Agriculture Faces Many 21st Century Disruptors

September 18, 2017 – Our perspective on agriculture is about to go through dramatic changes as this century unfolds. What are some of the disruptive forces at work?

  • Global population growth and food demand
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – both animals and plants
  • AI, robotics, and intelligent sensors
  • Urban farming and consumer-farm cooperatives
  • Lab-grown meat, leather, and synthetic replacements
  • Social change in human and animal relations
  • Climate change

 

Global Food Demand

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is anticipating our world population will be between 9 and 10.5 billion by 2050. The majority of us, 70%, will live in cities and will be relatively richer, demanding diets that include more animal protein, emulating the food habits of the Developed World today. That presents a not unprecedented challenge to agribusiness since farming has gone through in the past demand crises that led to the green revolution and enormous increases in cereal crop yields, the food that today sustains the majority on the planet.

Until most recently, hunger as a chronic condition among humans was in decline. The capacity of farms to feed our growing population seemed to work. But it appears the gains have suddenly come to an end. Today 1 in 8 don’t get sufficient food to sustain them. That represents a population greater than the European Union, the United States and Canada combined. Malnutrition is the cause of 15% of all child deaths in the world and 1 in 6 in the Developing World are chronically underweight. And these statistics will grow without the intervention of disruptive new technology solutions.

Genetically Modified Organisms

GMOs are the next stage in selective breeding, a practice that humans have engaged in since the first domestication of animals and plants at the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution. The fact that the alteration is being done at the genome level rather than through multiple generations of trial and error, which had been common practice for agribusiness throughout history.

It is our ability to selectively remove and replace genetic information that bothers many. So much so that countries have banned growing GMOs within their borders and prohibited their import. The organic food movement has portrayed GMOs as Frankenfoods. But those researching and developing GMOs have done so with more rigorous trials than any food products ever produced before them. No animal or human has ever gotten sick from eating a GMO food. None have got cancer.

Today in farms in the United States that grow soybean, cotton, and corn, 90% of the crops are GMOs. Sugar beets, alfalfa, canola, potatoes, and more are largely GMOs. GMO golden rice is ending childhood blindness in South Asia, and yet some countries in that part of the world resist growing or importing it despite high incidents of loss of vision in their children.

Despite the pushback and fearmongering GMOs are expanding around the globe. Why? Because GMOs are doing what they were designed for. Drought resistance built into corn, wheat, and soybeans gives farmers the means to deal with prolonged dry spells while still being able to produce significant yields. Disease-resistant GMOs counter the threat from bacterial, fungal and insect invasions that decimate crops. GMOs make it possible to decrease the amount of pesticides and herbicides applied to fields throughout the growing season. And GMO crops are developed to store better where refrigeration is not available, or where other conditions such as a lack of roads in rural areas make getting harvested produce to consumers while still fresh, more difficult. Food waste in the Developing World because of a lack of harvest infrastructure remains an enormous challenge.

And GMOs are not limited to plants. Today we are seeing an increased interest in developing various breeds of GMO livestock as well as fish for aquaculture on Developing World farms.

To those who feel that GMOs are an abomination, without them today the number of people on our planet who suffer from malnourishment would be much higher. The resistance from the fearful is creating some of the worst food crises in places where food shortages and population growth are most apparent – Africa and South Asia.

It’s time to accept GMOs as a necessary technology for humanity’s present and future.

AI, Robotics, and Intelligent Sensors

Automation in many forms has come to farms worldwide. With arable land finite, companies such as John Deere, are introducing artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart sensors to maximize every piece of it, finding better ways to nourish it, and, in the end, produce much more from it.

Computer vision and machine learning technologies are making it possible for farmers to do agriculture a single plant at a time and produce optimal results. Drones, robots, and sensors oversee fields, zero in on plants showing stress, determine the problem, and apply a solution. Whether it is micro-irrigation, a dose of herbicide or insecticide, or pruning growth interfering with the plant’s ability to produce a healthier yield, this is precision agriculture as never done before.

These technologies are being applied in every season and at every step in the farming process from fallowing, to tilling or no-till, to planting, and to harvesting. Robotic tillers ensure that soils are minimally disturbed while preserving organic content from the remains of previously harvested crops. Smart sensors assess field conditions in real-time sending reports to the farmer’s smartphone or computer. Robots in the air or on land view the crop using different types of light and thermal imagers to better understand plant conditions.

John Deere argues that with 2 to 3 billion more mouths to feed by mid-century farms need to increase productivity by 1.7% annually to meet demand. Without AI, robots and smart sensors, meeting that growth will be next to impossible. When asked about the growing need to increase farm yields, Alex Purdy, Director of John Deere Labs, states, “70% of it is going to come from technology.”

