(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, 20/20 Foresight: A Futurist Looks Ahead to the Ten Trends That Will Shape the World of 2020, that I am writing with the able assistance of fellow futurist Simon Anderson. This chapter takes a look at the future of agriculture.)
On a 7,000 acre farm in California, a large combine drives itself with sub-meter accuracy and lays down fertilizer only in areas pre-determined by the device’s yield mapping software to need additional nutrients. Half a world away, on a rooftop in Berlin, Germany, sits an aquaponic farm that produces both vegetables and fish. It uses the fish waste to fertilize the plants and the plants to purify the water. Both trends, in there separate ways, foreshadow how the agriculture industry will feed the 500 million new people expected to be added to the world’s population by 2020. What follows is a glimpse into the world of farming circa 2020.
Using data supplied from the latest private Chinese satellite, as well as information provided from a low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a businessman working for a Russian agricultural conglomerate in Moscow monitors a self-driven combine a thousand miles away on a farm in the Krasnodar region of Russia. The combine steers itself with sub-micron accuracy in the middle of the night and disperses a tightly controlled amounts of genetically modified corn and soybean seeds in perfect alignment.
So accurate is the GPS and UAV data that the combine retraces its previous trips over the soil with near-perfect accuracy and no land is unnecessarily lost due to soil compaction. The increased accuracy (from sub-meter to sub-micron levels) has allowed the conglomerate to squeeze an additional 20 acres of land production for every 1000 acres it farms. Comparable yield increases have been experienced elsewhere around the world as many of the precision agricultural tools have become so affordable that even mid-sized farms have incorporated them into their regular farming practices.
Because the conglomerate can now access the latest weather forecasting models as well as operate around the clock, it was able to plant its crops at a time optimized for both reducing water usage and ensuring the maximum growth potential of the half-inch of rainfall expected to begin falling in a few hours. Furthermore, because the precision agriculture technology could plant and space corn and soybeans at an appropriate distance from one another, it was able to minimize the use of fertilizers. (This is because the nitrogen from the soybeans benefited the corn). Planting the two crops together also prevented soil erosion and reduced run-off. It was now estimated that five percent of all farmland now employed elements of intercropping or “companion planting.”
As significant as the advances in precision farming were, they paled in comparison to the continued advances in genomics that had pushed the yield of soybeans to 200 bushels per acres and corn to 410 bushels per acre. As farmers around the world reaped similar advances, concerns over feeding the world’s surging population had begun to dissipate. (Poverty and starvation still exist but are caused mainly by ineffective and corrupt political regimes—not because of food scarcity.)
The most significant yield increases were seen in the crops of sugar cane, wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, barley, potatoes and sorghum. The advances were not only credited with feeding the additional half a billion new people on the planet, the advances in genetics were also making people around the world healthier. In the United States, certain crops were modified to add Omega-3 to peoples’ diets in an effort to reduce the prevalence of heart disease. In India and China, iron was added to certain types of rice to fight against iron-deficiency, and in northern climates of North America and Europe Vitamin D was added to wheat to counter the negative consequences of a natural lack of sunlight.
So noteworthy were the advances in genomics that by 2019 a number of leading environmental groups had reversed their long standing opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO). “To do otherwise,” said Renee LaChappelle, executive director of World Sustainable Land Institute, “would be to relegate millions of the world’s poorest citizens to a continued existence of poverty, starvation and death.” LaChapelle went on to add, “The world simply can’t afford the luxury of only producing and consuming organically grown crops. They’re too water intensive and spoil much too quickly.” A handful of sustainable/organic-related organizations opposed the policy shift but they were now a distinct minority and no longer argued GMO crops didn’t use less water or fewer chemical inputs but, rather, were bad because they ceded too much power to the large companies that made the seeds.
Officials at the largest ag-bio companies, plus a handful of smaller private genetic start-ups, countered that their technology was necessary if they were to continue to build upon the extraordinary advances achieved in the past decade. Advances, they argued, that were equal to—and in some cases greater than—the improvements witnessed during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Perhaps the greatest of these achievements was the creation of new types of perennial wheat and corn. This advance alone effectively doubled farmers yields by allowing them to harvest two crops a year whereas before only one was possible. In a handful of African countries this breakthrough virtually eliminated the food crisis and was credited with bringing political stability for the first time in decades. As an added benefit the deep roots of the perennial crops allowed the crops to access the water deeper in the land, thus holding the soil intact and preventing erosion.
Ironically, as more land was being cultivated and with growing periods becoming more pronounced, the amounts of chemical inputs—fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides—were decreasing. Part of the decrease was due to the creation of genetically modified crops that offered better natural protection against certain diseases, funguses and insects; part could be attributed to the exponential growth of micro-sensors farmers were deploying across their farms to better monitor when and where they needed to deploy the inputs; and part was the result of continued advances in precision farming that allowed doses to be prescribed in precisely measured amounts.
Only slightly less significant than the creation of new perennial types of crops in terms of increasing agricultural output was the creation of new types of drought-resistant seeds that could grow in conditions previously not conducive to farming. These advances were especially beneficial to farmers in the arid regions of Australia, northwest China and sub-Saharan Africa.
Concerns over insects and fungis’ ability to become resistant to geneticially modified crops was still a serious concern, but scientist’s ability to employ powerful gene sequencing machines and supercomputers allowed them to create new versions of seeds at a faster pace than Mother Nature could adapt to them.
