Fewer Farmers - More Food
How does food yield increase by 70% by 2050?
In 1800, 80 % of Americans worked on farms. By 1900, the industrial revolution had forced that number to 41% with higher yields from farm machines making up the difference. Today, less than 2% of the US population is involved in farming. For 218 years, certain people have been living in fear of the Malthusian threat that population growth would outstrip food supply.
What are the current agricultural trends and will we be able to keep pace with a projected World population of 9.7 billion by 2050? The American, and ultimately global, farm has to continue on a track to become a factory operation. The smart farm uses hundreds of variables from weather to soil condition to the weed populations and make up and many others to help increase yield, lower costs and minimize water usage.
1. Technology Adaptation
The American, and ultimately global, farm has to continue on a track to become a factory operation: tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products, immune as far as possible from the vagaries of nature. Technology is being inserted into the base model of almost everything required to put a crop in the ground, and harvested.
2. Big Data
Converting data to actionable solutions is what needs to happen to make all this technology worth the investment. The smart farm uses hundreds of variables from weather to soil condition to the weed populations and make up and many others to help increase yield, lower costs and minimize water usage. The buzz word is "precision farming" through which all input variables enable the best timing, location, amounts and hundreds of other calculations for optimum efficiency and yield at the lowest cost.
Thanks to better understanding of DNA, the plants and animals raised on a farm are also tightly controlled. Precise genetic manipulation, known as “genome editing”, makes it possible to change a crop or stock animal’s genome down to the level of a single genetic “letter”. This technology, it is hoped, will be more acceptable to consumers than the shifting of whole genes between species that underpinned early genetic engineering, because it simply imitates the process of mutation on which crop breeding has always depended, but in a far more controllable way.
Understanding a crop’s DNA sequence also means that breeding itself can be made more precise. You do not need to grow a plant to maturity to find out whether it will have the characteristics you want. A quick look at its genome beforehand will tell you.
Other interesting, and some may say less palatable biological influences include growing meat muscle biologically in lab dishes to replace meat from farmed animals. And scientists are working on other mutations like making cheese from chemicals for the vegan market.
Such technological changes, in hardware, software and “liveware”, are reaching beyond field, orchard and byre. Fish farming will also get a boost from them. And indoor horticulture, already the most controlled and precise type of agriculture, is about to become yet more so.
In the short run, these improvements will boost farmers’ profits, by cutting costs and increasing yields, and should also benefit consumers (meaning everyone who eats food) in the form of lower prices. In the longer run, though, they may help provide the answer to an increasingly urgent question: how can the world be fed in future without putting irreparable strain on the Earth’s soils and oceans?
New Farming initiatives and opportunities will assist in growth of yield and available products. Inland fish farming is more plausible with DNA changes in fish and closed circuit systems that are self powering and totally clean. Urban vertical farming is another entrepreneurial opportunity to meet vegetable requirements within cities.
We must adjust agriculture to be able to increase yields by another 70% by 2050. Precision agriculture will spread from its North American heartland to become routine in Europe and those parts of South America, such as Brazil, where large arable farms predominate. And someone, perhaps in China, will work out how to apply to rice the sort of precision techniques now applied to soybeans, corn and other crops.
The technological rationale for precision suggests farms should continue to consolidate, though in an industry in which sentiment and family continuity have always played a big part that purely economic analysis might suggest is irrational, this may not happen as fast as it otherwise would. Still, regardless of the speed at which they arrive, these large holdings will come more and more to resemble manufacturing operations, wringing every last ounce of efficiency out of land and machinery.
Hold on to your overalls, things are changing rapidly!