The Future of Food and Agriculture
On the eve of his keynote talk at the International Food Exhibition in London, Hamish Renton, Managing Director of HRA Global looks upstream from the food industry into the agriculture space and reflects on the future of food and agriculture — and what we can expect over the coming decade.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION
Technology breakthroughs have a long history of changing and improving agriculture. For instance, when Berkshire farmer Jethro Tull invented the Seed Drill, he heralded the advent of mechanisation. This was followed by the huge advances made through the introduction of hybridisation and chemical pest management. More recent developments have been in biologicals, biotech transformation and traits, precision ag, and data analytics. Each significant shift has captivated the industry’s focus and, in effect, defined an era in agriculture.
Whilst there are always two sides to any coin, I feel that collectively, these simultaneous breakthroughs are ushering in an unprecedented, exciting time for the future of food and agriculture.
When I think about the next five to ten years in our industry, there are five technology shifts I believe will have major, positive impacts. I’ll outline what’s currently happening with each of these breakthroughs—and why it matters for the future.
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THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: WHAT’S HAPPENING IN DATA INTEGRATION, DATA ANALYTICS AND DIGITISATION?
Just look at the wealth of data generated on farms. It’s coming from tractors, planters, combines, soil testing, yield monitors, remote sensing, variable rate applications, and more. Then look at the vast amounts of data generated through supermarket sales operations, or the marketing algorithms of online food platforms. The breakthrough that’s underway now is that all this data—which has been in separate siloes—is coming together.
In the past, for instance, there was EPOS till roll data, stock holding data, production line data, chemical data, seed data, lending data and so on, but never the twain shall meet.
With new technology platforms, multiple layers of data from different sources can be integrated and used to fuel analytics that produce valuable (often surprising) recommendations. These data-driven insights are helping producers and companies be better in countless ways—more productive, more profitable, more socially resonant, and more environmentally beneficial. Our experience in successfully certifying as a BCorp, forced us to consider taking data from all over our business and integrating it to create a holistic view to publish our impact report each month.
WHY DATA INTEGRATION, DATA ANALYTICS AND DIGITISATION MATTERS
Clearly, there’s a great deal of interdependence between data integration and data analytics. The next big leap will be true digitization across every facet of the food and agricultural sector. Digitisation is when we tap data to provide personalized choices and recommendations. Think about the consumer experiences we have in our personal lives, whether shopping in our favourite stores or online.
Our past and real-time behaviour and interests drive which items we’re presented with and how they’re delivered.
Rural access to broadband has been a limiting factor in the UK and EU that’s slowed digitisation in agriculture, but that’s changing with satellite and 5G.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: WHAT’S HAPPENING IN ELECTRIFICATION, MACHINE LEARNING AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)?
Auto guidance/autosteering is widely adopted. Enabled by this, robotics and smaller types of electric-powered equipment are expected to become increasingly important in production agriculture. This is possible because of seismic advances in the capacity and capability of computer chips that can perform computations on huge volumes of information in a matter of milliseconds.
For instance, with each field pass, a small, unmanned robot tasked with selectively applying herbicides gets more intelligent, drawing not only from field data but from external data, too. Or robotic crawlers in the dairy tech space asses the internal state of milk vats and tanks on farm to create an intelligent diagnostic map that optimises the preventative maintenance plan.
WHY ELECTRIFICATION, MACHINE LEARNING AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) MATTERS
Many aspects of agriculture are labour intensive, and the shortage (and limitations) of human labour is helping drive these breakthroughs.
Producers are having a difficult time finding and hiring the people needed for thinning and weeding and for harvesting fruit and vegetable crops. Thinning and weeding are activities that robots are exceptionally good at doing, and robotic harvesting is advancing rapidly, with increasingly sophisticated ability to not only detect, reach and pluck the crop, but to determine if it’s ripe and ready for harvest.
Small and mid-sized equipment has other advantage: it’s lighter than conventional equipment, reducing soil compaction, can be deployed into teams of multiple units, and is suited to the diverse soil conditions found across the UK and EU.
In addition to practical labour and environmental implications, these breakthroughs empower producers in more profound ways. Insights can now be gleaned—and acted upon—in fields, in the moment.
As these technologies take hold, producers will be managers of operations, not operators of machinery.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: WHAT’S HAPPENING IN GENETIC MODIFICATION
Genetic modification is already underway—and is accelerating to new levels because of recent advancements in gene editing, trans genes, RNA interference (RNAi), and messenger RNA (mRNA). Consumers are now more aware of how these technologies can be beneficial for instance the development of the COVID vaccine in record time using mRNA technology.
In the early years of genetic modification, the industry tended to emphasize production benefits such as scale, cost, or yields —which left consumers cold. That’s changed. Now, a number of gene-edited breakthroughs on the market have demonstrable benefits for consumers and producers alike: heart-healthy oils (high oleic soybeans), more nutrition-rich produce (high GABA tomatoes), animals with less need for antibiotics (pigs protected from PRRS) and weed-resistant crops that need fewer chemicals (SU canola).
The regulatory framework creates an uneven playing field though. Within America, gene editing still has a long runway because the USDA views it on a par with conventional breeding techniques and therefore doesn’t impose additional regulations on it. That’s not the case in Europe. Regulations are still being decided in other key agricultural regions of the world.