In a limited number of cases, the combination of the aforementioned advances allowed some farmers to switch from growing crops for food to growing crops for biofuels. In the American southwest, land previously used for fruits and vegetables was transitioned to large algae farms and was now responsible for producing hundreds of millions of gallons of jet-fuel. In Brazil, large bio-reactors using only genetically modified organisms, carbon dioxide and sunlight were producing record amounts of biodiesel on lands previously used to grow sugar cane.
Another consequence of the unexpected increase in agricultural yield was that commodities such as corn and grain that had previously gone directly to the market for individual consumption were redirected toward the cattle and poultry industries as feedstock. This, in turn, allowed the meat and poultry industries to keep pace with the millions of new middle class citizens in Brazil, China and India who were seeking the more protein-rich diets that red meat and chicken provided.
So heavy was the demand that in certain regions a niche market for “in-vitro”—or lab-grown—meat had materialized. Scientific and biotechnology advances had reached the point where the taste and texture of many in-vitro meats was now indistinguishable from naturally produced meats. The former was still expensive, but some consumers were willing to pay the higher price because they viewed lab-grown meat as more humane (no animals were slaughtered in its creation) and more environmentally friendly (unlike a cow that must consume an average of 10,000 pounds of feedstock to produce 1,000 pounds of meat, in-vitro meat is created with zero waste).
In spite of this extraordinary progress, the world’s food situation was far from perfect. One downside to all of the additional land being farmed was, in spite of the creation of a variety of drought-resistant crops, the demand for water continued to increase. Advances in nanotechnology had yielded significant improvements in desalination technology and continued improvements in solar and tidal power were able to meet the power requirements of the growing number of desalination plants, but the issue of rising salinity in the world’s oceans was gaining the serious attention of marine biologists and politicians around the world—especially in the Persian Gulf where vast quantities of the brine created by the desalination plants was being dumped back into the sea.
Also, advances in aquatic farming were slow to develop and, in 2017, officials at the United Nations called upon the governments of Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines to severely restrict both the number of fishing licenses granted and the areas those fishermen could operate. So severe was the state of the world’s fisheries that the number of endangered species had quadrupled in the past decade. In a handful of cases, the navies of Japan, China and the United States had been called upon to police the world’s ocean against rogue fisherman. In one testy standoff, the Chinese navy fired upon a small fleet of North Korean ships and set-off a dangerous international incident that caused the militaries in both countries to go on their highest alert and wreaked havoc on global supply chains as the world’s busiest shipping lane was disrupted for the better part of two weeks.
It was concern over growing water shortages—more so than the “acidification” of the world’s ocean—that fueled the growth of agriculture’s second big trend: urban farming. As the price of water skyrocketed during the previous decade, farmers, retailers and consumers alike reacted to the change. Farmers responded by planting genetically modified and perennial crops designed to use less water. They also employed more sensors and drip irrigation systems to accurately gauge exactly where and when to use water.
Retailers got into the act by demanding suppliers employ more hydroponic farming techniques in locations closer to major metropolitan areas. In America this resulted in underutilized land in the suburbs being re-devoted to farming. In one of the more innovative cases, a 100-acre mall outside of Kansas City was torn down and repurposed to hydroponic agriculture. Through the innovative use of mineral nutrient solution and water recycling techniques, the new farm had the double the yield of a conventional farm. In Detroit, the transition was more pronounced and, as growing amounts of acreage were put toward farming, the Michigan Department of Agriculture began marketing Detroit as “Grow-Town—The New Leader in Urban Agriculture.”
In Asia and across the Middle East a growing number of high-rise apartment and office buildings were dedicating as much as 10 percent of their available space to innovative hydroponic farming solutions that required no soil. Advances in water filtration technology and LED lighting made it possible for a surprising number of crops to be grown effectively inside these complexes.
Individual households also began adjusting to new realities of a water-constrained world. Beset by long-term structural unemployment due to the growth of robotics, additive manufacturing and innovative open-sourcing teaching methods that had decimated the ranks of elementary and high school teachers, more people took to growing some of their own food as a way to supplement their shrinking incomes. The University of Michigan even started an experimental new degree program targeted toward individuals interested in pursing a career in urban agriculture, while scores of technical colleges offered courses for those people just interested in learning the fundamentals of growing their own food.
In other cases urban residents, in an effort to cut down on their food bills, utilized new networks to establish more direct relationships with rural farmers that effectively cut out the middleman and allowed farmers to supply consumers with fresh produce and meat directly. Other urban residents repurposed their rooftops, balconies and small yards into makeshift plots, while suburban residents refashioned their larger yards into mini-farms. In response to continued budget cuts, one major city even transformed four of its city parks into community farms and then rented out small plots on an annual basis. (To guard against theft, low-cost cameras with motion detectors were positioned around each plot.)
One curious side effect of the transition to urban farming was that a boutique market in the insurance industry was created to offer small urban farmers protection against the vagaries of Mother Nature. Depending on the location of the farm and the types of crops being grown, policies could be purchased for as little as $5.
In ways small and big, the agriculture industry and hundreds of thousands of new “urban farmers” rose to the challenge of feeding the world’s surging population with a healthier and more protein rich diet in a way that was also more sustainable than past practices. The big question was whether they could repeat their accomplishments again in the coming decade and feed the 600 million new mouths expected to arrive by 2030.