It’s sheer size and diversity makes it hard to pin a number on but it’s thought to be the biggest industry in the world. Of course, we’re talking about the food industry. Market researchers Plunkett estimate the value of the 2018 global food and agriculture industry at $8.7 trillion.
Food and agriculture is also arguably the single most important industry in the world. It’s a basic requirement we all need to serve every day regardless of the season or weather. And while there is still work to be done, the food and agriculture industry has made great strides in managing to provide for a growing global population. The percentage of the world’s population defined as ‘undernourished’ has, according to United Nations data, dropped from 18.6% in the early ‘90s to under 11% by 2017. Over the same period the global population has risen from 5.3 billion people to 7.7 billion.
Unfortunately, lack of food is usually more influenced by war and corruption than failings in agriculture. Given peace and time, humanity is incredibly skilled at cultivating crops and livestock even in the most inhospitable of terrains and climates. Over millennia we cultivated crops and livestock that offer far greater nutritional value, far more quickly, than the wild varieties that preceded them. Until recently this was largely achieved through managed natural selection over many years.
Over recent decades, technological developments in food science and agriculture have allowed us to exponentially increase the amount of food we are able to produce globally. Which, given the parallel pace of human population growth, has been a necessity.
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire: Environmental Damage The Price Of Feeding the World
But there has also been a significant price to pay. Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to the harmful emissions causing global warming and by far the biggest source of none CO2 emissions. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis says that ‘methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture currently make up 10-12% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions’.
And that’s not the only environmental impact from industrial-scale agriculture. Pesticides and other chemicals used pollute the soil and water and huge swathes of woodland, forest and jungle, the world’s carbon sinks, have been bulldozed to make way for farmland.
Food shortages no longer because we aren’t able to produce enough food globally. Temporary localised conditions such as droughts, fires or flooding shouldn’t, unless other factors get in the way, mean people don’t have enough to eat. Food can be brought in from elsewhere.
The challenge of feeding the world has changed from one of quantity to one of quality and sustainability. The next development of agriculture is to become more sustainable. We need to be able to produce more food in less space, using less polluting chemicals and resulting in far lower emissions.
There is certainly hope that goal is achievable. Though much work and the introduction of good and effective policy lies ahead if we are to realise that goal. Much of the ‘work’ that will help us reach the goal of sustainable agriculture relies on technology. Bio-technology, food technology and robotic and digital technology.
So what are the most exciting technology trends happening in the food and agriculture space today?
Robotics in Agriculture – ‘Agribots’
The influence of robots in agriculture is growing quickly and it’s an industry that research company Markets and Markets forecasts will reach a total value of $12.8 billion by 2022, from just $2.75 billion in 2016. A compound annual growth rate of 20.71% is expected between 2017 and 2022.
What exactly are agribots now capable of?
Farm labour alternative: in developed economies such as the UK and USA there is now a problematic shortage of agriculture labourers. Robots are picking up the slack. Robotic crop harvesting systems are becoming popular. While concerns have been voiced that solutions such as those provided by the company Harvest CROO Robotics will replace remaining human jobs in agriculture, experts argue that there is already not enough willing human labour to do these jobs.
Harvesters are being developed for specific crops. French company Pellenc has one that can pick up to 20 tonnes of grapes an hour even removing most of the leaves from bunches.
The introduction of robotics systems is changing the kind of roles demanded by modern agriculture. New roles will be more skilled, such as ‘fleet managers’ overseeing robotics systems, rather than the kind of low-skilled labour of the past.
Robots are also being developed for more intricate farm work. Agribot company Fendt has developed a robot called Xaver able to perform tasks such as planting, fertilising, thinning and weeding crops. Herbicide-resistant weeds have become a major problem that costs the agricultural sector $43 billion in the USA alone. Robots able to spray crops and then return to pick out remaining weeds, such as Blue River Technology’s See and Spray model are already on the market and improving all the time.
Increasing Yields: robotics and software are also helping farmers drive up yields by helping them make more efficient use of limited land. A company named EarthSense has developed the ‘TerraSentia’ robot. The robot moves through fields on its own and collects data on a number of different metrics. As well as reporting any problems with a particular crop, helping to limit the spread of diseases, the database being built, such as the conditions which correlate with the healthiest plants, will lead to new insights into the optimal conditions for different crops.
Gene-Edited Crops and Livestock
CRISPR gene-editing technology has made it far faster and cheaper to edit the genome of both animals and plants. The biotech means a genome can be snipped and genes taken out or altered. Gene-editing is less controversial than GMO because it only involves editing of existing DNA and not the insertion of foreign genes.
Gene editing is helping with the development of more disease and pest-resistant crops as well as offering other efficiencies such as reducing the amount of water some crops need, making them hardier in other ways or just increasing yield through either bigger or richer plants or shorter growing time. Roughly the same can be said of gene edited livestock trends.
The rearing of livestock for meat is the greatest contributor to the agricultural sector’s environmental footprint. Animals need lots of space and they also need a lot of food between the time they are born and slaughtered. There’s also the consideration that more and more people are turning away from meat on both animal welfare and environmental concerns.
Perhaps the single greatest way technology will change agriculture over the next couple of decades will be by reducing the need for livestock farming to provide us with meat. There are two main approaches here.
Plant-based faux-meat: the exhibit that attracted the most attention at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and was awarded variations on ‘best tech at CES 2019’ by several of the most prestigious tech media, was not LG’s ‘rollable’ TV. It was a veggie burger.
U.S. food tech start-up Impossible Foods presented their new plant-based faux-meat burger patty, the ‘Impossible 2.0’. The example of ‘food engineering’ was only allowed into the tech show after organisers adapted the qualification criteria. But it wowed journalists and other attendees by managing to capture the taste, texture and even smell of a beef burger despite being entirely plant-based.
As well as Impossible Foods there are a number of other start-ups in the space, some of them very well-funded. The biggest of these competitors is Beyond Meat.
Lab-grown meat: as impressively close to the taste, and other sensory feedback, of actual meat as the best examples of faux-meat are becoming, there is another approach which might be even more promising longer term. Lab-grown, ‘cultured’ or ‘clean’ meat is edging close to becoming a reality in our supermarkets. Beef, pork, chicken and seafood grown from cultured cells may well, within the next few decades, replace the farming of livestock.
The amount of money this sector is attracting is indicative of the potential seen in it. Memphis Meats raised has raised over $20 million from investors such as agricultural commodities giant Cargill and Microsoft’s Bill Gates is also an investor. Finless Foods, an earlier-stage biotech focused on ‘growing’ fish meat has raised $3.5 million. Mosa Meat and SuperMeat are other high profile start-ups in this space.
It still costs far too much to produce ‘clean meat’ – in 2018 Memphis Meats estimated the cost of the meat in one of its quarter pounder burgers at $600. And that’s the cost to the company. Taste also needs some work with lab grown meat a little dry. But the pace at which developments are being made should mean these products are both cost and taste competitive within several years.
Conclusion – Technology Will Change Food and Soon
Food is big business – the biggest business. It is inevitable that the sector sees huge investment in the technologies and biotechnologies that have the potential to make it more efficient. There is hope that business incentives are also crossing over with environmental incentives and new regulations to reduce the environmental impact of feeding the world’s growing human population. Both benefit from technological efficiencies – producing more from less.