Realising How Much We Could Be

Realising How Much We Could Be

Overpopulation, Farming and Raman spectroscopy in the face of all


10 min read

Agriculture seems like the last place to find the advanced and the scientific. By human history standards, changes in agricultural practices have only occurred very recently —within the last two centuries. This is no surprise because our population has grown dramatically within that time, and efficient food production allowed such growth. This is indeed something which we should celebrate: we used our genius and our bravery to manipulate the world around us so that more of us would not starve, more of us could be here, and more of us can live successful and meaningful lives —if we so choose.

The Gleaners (1857) Jean-François Millet

The Impending Doom

However, it has come to my attention that not everyone is thrilled to learn that there are more of us — and that there are going to be much more of us in the future. Our projections suggest that by 2050 we will have 9 billion people on the planet [1]. Some may argue that there are too many of us, despite the lack of clear evidence for (and that we will ever reach) a “limit of human growth”. Why do we accept, particularly in the scientific community, that we have a duty to reduce the population, make less of us, or hint that a high population is an impending doom to the planet? Why should there be fewer of us when we are increasingly resourceful, talented and brave?

The best of us have pioneered the technology in agriculture. If we had more of us, who knows what would come out of the mass population? More genius? More advancements?

In my own field of research, there have been some new techniques presented to the agricultural community. However, it’s extremely exhausting and repetitive when scientific papers mention some new technology sites the importance of this finding under the cliché guises of climate change and overpopulation.

Although it would provide another cheap dig and could get absorbed into the mainstream, I’m not going to focus this technology on climate change but rather on how it can monitor plant activity based on local and regional weather changes.

The paper I site, despite the success it achieved, couldn’t help but present this as a saviour to the overpopulation problem or climate change:

“Feeding a population of 9 billion in 2050 coupled with the changing climate and environmental stresses motivate us to develop advances in plant science and technology”

- In vivo diagnostics of early abiotic plant stress response via Raman spectroscopy, Altangerel N et al. [2]

Instead of impending doom, I would introduce this paper with some reality. I would write:

“To allow a growing population of 9 billion people in 2050 to flourish and live fruitfully, it is necessary to focus on developing additional technologies for plant science and agriculture. Since a plant’s growth is dependent on the day-to-day weather and external local factors, it’s necessary to stress a plant to varying environmental conditions and testing such technologies.”

This introduction is a more optimistic one, it doesn’t capture anyone based on fear of any doom of an apocalypse whilst still maintaining honesty and integrity.

In addition to fertilisers, mechanised machinery, and GPS, lasers and spectroscopy hold promise to make farming more efficient [2]. Raman spectroscopy, where the chemical fingerprint is determined via scattered laser light, has recently been used for monitoring a plant’s stress responses. Before I continue, we’ll explore (by human history standards) the most recent technologies used by the agricultural industry. By doing so, we can highlight the various methods and understand how Raman spectroscopy can fit into the next advancement for our food supply.


Firstly, the introduction of fertilizers has had a profound impact on agriculture, revolutionizing the way crops are grown and harvested. Prior to the development of fertilizers, farmers relied on natural sources of nutrients, such as manure, to enrich the soil and promote plant growth. However, these natural sources were often inconsistent and limited in supply.

The discovery of synthetic fertilizers in the mid-19th century changed this by providing a reliable and affordable source of essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These nutrients are crucial for plant growth and development, and fertilizers allowed farmers to significantly increase crop yields and improve the quality of their harvests.

In addition to providing essential nutrients, fertilizers also helped to increase the efficiency of agricultural practices. By adding fertilizers to the soil, farmers could reduce the amount of time and labour required to maintain healthy crops, allowing them to focus on other aspects of their operations. This helped to reduce the cost of food production and increase the availability of affordable food for consumers.


The next revolution to come to farming wouldn’t come from the ground, but from space. With the United States launching dozens of satellites into orbit, each satellite having been installed with receivers, atomic clocks and signal processing units, a communicating system was created to accurately locate objects on the ground. This would be known today as the Global Positioning System.

In the early years of GPS, initially developed by the military, was introduced to farmers before entering the public scope. In order to calculate seasonal yield, plan how much you take to the market, and plan what your next income is going to be, mapping and navigating across your farmland area is a big bonus for you and your farming. Perhaps you would like to take soil samples across different areas of your farm, GPS navigation can pinpoint the location without cones, flags or spikes, and can be accurately collected into a database.

With GPS technology, farmers can now precisely locate and track their equipment and crops with accuracy down to the centimetre. This allows farmers to create highly detailed maps of their fields, which can be used to optimize crop yields and reduce waste.

One of the primary uses of GPS in agriculture is precision farming. By using GPS technology, farmers can create maps of their fields that show variations in soil quality, moisture levels, and other important factors. This allows them to customize the number of fertilizers, pesticides, and water used for each part of the field, ensuring that crops receive the right amount of nutrients and reducing the risk of overuse or waste.

GM Crops

If GPS was one advance in agriculture (after the miraculous fertiliser) genetic engineering was the next. GM crops, or genetically modified crops, have had a significant impact on agriculture since their introduction in the 1990s. These crops are engineered to have specific desirable traits, such as resistance to pests, disease, or herbicides, or to have improved nutritional content.

