Feeding the planet’s 7.3 billion people is no easy feat, but farmers all around the world have risen to challenge. Feeding the next three billion people–who are expected to arrive by 2050–will pose an even greater challenge. However, I am confident innovative farmers and agri-businesses will again step up to the plate (no pun intended). Below are ten technologies and trends future-oriented farmers should familiarize themselves with in 2017 if they wish to stay ahead of the game.
- Super Fast-Growing GM Plants: Researchers at the University of Illinois have used genetic engineering to speed up photosynthesis by as much as 20 percent. Ultimately, researchers believe it might be possible to increase the yield of corn, soybeans, and wheat by as much as 50 percent. The technology has been called a “second green revolution” because it speeds up how quickly plants can convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars and carbohydrates. Opponents of GMO’s are likely to oppose the advance but, interestingly, both Europe and China have recently softened their approaches to GMOs suggesting that the tide may be turning in their favor.
- Artificial Intelligence: In the past year, the field of artificial intelligence has made startling advances. Soon, IBM, Monsanto, and Google will push these advances into agriculture by helping farmers make sense of the growing amount of satellite, tractor and field data. In the process, they will increase their yields and profits by telling them how to precisely plant their crops, and when exactly to apply water and fertilizer.
- The Microbiome/Bio-pesticides: Farmers and scientists alike have understood the beneficial benefits of the bacteria living in the soil for years. But now researchers are on the cusp of identifying how specific bacteria can be used by farmers to boost yield, increase resistance to drought, disease, and pests, and reduce reliance on costly fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. It has been called “the next major platform in agriculture.” One company (Azotic) is harnessing bacteria to pull nitrogen straight from the air and apply it to crops in the form of fertilizer, and another (Indigo) claims to have already used microbe-coated seeds to boost the yield of cotton by 10 percent.
- RNA Interference: Scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed a new technique for depositing RNA onto to the leaves of plants. This advance, which has been called “a big frickin” deal by one leading agronomist, is significant because it can be used to silence genes for a limited period. This implies, that soon, crops can be protected against drought and insects for prescribed periods of time. Furthermore, because the technology does not involve inserting foreign genes into a plant (only turning off existing genes), it might evade the ire of GMO opponents.
- Blockchain: The technology behind Bitcoin is currently fueling great excitement in the banking sector but it may soon also transform agriculture. Specifically, Blockchain technology will allow both farmers and consumers to learn the when, where’s and how’s of its production, transportation, and storage. In addition to offering consumers radical transparency about their food, the technology will also improve safety and decrease supply chain costs.
- Urban Farming: There’s an old saying: “You can’t create new ground.” And while this is technically correct, innovative entrepreneurs are now using new polymer films and hydroponics to grow a limited number of crops, including tomatoes, melons, and strawberries in urban buildings. In addition to using significantly less water, the technology allows farmers to prevent diseases better, and tailor the nutrients in order to create healthier and better-tasting produce. The technology also offers the advantage of growing fresh produce closer to the consumer.
- Edible Packaging: Using nothing but leaves, stems, and bio-based materials, Apeel Sciences has created a method for creating edible packaging that has the added benefit of extending the shelf life of certain foods by five times. In theory, the technology could allow an individual banana (from a “bunch” of bananas) to ripen every day of the week. In short, the technology may soon significantly reduce the amount of food waste.
- Satellites: Launched in late 2016, the most recent GOES-R satellite will provide higher resolution of weather data from space. In addition to providing more accurate weather forecasting data, expect the burgeoning satellite revolution also to allow farmers to “see” their crops and soil in ever-more granular levels of detail.
- “Cultured” Meat: The news that Tyson Foods, Inc, the largest U.S. meat company, recently acquired a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, the maker of a plant-based burgers, reflect the extraordinary advances in what is known as artificial meat. Impossible Foods, Modern Meadow, and Hampton Creek are other artificial meat and cheese companies that could also shake up the agricultural world in the years to come.
- Home Farming Robots: From drones and cow-milking robots to robots sophisticated enough to know which ripened strawberry to pick, advances in the field of robotics aren’t new to agriculture. What might surprise farmers is how new home-based robots could soon allow consumers to grow more of their food from the comfort of their own home.
Jack Uldrich is a leading global agricultural futurist and the author of the award-winning book, Foresight 2020: Ten Trends Transforming the World of Tomorrow.