What Farming and Food Might Look Like in the Year 2040

Looking at the world as imagined by Human Paragon, it’s difficult to tell if we should be feeling optimistic or anxious about the future. On the one hand, we can look forward to longer lifespans through nanotechnology, computers that actually think and human colonies on the moon. On the other, the dangers and implications associated with all of these are still largely unknown, and this may touch on every facet of human life.

Barring one or more of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse showing up, the world population is expected to rise to over 11 billion by the end of the century. With more people competing for space, real estate and food will become much more expensive, even in rural areas.

Achieving Optimal Efficiency

The same applies to resources of every type, including atmospheric gases (agricultural activity has a much greater impact on global warming than all forms of transport). This implies that society has to make decisions on what kind of farming benefits everyone most.

Although the agricultural sector has historically been reluctant to embrace new technologies, this is changing. Drones are now becoming more commonly appreciated, as are telemetry and improved ways of using water.

However, these kinds of incremental changes will not be enough. Other technologies that show promise include synthetic meats, marker-assisted selection – i.e. conventional cross-breeding assisted by genomic sequencing, instead of genetic engineering – and the application of data mining to agricultural productivity. For the longer term, artificial environments that will allow highly intensive plant production in deserts, drought-resistant crops with supercharged photosynthesis and robotic field tenders are all already in development.

Making Hay Out of Waste

Somewhat surprisingly, the planet as a whole produces enough food to provide every inhabitant with more than enough to eat. The problem is simply distributing it effectively, and the amount of food that’s discarded uneaten makes up part of this problem. Retailers are already applying predictive analytics to manage complex supply chains and reduce the amount of food thrown away, but consumer behavior will also also need to change.

With developing countries demanding ever more animal protein, one facet of this debate is the amount of farming land used to produce crops for animal feed. Another is the amount of produce discarded due to not meeting quality standards, which often have more to do with consumer preferences than food safety. Perhaps marginally profitable efforts to process these into salable products will one day be subsidized, but this seems unlikely in the current political climate.

Arguing About Organic Farming

The debate about the relative merits of organic or biological farming versus large-scale industrial farming polarizes opinion in a way that’s usually associated only with politics, religion and televised sports. Few people are willing to take a holistic, balanced view.

On the one hand, biological farming supporters often claim that genetic engineering and the widespread use of agricultural chemicals are going to destroy the planet if we don’t act now. Their arguments are often anecdotal and sometimes contain more than a tinge of crystals-in-the-moonlight, angels-in-the-rafters thinking.

Their opponents have their own agenda: being heavily influenced or even directly subsidized by the industrial farming sector, they’re usually equally unwilling to take a fresh look at the facts. It seems that people with extreme views simply stop learning after they’re first taught a position.

The Effects of Going Organic

With the above in mind, it’s difficult to say that one farming model is inherently “better” than the other, except when comparing their environmental impact, where organic methods are miles ahead. Let’s compare the two solely on the grounds of efficiency, which itself comprises a number of factors. In terms of hard financial numbers, industrial farming is far more profitable…but also requires much greater investment and more reliance on a complex supply chain. Particularly for the Third World, this may make organic farming more achievable.

This also leads to a second point: the amount of human labor required to grow an organic crop is much, much higher than when herbicides and other technological tools are used. However, salaries aren’t equally high all over the world, and the unemployment increased automation will cause may well make manual labor in the open air seem a lot more attractive to some.

Shrinking Farmland

Finally (but not exhaustively), there’s also the question of how efficiently either methods utilize land. Proponents of chemical-intensive farming will correctly claim that their way produces higher yields, especially compared to primitive, non-scientific farms that are only organic by default – only, it turns out that they define “land” in a very specific way. With pollution, erosion and over-farming expected to reduce the amount of prime farming land available – only 10% more arable land will become available between now and 2060 – organic agriculture’s ability to effectively utilize smaller plots with worse soil quality may become ever more significant, even in an urban context.

Each model still has its own advantages, though, in addition to those mentioned above. The future world will likely still rely on a combination, or perhaps a fusion of the two.