May 31, 2017Trends shaping the future of farming
To help growers keep pace with a changing world, Syngenta and other experts who study food and farming trends are taking a close look at what life on the farm will look like mid-century. Below are some of the trends predicted to have the largest impact on U.S. growers.
Food demand increases
The two big drivers of food demand – population and income – are on the rise. The world’s population is expected to reach 9.1 billion people in 2050, up from 7.4 billion in 2016. Farmers globally must increase food production 70 percent, compared to 2007 levels, to meet the needs of the larger population, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Also driving food demand is an increase in global income levels, especially those in developing countries. As a result, these countries will be able to expand diets with more protein. “As incomes rise, consumer preference moves from wheat and grains to legumes, and then to meat, including chicken, pork and beef,” says David Widmar, Purdue University ag economist.
A different trend is emerging in highly developed countries. “The focus on starch-based crops, like corn, will shift to more plant-based proteins, like soybeans and other legumes,” said Derek Norman, head of corporate venture capital at Syngenta Ventures, which helps support other companies that share its vision of producing more crops with fewer resources. The potato, another starch-based crop, is well suited for this shift because it also provides plant-based protein.
The 2012 ag census revealed a big shift in farmer ages that holds major implications for the future, said Widmar. For the first time, growers who are older than 65 outnumber farmers who are younger than 45. The difference is substantial, with 2.1 older growers for every farmer younger than 45.
When older growers exit the business, there are fewer younger growers to replace them. As a result, farm consolidation will be significant and quick, said Widmar. The consolidation will change farm dynamics to larger, more managerial complexities. Farming will go “from a one-man show to something resembling a medium- to large-size business,” he said. “As a farmer, it will be very complicated, with a mix of multigenerational family members and hired employees.”
“By 2050, there will be gene-edited crops, which will trigger more crop varieties being available and grown,” Norman said. The technology allows scientists to precisely edit genes in DNA with the goal of creating a better crop variety. In the future, gene editing should enable farmers to select specific crop varieties that have features like resistance to different diseases, drought tolerance or more desirable oil content.
Norman also expects a boom in technologies to help growers monitor field conditions more accurately and efficiently. For example, the Israeli company Phytech, a portfolio company of Syngenta Ventures, has developed a monitoring system that features continuous plant-growth sensors, soil-moisture sensors and a microclimate unit that growers can access via mobile devices and computers for immediate action, if needed.
Management programs, like AgriEdge Excelsior from Syngenta, are already helping growers understand the data they are receiving through precision ag technologies. Norman predicts widespread adoption of precision technology that reaches down to the plant level. Blue River Technology, another Syngenta collaborator, has developed a precision-smart implement that does just that. Called the LettuceBot, the implement uses cameras, processors, computers and sprayers to assess each lettuce plant and determine which ones to thin out.
While predictions can shed light on the future, 2050 is still 33 years away. “A whole new generation of growers, who are not yet born, will be farming midcentury, and much will happen between now and then,” Norman said. “But if the past is a clue to the future, U.S. growers will continue to seek better ways to produce crops by embracing innovation.”