10 forces shaping the future of agriculture

The big question in agriculture is whether or not the world’s ever increasing population will be able to feed itself with ever dwindling resources. One forward thinker says the answer is yes, given that the world’s farmers can take advantage of the tools at their disposal.

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The big question in agriculture is whether or not the world’s ever increasing population will be able to feed itself with ever dwindling resources. One forward thinker says the answer is yes, given that the world’s farmers can take advantage of the tools at their disposal.

Rob Saik, the founder of the Agri-Trend Group, gave the keynote presentation at the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention on March 16. His presentation, adapted from his book, "The Agriculture Manifesto: Ten Key Drivers that Will Shape Agriculture in the Next Decade," highlighted the forces that will drive the future of agriculture.

Rob Saik Speaks At Midwest Poultry Federation Convention In St Paul

Rob Saik, the founder of the Agri-Trend Group, speaks about the future of agriculture at the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention. | Austin Alonzo

1. Non-science movement

The most dangerous is the growing strength of the non-science movement. Saik said the status of science in public education, along with public trust in science and scientists, is eroding. This is problematic in the food sector because popular belief in non-scientific ideas, or rejection of science, is shaping consumer preferences.

In the poultry industry, non-science is reflected in the still prevalent beliefs that farmers use hormones, steroids or antibiotics to plump up chickens. These beliefs translated into the antibiotic-free and slow-growing movements that are shaping the future of the broiler industry.

The most concerning part of this trend, he argued, is the non-GMO movement. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are the third largest health concern for US food consumers behind Salmonella and E. coli. Food paranoia, fueled by both marketers and activists, is conditioning first world consumers to believe that GMOs are dangerous. This is frightening because without GMO crops – and on a broader scale genetic engineering – that produce more food using less resources, humanity will face serious challenges going forward.

2. Bio-Synthesis advances

On the other side of the non-science coin lies the great potential represented by bioengineering. Modern science unleashed the potential to both understand the genetic code of plants and animals and use that knowledge to shape more productive plants and animals in the future. If consumer sentiment doesn’t prevent its deployment, genetic engineering will be a key positive force in the future.

3. Market segmentation

Segmentation, as Saik described it, is the concept that farmers can market directly to specific segments of the market. Just as Amazon, and other online retailers, cut the middleman out of commerce by connecting the supplier directly to the consumer, agriculture can potentially containerize certain products and send them directly to interested consumers in bulk. Beyond the convenience factor, market segmentation can potentially increase sustainability of farming operations and transparency in the food supply chain.

4. Sensor technology

Another technological advancement playing a role in agriculture’s future is the rapid development of sensor technology and the spreading reach of the internet. In agriculture, the so-called internet of things – the increasing connectivity of everyday objects to the internet – promises to unleash a torrent of data farmers can use to better understand the performance of their crops and better utilize their resources.

In the future, farmers will be able to access sensors attached directly to plants and animals, drones flying overhead and satellites orbiting the earth to analyze the performance of their crops and modify their activities accordingly. This will contribute to a more productive industry using less of the earth’s finite resources.

5. 3-D printing

Saik said the technology brings multiple applications to the farm. A 3-D printer on a farm means never needing to wait on a replacement part to be shipped to the site. Instead, a replacement part can be printed then and there and popped into place, reducing downtime and extending the life of existing equipment.

The technology can also be used to “print” food. There are already printers out there using raw materials to create edible products. He pointed to a hospital in Holland using 3-D printers to make food specially crafted to each patient’s unique nutritional needs. One day, a more sophisticated version of the technology could even use plants to print meat substitutes.

6. Robotics

Already a force in egg farming and a more potent force in poultry processing, robots and other autonomous technologies will continue to grow in importance on farms. Saik said automation can affect every sector of agriculture. Robots developed for dirty, dangerous or dull work will become more common on farms and a more significant part of the farm labor pool.

Artificial intelligence’s rapid development will contribute to the rise of the farming robot. Already, autonomous and connected vehicle technology is available for tractor, and other farm equipment, automation and even remote control via smartphone app.

7. Water retention

According to Saik, water retention is the most important metric of sustainability ahead of soil health and greenhouse gas balance. Climate change and increasing population continue to exert pressure on the world’s fresh water supply. Sensor technology and increased utilization of data will help farmers be more deliberate with watering. Genetic engineering will develop more water efficient crops.

8. Precision agriculture

Aided by sensors and data analytics, precision agriculture will allow farmers to feed animals precisely what they need and apply exact amounts of water, fertilizer and attention to their crops. If executed properly, precision agriculture will drive up feed conversion and resource efficiency.

9. Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence will apply to robotics, but will also aid in data analysis and data visualization. Saik identified augmented reality as a great area of opportunity for agriculture. When applied to viewers – like Google’s Glass or Microsoft’s HoloLens – augmented or mixed reality will allow farmers to visualize key metrics like weather, soil moisture and crop health in augmented reality, and apply that knowledge immediately.

10. Data analysis

Data lies at the crux of all the aforementioned technologies. The collection of soil data through sensors, the observation of crops from overhead or orbit and revelations from genetic code can only be truly understood and utilized through data analytics. Computers will continue to improve and artificial intelligence-aided algorithms will make great strides in data analytics. Advanced analysis will enable more efficient farming, giving humanity the opportunity to do more with less.

The technology is out there, Saik said, and the cost continues to drop. The expense is not much higher than conventional farming, and allows incredible potential dividends.

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