 reactors, some 70 new nuclear plants are under construction, mostly in China.
The public fears nuclear energy, but a comparison of the “death-print” from different energy sources shows it to be the safest although a high hazard. The “death-print” is the number of people killed per unit of energy (say, per trillion kWH). Coal is the worst, and nuclear is the best even after including the death toll from uranium mining and all accidents and not just the spectacular ones like Fukushima. Using WHO and other data, the death-print figures are: coal (170,000), oil (36,000), Biomass (24,000), Natural gas (4,000), hydro (1,400), solar (440), and nuclear (90).
A major problem for the nuclear industry is its hazardous radio-active waste products. These contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The lasting solution to this is the BREEDER reactor. These burn nuclear waste to produce a final non-radioactive product like lead. France was the initial leader, but its socialist government shut the research decades ago, under pressure from the anti-nuclear Green lobby. Today, only five or six are operating: three in Russia, one each in China, India and USA.
These 4th generation nuclear reactor are economical, safe, produces negligible waste matter and avoid nuclear proliferation. The present author favours the duel-fluid reactor (DFR) designs (see Figure) where the nuclear fuel is input as a molten salt, while the coolant is a liquid metal (e.g., lead). Such reactors using thorium is an attractive possibility for Sri Lanka that has thorium-rich monozite sands. After the initial start up, depending on neutron economy and fuel mixture, DFR will produce its own fissile fuel!
The needed technology can be transferred to Sri Lanka via a partner nation. In comparison, oil exploration in the Palk Straits is very disadvantageous to a small country not only because of irreparable oil-spill accidents, but also because oil is a magnet for powerful countries that subjugate small countries for their oil. We see this in the Middle East, Nigeria and Latin America.
C. Fear of loss of employment.
Each wave of technology, especially in labour intensive sectors like agriculture poses the specter of unemployment. But as jobs disappear, many new jobs are created, although at a higher technical level. Productive societies can afford to pay a universal basic salary to everyone irrespective of employment, as envisaged in some rich Nordic countries.
IMMEDIATE STEPS TO AVERT ECOLOGICAL DISATER.
While cutting-edge energy and agricultural solutions are being implemented, immediate steps to avert tragedy are also needed. We cannot go back to traditional farming, or to cherished “Gama-Weva-Pansala” (Village-Reservoir-Temple ) aka “Panchayat” models because such models imply massive habitat encroachment and low prosperity.
Some essential steps to be immediately implemented are:
1. Reduction of habitat loss and diversification of monocultures.
Protecting biodiversity requires preventing habitat loss and giving land back to nature. All homesteads, farmers and plantations should convert 10-15% of their land to manged wilderness. Wilderness belts should be linked to larger conservation areas. Highways need underpasses for animal crossings, linking ecological areas. Low-intensity farmland should be returned to jungle. Urban sprawl should be shrunk into dense high-rise living.
2. Facing climate change
If governments execute the minimum proposals of climate summits, there is indeed a chance to avert famines, inundations by the sea, irreversible damage to the ice caps, Himalayas and environmental hot spots. Moving away from meat, diary, and organic foods is essential for the reduction of green house gases. The production of meat or milk needs much pasture lands, water, and release greenhouse gases (GG). Organic farming increases GG and causes soil erosion.
Air travel produces a lot of garbage and GG. Air transport should be replaced by ultra-fast electric trains moving close to supersonic speeds.
3. Recycling to reduce environmental impact, & educating the public.
Burning of plastics and toxic garbage etc have to be controlled, and proper waste management and clean air and water management should be a top priority. Education about ecosystems should begin in schools itself, but it run the risk of hijacking by lobby groups (like Organic food vendors), NGOs pushing some agenda, and even politically powerful Psychics peddling, say, God Natha. Hence curricula needs tight control by academic and professional bodies.
4. Alternative energies.
The shift away from fossil fuels to alternatives, boosting nuclear energy are a must. Irrigation projects with no concern for the total ecology should be stopped. Solar panels and wind turbines should not compete with the habitat for flora and fauna.
