Following a decade with the introduction of societal shifters like the smart phone and rapid expansion of social media, 2020 could be the starting block for the fastest technological race in agricultural history. Combining big data with cutting edge science, artificial intelligence and cloud connected technology has the potential revolutionize farming in ways only dreamed up in movies. We asked three farm futurists for their predictions for the next decade.
More data, more insights and more technology is going to drive agronomic advancement forward in the next decade. New genetic discoveries, coupled with today’s computing power, stands to revolutionize the speed of innovation. We broke the mega trends down to five key categories. Here are the mega trends for advanced agronomics:
CRISPR Gene Editing
The idea behind CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered 1987 but has but it’s been in the last five years that real advances in the gene editing technology have started to emerge. By exploiting the immune systems of bacteria to edit or cut and replace sequences of DNA it’s allowing genetic alterations to happen faster and for less cost. The revolutionary system has already been used to create mushrooms that don’t brown easily and may one day protect plants from drought, diseases or insects while helping humans fight cancer or eliminate genetic diseases.
“This gene editing technology is what farmers have been doing thousands of years only it speeds up the process exponentially,” says Jack Uldrich, agricultural futurist.
Uldrich points to a recent discovery at the University of Illinois where researchers were able to hack the genetic code of plants to make photosynthesis more efficient. The discovery showed a 40% improvement yields has the potential to work in many different food plants. The scientists think they could see yields boosted by up to 70% by mid-century using this one technique alone.
In the last decade scientists have completed sequencing many of the world’s most important food genomes. That coupled with advances in genetic sciences is set to see a surge in new plant and animal traits.
In 2018 a Benson Hill Biosystems announced a partnership with a major seed company to roll out a corn genetic trait for sunlight efficiency. They hope to submit it to government agencies for approval in 2021.
Another research group, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service announced in late 2019 they may be able to double the yield potential of sorghum. The scientists found a set of genes that control hormone production and ultimately influence the number of flowers or seeds produced per plant. The team believes it can be manipulated to not only double sorghum yields but other crops, like corn and rice, that have similar genes.
From the Terminator to the Jetsons, robots have captured our imagination and desire for a reliable, affordable, autonomous workforce. The evolution of inexpensive sensors, improved GPS and self-learning machinery is exploding out of labs and garages.
“Some of these robotics today are big, clunky and expensive,” says Uldrich. “I think what we're going to see in the next decade is the price come down and robotic technology get a lot smarter because of sensor technology, artificial intelligence and 5G connectivity.”
Nowhere are robotics more evident than in America’s dairy parlors. A recent study by Wintergreen Research says by mid-decade milking robots will be a $30 billion dollar business and five times larger than 2018.
“What's really interesting is that the return on investment is relatively quick at just three to four years,” says Uldrich. “What robots are actually going to do is make the job of farming and dairy farming more attractive to the younger generation because they can get to their kid’s football games or volleyball games and know the technology is going to milk better, faster, more efficiently.”
Robots aren’t just for dairies. Field robots that weed, spray pests or harvest autonomously are beginning to emerge. Harvesters for strawberries, apples and vegetables are already in fields. Autonomous weeding machines can help reduce input costs by eliminating the need for chemicals or labor. Analysts expect the outdoor robotic market to soon overtake indoor robots in size and value.
Innovation won’t always come in the form of new chemistry. The ability of the biological world to meet the challenges of modern agriculture is a growing and emerging option for pest control and nutrient management. Born in the demands of organic agriculture, biological solutions are now spilling onto conventional fields at a rapid pace.
“The microbiome and our ability to suddenly began using bacteria in a radically new way is exciting,” Uldrich says. “We’re finding ways to increase yields and pull nitrogen out of the air or the ground so that we don't have to pay people for those materials for the future.”
A report put out by the American Academy of Microbiology, found that agricultural microbial solutions can increase productivity by up to 20% in some crops. The scientists also believe that its possible microbes may be able reduce pesticide and fertilizer requirements by 20% in a span of 20 years.
Meet our Experts
Dr. Lowell Catlett, Ph.D. is a former Regents Professor in Agricultural Economics and the Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University. He retired in 2015 and spends time speaking about the future from an agricultural perspective.
Jack Uldrich is a popular author and speaker around the country. One of his core presentation focuses on the future of farming, deciphering trends and challenging his audiences to survive and thrive in an era of unparalleled change. In 2012, he published a book on the trends to watch in 2020.
For the past 25 years Jim Carroll has spent his time focusing on the future from a global stage. He’s a speaker and a leading trends and transformation expert. He has shared his insights with some of the world’s largest companies and leaders regarding the future and how to manage during times of uncertainty.