One of the most significant ways in which GM crops have changed agriculture is by increasing crop yields. By introducing traits that make crops more resistant to pests and diseases, farmers can reduce crop losses and increase the amount of food they produce. This has helped to feed growing populations around the world and has also made agriculture more efficient and profitable.

GM crops have also allowed farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and herbicides, which can be harmful to the wildlife surrounding the farm as well as human health. By engineering crops to be more resistant to pests and diseases, farmers can use fewer chemicals to protect their crops.

Another way in which GM crops have changed agriculture is by allowing farmers to grow crops in areas where they would not have been able to before. For example, crops can be engineered to be more drought-resistant or to grow in soil with high salinity levels, which allows farmers to grow crops in arid regions where water is scarce.

These advantages have made tremendous breakthroughs in agriculture, no doubt they introduce a mechanical and engineering outlook to plant life as opposed to the humble and earlier naturalists perspective. Yet it encourages things to be cheaper, higher quality, and more available than ever before. Without industrially created fertilizer, a third of the world's population would starve to death —and who knows how many more would starve if farming didn’t incorporate the efficiencies of GPS and GM crops that they do today.

Raman Spectroscopy Scanners

As far as the 20th century has shown, there is no limit to how far we can go. We’ve used our intellect and our bravery to lift millions —perhaps even billions —out of destitute poverty.

A further method has been created for agriculture using Raman spectroscopy to identify plant stress without invasive measures. The technique can identify stress reactions in just 48 hours, giving farmers the opportunity to intervene and increase their crops' resistance to stress. This Raman spectroscopy method enables the examination of numerous pigments within plants at the same time and could be applied to high-capacity screening for plant phenotyping, as well as measuring relevant substances like pigments and antioxidants.

The study focussed on the use of Raman spectroscopy to detect abiotic stress responses in plants. The study involved inducing stress in plants through salt, excess light, drought, and cold exposure, and recording Raman spectra of the plants over 72 hours. The Raman peaks were found to clearly identify anthocyanins(purple) and carotenoids(orange) —pigments of plants. Carotenoids were distinguished in the spectra for the control plants. The study found that carotenoids decreased while anthocyanins increased as the duration of stress increased.

The Raman system setups. (A) Confocal Raman microscopic system. (B) The remote Raman spectroscopic system.

The Raman spectra of unstressed plants (green curves) and stressed plants at 48 h after stress (red curves) of (A) saline, (B) light, (C) drought, and (D) cold. (Insets) Photos of coleus leaves for (Left) unstressed and (Right) stressed plants.

The bar distributions for carotenoid-relative changes were measured by the remote system as functions of durations of the abiotic stresses.

Raman spectroscopy indeed does have its limitations. The remote scanner could not detect the miniature signal of anthocyanin changes — anthocyanin peaks being more than ten times smaller than carotenoids.

Once lasers become cheaper to supply and easier to manufacture—and once Raman systems can apply the signal to the spectrometer more effectively, I’m picturing a future where a mounted structure with a laser scans the whole field of plants, monitoring their composition in real-time, relaying this data to a control unit, providing the plants with the appropriate nutrients and conditions to maximise growth, specific to the site of the closely monitored plants. This would be an incredible feat of engineering and —if achieved —would look really damn cool! The biggest question is: Is it more efficient and do the costs show that it is worthwhile?

However, I’m not sure how critical the specific conditions are needed for plants. I’m also unsure if genetic variation amongst a single crop yield would play a role in the variation of the plant’s performance —and whether that variation is even noticeable.

In comparison to various existing techniques such as reflectance spectroscopy, chlorophyll fluorescence spectroscopy, IR thermal imaging, hyperspectral imaging, and terahertz time-domain spectroscopy, this novel method has emerged as a superior option. This method offers several advantages, including the ability to detect multiple chemicals simultaneously within the same Raman spectrum, indirect detection, and exclusivity in identifying drought stress. The previously fastest method, terahertz time-domain spectroscopy, has been surpassed by this new method. Although this technique takes up to three days to complete, its multifaceted detection capabilities offer promising potential for future research in the field.

Even though this technology may not be realised fully by the agricultural industry, and this innovation may not even create the dramatic productivity increase one would hope, it is nonetheless a novel tool to inspect plants non-invasively.

There is no limit to what humans can achieve. If making more food —if making it faster, easier and cheaper can allow more of us to advance and perform our talent and our genius to the best of our abilities, why shouldn’t we go further? Why can’t we go forward with the best steps, with more steps, with more feet, more people, more dreams and indeed more vision?


  1. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision, Alexandratos, Nikos, Bruinsma, Jelle, Jun 11 2012, 10.22004/ag.econ.288998, ISSN**:** 2521-1838

  2. In vivo diagnostics of early abiotic plant stress response via Raman spectroscopy Altangerel N, Ariunbold GO, Gorman C, Alkahtani MH, Borrego EJ, Bohlmeyer D, Hemmer P, Kolomiets MV, Yuan JS, Scully MO. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Mar 28;114(13):3393-3396. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701328114. Epub 2017 Mar 13. PMID: 28289201; PMCID: PMC5380084.