5. Maximum use of modern agriculture and biotechnology.
Scientific agriculture drawing from the very frontier of knowledge, and not going back to the past is essential to minimize the use of land and water. Unwanted entry of agrochemicals into the eco-sphere should be controlled using WHO guidelines. Where there is doubt about safety, the precautionary principle of “constraint and control” rather than the method of “ban and banish”, should be used.
6. Enforcement of environmental legislation.
In Sri Lanka there are strict environmental laws. Unfortunately, they seem to be quite irrelevant to all sorts of favoured companies or individuals backed by politicians. So the rule of law must be enforced.
In conclusion, optimism, cutting-edge technology based on good science, and the fight against fake science are the essential winning factor in the battle to safeguard the ecosystem.
Edward / February 26, 2019
Very interesting glimpse into the future.
However, although I can believe that paddy plants (a grass), or green peas can be grown by these hydroponic methods, how can you grow coconut and other big trees, or even sugar cane by these methods?
Can you real;y miniaturize tea bushes to be adapted these techniques? I think all that is probably highly speculative. Even then it will work ONLY if there is enough electricity to run these giant grow towers.
However, each grow-tower will be good commissions for the politicians, and so they might be interested in setting these up.
JD / February 26, 2019
Chandra Dharmawardane is excellent at bringing these scientific proposals which he does not write to or discuss inside a scientific community such as a conference. first explain why the communities in developed countries both in Canada and the USA go for basic – organic agriculture on soil which we had 50 years ago. They have all the technology, so they can carry out hydroponic or green house agriculture. Yet they go for the less technology intensive labour intensive agriculture. why is that. There are millions of Acres in Sakathewan and in Middle america. Why do they still do still the same old commercial agriculture but with the heavy machinery that damages the soil and with pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. WHAT ABOUT SUSTAINABLE AGRIUCLTURE, – people get exercises and do not have to spend to the Fitness centre. Use old paddy varieties, so no need of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. Reduced harvests are replaced with Kurakkan, Bathala, Manioc and other grain and yam varieties. So, people do not have to die for money. Instead they have time for the family, no cancers, no CKDs, No mental stress or depression, no cancers so people are healthy. Now, the present technique including your high technology agriculture needs capital expenditure which make people like rats and unhealthy. Anyway, what happened to the European and american wealth just AFTER ONLY one generation. Now the rest is again poor. and the system is breaking down unless the poor countries do not have resources which they can exploit.
JD / February 26, 2019
The Capitalism is not just trade but it is consumerism. So, they need new things just like MILLInnium computer problem because of which people were looking for new computer and new services to overcome it. christmus is a business event. UN claim at one time was to that there would be a humongous HUNGER problem in the world which they said during the last century was probably a coup by the businesses to sell their pesticides and fertilisers. Because it never came except in drought ridden countries. Just explain how much the energy requirement, machinery needs to produce energy required for these hydroponic agriculture. What if Fossil fuel prices sky rocket. what is the cost for Cancer because of high fossil fuel use and the smoke created. Who are going to earn that money, Is it those women working in the Middle east Why don’t you go back to Sri lanka and live less expensive life instead of dieing for money.
JD / February 26, 2019
British introduced coconut was a major export crop. the Govt allowed al those trees to cut and build houses. Now, they even fill Muithurajawela and has built houses. so much for the below sea level fresh water eco systems. Now you want to finish the Paddy lands which is already finished, no of Tanks, not built with the ADB or World BANK/IMF/MCC loans, reduced from 40,000 to 19,000. You want PAddy fields to be converted to REAL ESTATE and build houses. So, a going bankrupt – Western Real estate firm can increase their profit margins.
Pol-Roti / February 27, 2019
JD needs to read up on the history of coconut. The British did not introduce it. According to the research published by Dr. Dharmawardana, the coconut tree came to Sri lanka even before India,
and it is mentioned in ancient Elu-Prakrit inscriptions.
The first reference to a coconut plantation in Sri Lanka is in an inscription at Mihinthale, by the king Mahadathika Mahanage (7-19 CE). Culavamsa refers to a coconut plantation (three yojanas in extent), close to Mahatheetha (Mannar), during King Aggabodhi-I (571-604 CE).
