Earth First

What Will We See in Farms of the Future?

With agriculture accounting for almost one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of our food system are an increasing cause for concern. And while there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to solve our agricultural issues, farms in the future may look very different than they do today.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) predicts that to feed a global population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050, the world needs to produce 56% more food than it produced in 2010.1 Simultaneously, there is pressure for food and agricultural sectors to reduce their carbon emissions, as they currently account for 21-37% of global emissions.2 Because of these compounding pressures on our food systems, some claim we’re reaching a breaking point.3 

More food on less land

Currently, approximately 50% of the world’s fertile land is used for agriculture. One key concern is how farms of the future can produce more food while also limiting agricultural land use. If agricultural production continues to increase without limiting land use, we could see a number of negative environmental impacts as a result:

  1. Increased emissions from land use change
    Land use change (LUC) refers to the alteration of the Earth’s surface by humans. LUC has affected almost a third of the Earth’s land since 1960, and a major reason for this is the conversion of land for agricultural use. The process of land use conversion, from land that is high in biomass to land lower in biomass, causes carbon to be released into the atmosphere. This is because carbon that is locked into trees, plants and soil in the land is released into the atmosphere during the conversion process. This turns carbon sinks such as forests and peatlands into carbon sources instead of carbon sinks.4 
  2. Less land for restoring biodiversity
    Restoring biodiversity is now a high priority for many governments around the world. Currently, the rate of extinction is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years.5 While several factors are at play, one of the key reasons for biodiversity loss is the change in how we use our land and sea. Because of this, increasing conventional agricultural land to maintain food security is not considered a sustainable means to protect biodiversity.

To combat this, governments, corporations, academics, entrepreneurs, and food producers have put forth innovative solutions, from small-scale changes in farming practices to large-scale changes that could impact entire food supply chains. There are two broad-based solutions to the food systems hurdle we are facing: nature-based solutions and technologically driven solutions.

Nature-based solutions focus on restoring the natural functioning of ecosystems (like soils and forests) to improve agricultural productivity and mitigate climate change. Technology-based solutions, on the other hand, leverage newer technologies and food science to maximise productivity on farms and develop less environmentally impactful options, like plant-based or cultured meats in laboratories.

Nature vs technology

In recent years, regenerative agriculture has become a widely referenced nature-based solution to reduce or even reverse agriculture’s impact on climate change. Regenerative farming practices aim to create sustainable, nature-positive farming systems by applying ecological principles and taking inspiration from indigenous knowledge that works to restore land through farming. These practices can include reintroducing diverse plant varieties into farmland, no-till farming, and using natural fertilisers and pesticides.

Proponents believe this is crucial to improve soil health and the soil’s ability to absorb carbon and produce more nutritious crops. Regenerative advocates also highlight that this can lead to increased crop yields in the longer term. UK-based biological farmer Tim Parton claims he has saved £90,000 a year on pesticides compared to ten years ago since he began to farm regeneratively.6

While many are pushing for a nature-based approach to farming, regenerative agriculture is not without critique. A primary argument against regenerative agriculture is it can be inefficient - since it could take up more land, while not guaranteeing a certain amount of quality crop yield. Critics also doubt the claim that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon at large scales and slow the rate of climate change, with some studies pointing to only modest improvements towards reducing agriculture's impact on climate change.7,8

Finally, the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ has no official scientific or legal definition, leading to some ambiguity about the processes involved. Not only does this create challenges for farmers and researchers trying to understand these principles, it could also lead to consumer confusion, and potential greenwashing from corporations.9

Discover more about whether big companies can really "go regenerative"

To solve the competing issues of limited land and a growing population, some are calling for integrating technology into farming. Moving agriculture indoors into vertical farms, also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and producing lab-grown meat are examples of practices that could reduce land use and weather-related risks. When environmental factors are controlled, the predictability of yields increases, ensuring a certain level of food security.10 Although the nutritional value of CEA crops and plant-based meats is controversial, producers claim that controlled environments enable them to optimise for nutrition.

Despite some of the more polarising debates, many in the industry believe that future farming systems will likely integrate both nature-based and tech-based solutions. According to the TABLE report, which surveyed individuals working within agri-food, there is no ‘ideal scale’ for future food systems. The report also indicates that the ‘ideal' ratio of natural versus high-tech solutions within farming systems will depend on the region and the dietary needs of local populations.10 In short, our future food systems must be adaptable - both in scale and practice.

Common goals for the future of farming

While future farming systems must be adapted to local contexts, experts agree that there are certain requirements that the agriculture industry should aim for:

  1. Food security
    Must be able to uphold food security for a growing population. This encompasses a fair system of distribution that ensures food is accessible for all.

  2. Balanced nutrition
    Must produce nutritious food and ensure that there is a diversity of crops and livestock available to help global populations maintain a balanced diet.

  3. Safeguard the livelihood of food producers
    A shift in farming and the type of food produced will affect food producers and factory workers. A fair farming system must offer a just transition to those working on farms or in commercial meat packing facilities.

  4. Align with climate policies and the goal of reaching net zero
    An ideal farming system should significantly reduce the sector’s carbon footprint, including direct emissions created during crop production and livestock farming and indirect emissions generated during transportation, packaging and storage.

  5. Adaptable to different regions
    Local regulatory frameworks and farm ownership structures are important determinants of farm productivity.11 An effective model should account for these factors and be adaptable to different regulations and ownership structures.

