With the world’s population set to reach nearly 10bn by 2050, we are already looking to technology to help ensure future food production is more efficient, environmentally friendly and affordable.
The future will be about doing more with less, thanks to precision farming, with new diagnostics and sensor technologies that will improve decision support, ensuring just the right amount of input from water, fertiliser, veterinary medicines and crop protection products.
As a result, we’ll see enhanced crop quality and animal welfare, improved yields and better care for the environment.
GPS controlled tractor steering and optimised route planning will minimise soil erosion and compaction while improving crop yields. And while we have yet to see mainstream use of autonomous self-driving tractors, the first hands-free crop has already been grown in a project that was part-funded by Innovate UK. Harper-Adams University and Precision Decisions’ Hands Free Hectare project to plant, tend and harvest a crop using only autonomous vehicles and drones was completed in 2017.
Their method returned a yield of 4.5 tonnes of spring barley, demonstrating that an entire crop can grow from start to finish without people ever needing to go into the field to directly work the land. The project is believed to be a world first.
Increased automation and robotics will help ensure that the UK can continue to produce high-value horticultural crops in future, with robotic harvesting of fruits and vegetables replacing manual harvesting. But – improvements in efficiency aside – with land at a premium, how will we grow enough food for our booming world population? One solution is vertical farming.
Going up in the world
In vertical farming, crops are grown in a controlled environment, where they receive just the right amount of heat, light, water and nutrients, and can be harvested when they are in peak condition.
The use of LED lighting can also extend the growing season and variety of crops that can be grown, even allowing plant growth 24/7 for some leafy salad crops and herbs.
Vertical farming can also extend food production into new environments, like urban areas that have relatively confined spaces. With hydroponics, vertical farmers don’t need any soil for their crops, which are cultivated in water supplemented with nutrients.
The process uses much less water than traditional farming, and the water can be recycled many times once the hydroponic system has been established.
Integrating hydroponic growing techniques with vertical farming practices can increase crop yields by up to 500% per unit land area compared to more traditional farming, helping to drive efficiency and keep pace with the demands of population growth, while ensuring that food remains affordable.
Livestock farmers are already benefiting from technology that can help them optimise cattle’s diet and monitor fertility and calving activity remotely, so that both beef and dairy herds will be healthier and more productive, and mortality rates during calving could be reduced by up to 80 per cent.
While there’s already a huge demand in emerging economies for increased meat and dairy production, in developed economies like Europe and North America there is interest in alternative protein sources.
While plant-based proteins are in demand, innovations in food processing are needed to widen the appeal to more traditional meat-eaters, to satisfy consumers by delivering the same eating qualities as meat.
The incorporation of legumes in meat could be replaced with fully plant-based meat-equivalent products like those created by UK company Moving Mountains, with enhanced nutrition and great taste and texture.
But possibly the most controversial and – for many people – least palatable development in alternative protein sources could be the cultivation of insects for use in animal or fish feed, or even for use in human food products.
Around 2bn people regularly eat insects as part of their diet. They’re a highly sustainable food source and, with some insects as much as 80% protein, an ideal protein source. Insects are cheaper, easier and greener to cultivate than livestock, and can be grown quickly in only a little space.
Importantly, insect farming can also help provide livelihood opportunities for people in developing countries.
Here in the UK, enterprising companies like Crunchy Critters and Eat Grub produce a variety of insect-based snacks and main meal protein options, and can offer would-be entomophagists a surprising range of recipes, from Curried Tempura Grasshoppers and Critter Burgers to Chocolate Cherry Cricket Brownies.
But for those who can’t quite get used to the idea of frying up grubs, perhaps a more palatable way to get your insect protein is to whip a little cricket powder into your morning smoothie.
The food of the future could help us deal with specific health conditions, too. Scientific advances such as gene editing will help to provide new crops that meet specific demands for allergen-free products, like gluten-free wheat, while crops with more omega-3 enriched oils will have cardiovascular benefits.
Other opportunities for these new gene editing technologies could be to remove allergens from nuts, or to change the characteristics of cereal crops to help manage diet-related diseases like Type-2 diabetes through low glycaemic-index foods.
Better farming everywhere
With new systems in non-traditional locations, such as cities, or remote and extreme environments, the future will see smarter farming everywhere.
Integrated production of fish and salad crops through aquaponics will exploit synergies between the nutrient requirements of crops that can be met through the waste streams from fish farming.
The use of LED lights is becoming ever-more sophisticated. These can be tailored to specific light requirements of plants to provide a continual and ‘just-in-time’ harvest of high quality fruits and vegetables for local inner city communities or restaurants.
These concepts can be extended to producing crops year-round in closed and contained production facilities, which could have important applications in remote communities around the world – for example Inuit in Canada, which is often closed off from supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables in winter, or for use in very harsh, arid environments in developing countries.
In the future, technology and new farming techniques will help ensure that there is more food for everyone, and that the food we grow is more affordable, sustainable and better for us than ever before.
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