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Breakthroughs in trans genes are equally promising. One of the first FDA-approved food applications was a transgenic Atlantic salmon with one gene from the wild chinook salmon that enables the transformed Atlantic salmon to grow much faster. This advancement can help meet the rising demand for fish protein without diminishing stocks in the wild—and signals promise for future transgenic products. With consumer concern about overfishing of wild fish stocks rising and the current wave of food inflation, this technology has huge potential to meet shopper needs.
WHY GENETIC MODIFICATION MATTERS
Today’s consumers are sophisticated, informed, and vocal about their preferences. Genetic modifications deployed intelligently have the potential over the long term deliver exactly the kind of food products they desire, with safety and qualitative benefits that matter to them: health, taste, and texture. However, with lingering negative consumer perceptions there is work to do on educating consumers. This is not only around setting out the robust regulatory framework around gene editing and genetic modification that is in place; but also, the frankly stark choices and trade-offs we face as we seek to affordably feed our population, nurture the environment, and create a sustainable food chain.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: WHAT’S HAPPENING IN ALTERNATE PROTEINS?
The alternate protein market is just getting started. Right now, most people are familiar with plant-based burger replacements. What’s coming is a swell of interesting, new products like veggie-meat hybrid foods, plant-based egg substitutes, innovative and surprising plant milks (Hello, potato milk!), tissue-cultured meat and fish products, and more. Pea, fava bean, cashew look to be among the early runners in this new world of plant protein.
WHY ALTERNATE PROTEINS MATTERS
There’s no question that demand for protein is on the rise as the global population increases, and particularly, as the middle class expands in countries like China and India. Everyone agrees the population is expanding; the only question is whether it will reach 9.5 billion or 10 billion by 2050. It will be challenging, if not impossible, to meet that demand with animal agriculture alone. Beyond the driver of population growth, there is a growing body of “flexitarians” who are interested in plant-based and tissue-cultured options to animal protein.
Will these alternate proteins displace or replace animal protein?
No, I believe they’ll take a share of a growing market for protein. Fundamentally, there is more than enough demand for both animal protein and alternate proteins.
Right now, the cost of meat alternatives is still too high for many consumers and the products themselves are not a nutritional match for animal protein. I’m confident going forward that technological developments and increased scale will help reduce cost and that we’ll also see improvement in the taste, texture, and amino acid completeness of alternate proteins.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: WHAT’S HAPPENING IN NEXT-GENERATION BIOLOGICALS
Biologicals for crop protection and crop enhancement have been around for a long time – they date back to Lady Balfour in Second World War and the start of the Soil Association. Of course, biological are the only products accepted for organic production. Historically, however, they’ve been somewhat less effective than synthetic products. Therefore, while biologicals have been useful, they’ve posed certain limitations and challenges.
Next-gen biologicals refer to newly developed biocontrols for pest management and newly developed biostimulants for plant and soil health, fertilizer, and water use efficiency, and more. New discovery and optimization techniques are dramatically improving the performance of biologicals, which I believe will put the efficacy of newer products on par with synthetics.
WHY NEXT-GENERATION BIOLOGICALS MATTERS
Biocontrols and biostimulants are already prevalent in production agriculture – biocontrols particularly in horticultural crops and biostimulants in row crops.
Within the US for example, the regulatory approval path for biologicals is much shorter and less onerous than for synthetics. As biologicals increasingly improve in efficacy, this will markedly alter the landscape for both crop protection and crop enhancement.
THE FUTURE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE: SUMMARY AND IMPLICATIONS
These five technology breakthroughs are already reshaping food and agriculture, and I expect continued, significant impacts across the value chain from agricultural inputs at one end, through food processing and manufacturing right down to food distribution at the other.
I’d encourage you to consider how each of these shifts might align with or impact your business goals and whether your strategy needs to shift as a result – if it does, then we can help.
It will also be important to consider these innovations through a consumer lens, as today’s consumers expect transparency and are vocal about their preferences. Our research services can help you unpick shopper preferences and surface actionable insights.
Now is also the time to consider your own capabilities, investments, and strategies. However advanced, these shifts are generally still in their formative stages, and there’s tremendous opportunity for stakeholders to secure leadership or to carve out a strong niche and we are ideally placed to help you with that journey into the future of food and agriculture.
A message from Hamish Renton, Managing Director at HRA Global
At HRA Global, we’ve helped food, drink and agriculture organisations identify trends and develop strategies for succeeding in changing environments for more than a decade. Through our deep business knowledge and broad network of food, drink, and agriculture experts, we can help you anticipate and plan for opportunities. To discuss or learn more about any of the breakthroughs I’ve touched on in this article, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My HRA Global team, our partners at The Context Network and I stand ready to help.
About The Context Network
HRA Global is in a strategic alliance with The Context Network, the leading premier tier strategy and management consultancy in the broad agriculture space. See www.contextnet.com for details. Together we offer full ‘field to fork’ support across nine practices and five continents. With special focus across the UK, EU, US and Latin America and diverse expertise in agricultural sustainability, inputs, technology, and development, we are perfectly placed to be your partner as you navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead. For further details on The Context Network please contact Jeffrey at email@example.com.