The future of farming?

If you want to try a bit of crystal ball-gazing, try to imagine the food of the future. Though our current food systems appear to be at the perfect point of combining technology, chemistry, biology, marketing, logistics, and manufacturing, it’s hard to predict what will happen from here.

No-one can predict how we’re going to feed ourselves. The only sure bet is that with the global population projected to rise from seven billion to nine billion in the next 30 years, we are going to need a lot of food.

A worldwide shortage of productive land is going to place pressures and obstacles on our ability to grow and trade food. It’s likely that a continued increase in population will lead to diminishing available land for agriculture as urban sprawl continues to soak up productive land.

The UN predicts that worldwide urbanisation will cause the loss of up to 3.3 million hectares of prime agricultural land a year between 2000 and 2030.

There will be increased demand for real estate for houses, and for the lumber to build them, as well as infrastructure such as shopping malls, roads, airports, schools, and hospitals. This trend would slow down if everyone moved into apartments, but it’s unlikely to stop it.

Having less land available may mean we will see massive innovation, with more productive plant species being selectively grown, more robust systems to reduce food waste, and crops grown in hothouses on top of apartment blocks.

An interesting vision is the potential for enormous worm and compost farms that gobble up our cities’ green waste and produce zero organic waste, while creating incredibly productive soil mediums. Surely there’s an angle there?

However, there is also the battle of the climate, which is likely to be particularly tough on people living near the equator. Droughts and floods are likely to wreak havoc with the huge areas of land that are cropped globally. The ability for the world to equally share food will become increasingly problematic.

This might sound like a stretch, but a changing climate could mean a few positives. Perhaps the vast permafrost regions of Siberia could become warm enough to grow crops; there could be floating glasshouses out at sea; or we could head underground to grow hydroponically.

If you think food costs are high now, the sad fact is that they are only going to get more expensive, as the costs of seed, fertiliser, labour, fuel, compliance and regulatory costs, and the big one – land costs – are all only going up.

Or will we see smart automation systems reducing labour, and hybridised plant genetics become “open source” and readily shared for free?

Maybe there will be less need for fuel as large drones automatically seed the ground in place of tractors? Perhaps the government will relax the rules and compliance to allow smaller producers to enter the market with locally harvested seafoods, wild game and foraged produce?

Water is likely to be a commodity that gets ever more fraught with ownership rights. Water issues will probably lead to vast areas that currently rely on irrigation during the summer months, becoming unviable for agriculture use. That is, unless we find a balance between riverbeds not degrading and running dry, while managing pasture and animal health. Perhaps we could use smart AI systems to measure soil moisture and apply water just as it is required by the big pivot systems.

Farming will continue, but tomorrow’s farms will be much bigger. Farm ownership is likely to move from local families to huge corporations.

I suspect sooner rather than later we will see farms taken over by enormous, listed companies, many based offshore, horizontally and vertically integrated to own the entire food system.

It will be a death stroke for rural communities, and the rural schools, taverns, rugby teams, and eventually small towns around Aotearoa that rely on the lifeblood of the cash flow roundabout.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t. Perhaps this is where sharing knowledge, resources and government assistance will enable a more competitive and sustainable approach to producing food than we could have imagined, and we will all be better off for it.

The future is as dark and sombre, or as positive and visionary, as we dare to make it. The one thing we can all be certain of is that change is inevitable.