Urban Farming and Consumer-Farm Cooperatives

At one time here in Toronto there were working farms within the city’s boundaries. But not today. The suburban growth has pushed farmland further out. This is true of many cities. An interesting response to this

An interesting response to this phenomenon is the development of farms in cities that are unconventional, to say the least. Boutique farms that are vertical are appearing in communities. These are literally wall farms found in warehouses with growing racks, no soil, hydroponic and artificial light. The plants can be grown year round. Another urban farm model can be found on rooftops. The green roof movement isn’t limited just to planting growth to cool the building beneath. Now the plants can be eaten as well. Some supermarkets are turning their roofs into fresh produce generators which can be purchased daily by customers.

Another phenomenon is a reflection of consumers becoming more conscious of what they eat and from whom they buy. At farmer’s markets in Toronto, consumers can sign up to a relationship with a farm. They can choose that farm partner based on their criteria (organic, no chemicals, humane practices in animal husbandry, etc.) and pay monthly fees to receive a shopping list of items the farm produces. This is a new business paradigm for farms that reflects the increasing health consciousness of a large demographic.

Hoofless Meat, Leather, and Synthetic Replacements 

The first lab-grown hamburger patty cost $250,000 U.S. It was only three years ago when the first hamburger taste test was conducted in London, England. This was meat grown in vitro, cultured from cells of donor animals. But now, three years later, a company named Modern Meadow, located in New Jersey, is not only growing meat from stem cultures on an industrial scale but is now creating a material from genetically engineered yeast that resembles leather. The combination of stem cell technology and additive manufacturing (3D printing) may be the biggest disruptor to agribusiness in the 21st century.

Why? Because animal husbandry, particularly large-hoofed animals like cows, takes up an enormous amount of resources. When I wrote about the topic back in September 2014 I stated that a single McDonald quarter pounder entailed the consumption of 3 kilograms (6.7 pounds) of feed grain, 200 liters (52.8 gallons) of freshwater, 6.9 square meters (74.5 square feet) of feed production space and grazing land, and 1,093 joules (1.036 BTUs) of energy. While creating the raw product the McDonald quarter pounder contributed 6 kilograms (13.4 pounds) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Modern Meadow duplicates what farms and cows produce in a factory setting. No more slaughterhouses and abattoirs. No more use of land for grazing that could be suitable for other crops or for reforestation to increase natural carbon sinks. And no more cows contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

The latest twist at Modern Meadow is to be revealed this October 1 when the company presents a new material that is, in effect, factory-grown leather. Produced using a genetically modified strain of yeast that generates a protein identical to bovine collagen, this represents as big a disruptor to agribusiness as lab-grown meat. In the August 26, 2017, edition of The Economist, an article entitled, “More skin in the game,” describes the advantages that Modern Meadow’s factory-method leather provides: standardized sheets, straight edges, no flaws or inconsistencies, and customizable materials to customer preference. It is only a matter of time before the company branches out to create alligator, ostrich, snakeskin, and other “natural” materials.

Laboratories around the world are also actively developing synthetic replacements for what farmers produce, from milk that has never seen a cow, to meatless meats that resemble fried chicken, beef jerky, meatloaf, bacon bits and chicken chow mein. We have sugar substitutes, synthetic vegetable oils, proteins derived from petroleum distillates, and fibres that replace wool, and other animal hair. And then there is Soylent. Every one of these is a significant disruptor.

Social Change in Human-Animal Relations

There appear to more vegans and vegetarians these days. The growing trend doesn’t hurt farmers who plant, but it is impacting the animal husbandry industry.

Why people choose a vegan lifestyle varies, but one cause is a growing awareness of just how much the animals we raise to eat and harvest have feelings, are sentient, and more related to us as animals ourselves.

Will the vegan movement grow in light of factory produced substitutes for animal products? It will be interesting to see how this trends.

Climate Change

There is no greater disruptor to agriculture and agribusiness than climate change. Atmospheric warming and extreme weather events including mega-droughts are impacting farms globally. It is more than just crop yields that are under stress. A 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) increase in mean global temperature will likely lead to declines of between 9 and 13% as invasive pests migrate into temperate farming zones, and as extreme weather events shock crops, inducing lower yields.  A 2 Celsius (3.6. Fahrenheit) rise will be even more catastrophic if not for GMOs helping to adapt plants and animals to the new reality of a warmer planet.

The psychological impact on farmers of climate change has not yet been accurately measured. But one can imagine how distressing farming will become in this altered world. Already farmer deaths from suicide is a concern in many Developing World countries where the stress from low yields and debt are creating an industry crisis. A recent posting on this blog site described the link between climate change and nearly 60,000 farm suicides in India.

 


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...

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