Where do I find this sort of information? I get it from the webpage on Sri Lankan Plants and Trees maintained by Professor Chandre Dharmawardana. See:
JD / February 27, 2019
Thank you BD – Polroti.
Bandara / February 27, 2019
In commenting on the first installment of this article by Prof. Dharmawardana
I was trying to tell Ramona Theresa Fernando some of the things that this writer has now said in this article. I am glad to have confirmation.
I stated that if ALL the available agricultural land (Tea, Rubber, Coconut) of SL could be converted to growing paddy, and if we had enough water and if we grow paddy using organic farming, then even if we get the best possible organic harvest, it will still be starvation for the vast majority of Sri Lankans. Dr. Dharmawardana says it will be 75% starvation. I say it will be worse according to my calculations.
Prof. Dharmawardana proposes that if Sri Lanka is somehow technologically and financially capable of adopting this High-Tech farming approach, then it can return most of the Land under Tea and Paddy back to the Jungle. I too prey for such a day. But of course, this needs an enormous amount of clean power (electricity) and we don’t have it. So he proposes nuclear power
and criticizes oil exploration. Perhaps the tea estates have the money to go for this type of high-tech agriculture and the know how to breed hydroponic tea plants.
But sadly, we are likely to be run over the concrete and asphalt Jungle of the Megalopolis being planned by Champika Ranawaka who together with Ven. Ratana also talks of a “Toxin-Free” Nation, may be to first bankrupt the farmer, and then take over the land for the Megalopois.
ramona therese fernando / February 28, 2019
I doubt your figures, as well as Dharmawardana’s. We need official statistics to prove what you say is right. Also, at some point, farmers are selling their rice on the international markets for huge profits (although the selling fluctuates per year according to weather patterns).
If what you say is right, there are other pointers in society that make organic rice and essential organic crops inessential. The tourist industry and the restaurant industry attempts to feed people at excessive levels. Indeed, most tourist come into Sri Lanka not so much to eat, but to explore our ancient sites. Any dip in tourism and the local market takes over to keep the restaurants viable. Obesity is the resultant of Lankan city society. Then the slimming industry soon follows. All are money-making enterprises to secure the international markets. It is a vicious cycle. Look at countries like Vietnam- their people are lean.
Organic rice and other crop production should be the obligation of our ancient and unique countries. It cannot be a commercialized industry. There can be a trading system between our countries in times of scarcity. Instead, as you say, all other places are building up megapolises at furious rates. This is killing the organic technique. If we truly want to be viable in organic food, we need to latch up with the other Theravada countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam who place great value on the occupations of their ancestors.
Bodi Danapala of Montreol / February 27, 2019
Darme, nice to see my rebirths as Edward, JD and a few others are doing the job I used to do to endose your devious ideas before.
But these ploys are not going to work. Your pushing glyposate for Monsanto has destroyed your credibility, it looks like Monsanto took your name to thir grave with them. So may be you have to postpone your chemical work until you join them sooner rather than later!
Guruge / February 27, 2019
As far as yield and impact on the environment are concerned, traditonal and iorganic farming have a high environmental impact because you need more water and more land to produce 1 kg of harvest, as compared to high-intensity (Green Revolution) farming.
But high-intensity farming invariably involves using pesticides which are harmful to the environment, unless very strictly controlled. Growing food in fully sealed grow-towers is a high-tech solution beyond the reach of countries like Sri Lanka, at the moment. So I think the suggestions given in this article are perhaps BEYOND the reach of SRI LANKA AT THE MOMENT.
A cheaper intermediate solution not mentioned by the author is to use polyhouses (polythene covered greenhouses) to grow most crops. This greatly reduces the impact of pesticides. You get 10 times the yield irrespective of the weather, but much less need for fertilizers and pesticides than what is needed for conventional high-fertilizer farming. Poly-house farming is becoming increasingly popular in India.
JD / February 27, 2019
BANDARA: IF you and Chandra Dhrmawardne are correct, at that time the President asking the people to eat RIce in three meals can not happen because at that time and even during the Mahinda Rajapakse govt there was excess production and the govts at that time did not know the diversification of the paddy culture and assign some lands only for export. His proposals are go for high technology and go for destruction. So, like the people in THE SO-CALLED DEVELOPED COUNTRIES, become rats running always in the fast lanes. Finally, they are again poor, sick with terminal diseases such as cancer. So, another group of people protests at every G-7 People saying globalization destroyed the society, country and the culture.