  6. Protect nature and biodiversity
    Conventional farming systems have contributed to biodiversity loss, resulting in the decline of species and the pollution of surrounding habitats.12 The future of farming must be able to coexist with and even contribute to the restoration of natural ecosystems.

Given the many, sometimes conflicting requirements that future farms must satisfy, it may be a herculean challenge to develop any single model for farming to meet all criteria at once. As such, future farms will likely incorporate a mixed system, and the type of farming system implemented will depend largely on the local circumstances. Factors such as terroir, farm size, socio-political circumstances and local nutritional needs and food preferences are all key to this decision.

Promising solutions for the future

There are many possible solutions to solve issues facing our food systems, but there are a few promising technologies and practices touted to be key for future farms.

Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture leverages advanced technology to help farmers optimise productivity and minimise risks by monitoring factors such as soil health, crop productivity, and livestock wellness. A combination of drone and GPS technologies, agribots, and smart data is used, enabling producers to take a ‘per plant and per animal approach’ to farming.

An example is Chrysalabs, which has developed a probe that can offer real-time soil health and soil nutrient data to producers and agronomists. The use of ‘agribots’ is also increasingly popular. Small Robot Company uses agricultural robots to provide producers with ‘per plant’ data so that producers can react with more targeted nutrient and pest-management approaches. Surveillance drones can be used to map out crop yield and soil quality. This informs producers of the most suitable crops to grow according to soil quality, as well as the precise inputs needed to maximise yield.

Automated farming

Automation significantly improves farm productivity while conserving resources, costs and preventing unnecessary food waste. Automation can also significantly improve labour efficiency - which is especially necessary considering the global labour shortages on farms.13

Harv, a robot harvester developed by Harvest CROO Robotics, is programmed to do the work of 30 people. Though some may argue this could displace jobs for farmworkers, farm owners such as Gary Wishnatski, a third-generation strawberry farmer, claim farmworkers can be trained to become technicians instead.14 Other automated solutions include smart tractors that integrate GPS steering to detect the shortest routes across the farm. This reduces soil erosion and saves fuel costs.

Robotic weeding companies such as Ecorobotix have developed weeding robots that detect and remove weeds automatically. Robotic weeding eliminates the need for pesticides and fungicides that impact soil health and surrounding biodiversity.

Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

CEA involves growing plants indoors using LED lights and other technologies that optimise the plants’ growth environment. CEA requires significantly less land and water - up to 90% less water compared to conventional agriculture on a similar crop.15 One 2016 study found that, on average, vertical farming systems produced 13.8 times more crops than a conventional system.16 Vertical farming systems are a type of CEA. Other types include aquaponics and hydroponics. Finally, producers claim that CEA can offer produce with higher nutritional content since the environment is optimised for its growth.

As Hong Kong’s first speciality indoor farm, Common Farms leverages the city’s industrial spaces using vertical farms that can grow 10x the amount of produce as an equivalent-sized outdoor farm. Kalera, a Singapore-based indoor farm, developed proprietary farm management software to support multiple farming solutions that can be integrated into sites of different sizes. The firm leverages cloud, big data analytics and IoT (internet of things) to automate its vertical farming and data collection systems.

More plant-based alternatives

Already, plant-based meat alternatives are cropping up in supermarkets and multinational food outlets around the world. By 2029, plant-based and cultured meats are expected to account for 10% of the global meat industry.17

Advocates of alternative proteins regularly cite the significant environmental benefits of producing plant-based proteins—it can conserve water, reduce land-use, and reduce livestock-associated GHG emissions.17 According to the Good Food Institute, a transition towards plant-based protein can help deliver 14-20% of the emissions reductions needed to reach the Paris Agreement's 1.5C goal.

Regardless of consumer intention, the exponential growth of the alternative protein market shows that alternative proteins will likely be a staple protein source in future farming systems.

The global rise of Impossible Foods Inc. reflects the exponential demand for plant-based products. Impossible partnered with Burger King in 2019 to offer a ‘plant-based’ Impossible Whopper - cementing itself as a new global staple.

Lab-grown protein

With the decrease in available space for agricultural and pasture land, livestock for meat consumption is one of the major areas needing transformation. To combat this, investors and innovators are increasingly focusing on cell-based meat grown entirely in the confines of a laboratory. Not only can this save a significant amount of space and curb ethical concerns, but new life-cycle assessments have found cultivated meat to be a more efficient form of meat production that reduces both air and water pollution.18

Another promising solution to produce sustainable protein is through precision fermentation. In his book Regenesis, British journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot proposed that most future proteins should come from precision fermentation - the brewing of microbes to produce cultured proteins. He believes that uncoupling food production from natural ecosystems could free up land for ‘rewilding’, which could curb the biodiversity and extinction crisis.9,19

The end of ‘business as usual’

It’s clear that ‘business as usual’ farming is no longer an option if we are to meet future demands of a sustainable, just and secure food system. The advocated solutions are each faced with their own set of challenges. Nature-based solutions may not be able to guarantee the regular supply of crops necessary to ensure food security. Tech-based solutions may be able to reduce land use and offer a consistent food supply, but some technologies are still in their development stages and not readily available, or too costly for food producers to implement.

Instead of continuing the polarising debate about which farming systems are most effective, it's crucial to recognise that many available solutions are compatible and can be effectively integrated. Perhaps an ideal ‘farm of the future’ model does not exist at all. Instead, we should expect to see a multitude of farming systems across the globe which integrate nature and tech-based solutions according to local circumstances and terroir.

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