JD / February 27, 2019
Guruge is not correct to a certain extent. Srilanka did not have any water shortages. those days Sri lankan provinces had many nick names such as WEW 1000 rata, Wew Bandi rata. but, JRJ govt and after that they bulldozed many tanks. So, I hear now out of 40,000 Man built tanks only about 19,000 tanks are left. Sri lanka earlier also had lot of population. foe xample, the history says that a rooster got onto a roof from Anuradhapura could go one stretch upto polonnaruwa from jumping one to the other. Srilankan population went down only after the humongous slaughters by three colonial regimes. Sinhala people did not depend only on rice. I remember even when I was young, Kurakkan, sorghum, corn, Many different kinds of Yams including Manioc and Batala were there to supplement. Now, it has to come from India or Pakisthan. Even at present, Srilanka does not have food storage methods, that is why many vegetables have to be thrown for wild animals. People should not expect from the govt. They are unbelievably corrupt. they are there only to gain popularity if some one did it. for Example, Two from Moratuwa had assembles a Sattallite. Sena Wijesinghe was quick to go and get the credit for UNP govt. It is that selfish.
What Chandra dharmawardane says is CRAP. He is writing for money. IF not there were people in Sri lanka even 40 years ago, were talking about SUSTAINABLE Agriculture.
JD / February 28, 2019
Canada and USA has green house and Hydroponic agriculture as those Countries can not grow through out the year because of the limitation of the Sunlight and Temperature (Winter). they grow Ganja too in Green houses and hydroponically because the Police arrest them and they even kill the grower in order to steal ganja. Sri lanka does not have temperature or sunlight limitation problems, in order to overcome the PEST problem, they can use OLD wild type varieties which does not need pesticides or fertiliser. for export purposes specific areas can be assigned so that they can use fertiliser. Even here, people grow improved varieties without fertiliser and pesticides and only applying composted manure and that harvest is for their personal use.
K.Pillai / February 28, 2019
The part played by insects in sustaining the eco-system, as we know and hope it will remain, is very well documented. Signs of decline in insect population and the danger to humans have been highlighted over a number of years.
In the following article, very concerned eco-scientists warn us that we have reached a very critical stage: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature
The authors warn us that 98% of insects may be extinct in our lifetime.
The article says that the main cause of the decline is agricultural intensification using synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides. The demise of insects appears to have started at the dawn of the 20th century, accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s and reached “alarming proportions” over the last two decades.
Chandre Dharnawardene authored CT of 20 February 2019 ~”How A Menaced Humanity Facing A Threatened Environment Turns To Ludicrous Remedies”.
Chandre agrees that insect numbers are on the decline but attributes this to ‘ludicrous’ organic farming methods.
Chandre has overlooked the fact that organic farming has been used for well over 30,000 years.
The undaunted Chandre’s follow-up to above is the present ~”Beyond The Green Revolution; How Humanity Needs Cutting-Edge Technology To Save Itself”.
This Ultra High-Tech Agriculture (UHTA) is science fiction.
Bulner / February 28, 2019
Dr. Dharmawardana attributes loss of biodiversity to Loss of habitat as the main cause Habitat loss is claimed to be due to
(i)rapid housing and urban sprawl due to rapid increase in population
(ii) increase of land use under farming due to need to feed humanity.
1. He proposes to take back the lost habitat and put it back to jungle to save biodiversity.
2. He proposes that every farm and every estate set aside 10-15% of land for wilderness and moving away from mono-cultures.
3. He suggests a very high tech solution to do intensive farming in a very restricted space..
Setting off part of estate land (10% ) to wilderness is a very good idea.
I think even going towards using poly-house agriculture (closed green houses using polythene to have a controlled environment) should go a long way towards solving the problem. We need very high tech solutions ONLY if that is not enough.
The high tech solution given in this article needs NUCLEAR ENERGY which has its own problems and that needs a lot more discussion than given in this article.