Forecast | Smart vs vertical farms: Future of food P4

In many ways, today’s farms are light years more advanced and complex than those from yesteryears. In the same way, today’s farmers are light years more savvy and knowledgeable than those of yesteryears.

A typical 12- to 18-hour-day for farmers nowadays, involves a very intricate range of activities, including constant inspection of crop fields and livestock; regular maintenance of farm equipment and machinery; hours of operating said equipment and machinery; managing farmhands (both temp workers and family); meetings with various farming specialists and consultants; monitoring market prices and placing orders with feed, seed, fertilizer and fuel suppliers; sales calls with crop or livestock buyers; and then planning the next day while eking out some personal time to relax. Keep in mind this is only a simplified list; it’s probably missing a lot of specialized tasks unique to the types of crops and livestock each farmer manages.

The state of farmers today is the direct result of market forces placing huge pressure on the agricultural sector to become more productive. You see, as the world population skyrocketed in the last few decades, the demand for food also skyrocketed along with it. This growth triggered the creation of more crop varieties, livestock management, as well as larger, more complex, and incredibly expensive farming machinery. These innovations, while allowing farmers to produce more food than ever before in history, also pushed many of them into heavy, bottomless debt to afford all the upgrades.

So yeah, being a modern farmer ain’t easy. They need to not only be experts in agriculture, but also keep on top of the latest trends in technology, business, and finance just to stay afloat. The modern farmer may just be the most highly skilled and versatile worker among all the professions out there. The problem is that being a farmer is about to get a whole lot tougher in the future.

From our previous discussions in this Future of Food series, we know that the world population is set to grow by another two billion people by 2040, while climate change is going to shrink the amount of land available to grow food. This means (yup, you guessed it) farmers will be facing yet another massive market push to become even more productive. We’ll talk about the grim effect this will have on the average family farm soon enough, but let’s start with the shiny new toys farmers will get to play with first!

The rise of the smart farm

Farms of the future need to become productivity machines, and technology will enable farmers to achieve just that by monitoring and measuring everything. Let’s start with the Internet of Things—a network of sensors connected to every piece of equipment, farm animal, and worker that constantly monitors their location, activity, and functionality (or even health when it comes to animals and workers). The collected data can then be used by the farm’s central command center to optimize the movement and tasks performed by every connected item.

In particular, this farm-tailored Internet of Things will be connected into the cloud, where the data can be shared with a variety of agriculture-oriented mobile services and consulting firms. On the services end, this technology can include advanced mobile apps that give farmers both real-time data about their farm's productivity and record of every action they perform during the day, helping them keep a more accurate log to plan the next day’s work. Additionally, it can also include an app that connects with weather data to suggest opportune times to seed farmland, move livestock indoors, or harvest crops.

On the consulting end, specialist firms can help larger farms analyze the collected data to generate higher-level insights. This help can include monitoring the real-time health status of every individual farm animal and programming the farm’s auto-feeders to deliver the exact nutritional food mix to keep these animals happy, healthy and productive. What’s more, the firms can also determine the farm’s seasonal soil composition from the data and then suggest various new superfood and synthetic biology (synbio) crops to plant, based on the optimal prices forecasted in the markets. In the extreme, options to remove the human element altogether might even arise from their analysis, by replacing farmhands with different forms of automation—i.e. robots.

An army of green thumb robots

While industries have become more automated over the past few decades, farming has been slow in keeping up with this trend. This is in part due to the high capital costs involved with automation and the fact that farms are already expensive enough without all this highfalutin’ technology. But as this highfalutin’ technology and mechanization gets cheaper in the future, and as more investment money floods the agriculture industry (to take advantage of the global food shortages caused by climate change and population growth), most farmers will find new opportunities to tool up.

Among the expensive new toys farmers will manage their farms with are specialized agricultural drones. In fact, tomorrow’s farms could see dozens (or swarms) of these drones flying around their properties at any given time, performing a wide range of tasks, such as: monitoring soil composition, crop health, and irrigation systems; dropping extra fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on pre-identified problem areas; acting as a shepherd dog guiding wayward livestock back to the farm; scaring away or even shooting down crop-hungry animal species; and providing security via constant aerial surveillance.

Another interesting point is that tomorrow’s tractors will likely be brawny PhDs in comparison to the old, trusty tractors of today. These smart-tractors—synced to the farm’s central command center—will autonomously crisscross the farm’s fields to precisely plow the soil, plant the seeds, spray the fertilizers, and later harvest the crops.

A variety of other smaller robots may eventually populate these farms, taking on more and more of the roles seasonal farm laborers normally do, like individually picking fruits off trees or vines. Oddly enough, we may even see robot bees in the future!

Future of the family farm

While all these innovations sure sound impressive, what can we say about the future of average farmers, especially those who own family farms? Will these farms—passed through the generations—be able to stay intact as ‘family farms’? Or will they disappear in a wave of corporate buyouts?

As outlined earlier, the coming decades are going to present a kind of mixed bag for the average farmer. The projected boom in food prices means that future farmers could find themselves swimming in cash, but at the same time, the rising capital costs of running a productive farm (due to expensive consultants, machines, and synbio seeds) could cancel those profits out, leaving them no better off than today. Unfortunately for them, things can still get worse; with food becoming such a hot commodity to invest in by the late 2030s; these farmers might also have to battle fierce corporate interests just to keep their farms.

So given the context presented above, we need to break down three possible paths future farmers might take to survive tomorrow’s food hungry world:

First, the farmers most likely to retain control of their family farms will be those savvy enough to diversify their income streams. For example, apart from producing food (crops and livestock), feed (to feed livestock), or biofuels, these farmers—thanks to synthetic biology—could also grow plants that naturally produce organic plastics or pharmaceuticals. If they are close enough to a major city, they can even create a distinctive brand around their ‘local’ product to sell at a premium (as this farming family did in this great NPR profile).

Additionally, with the heavy mechanization of tomorrow’s farms, a single farmer can and will manage ever-larger amounts of land. This will provide the farming family a space to offer a variety of other services on their properties, including daycares, summer camps, bed-and-breakfasts, etc. On a larger level, farmers can even convert (or rent out) a portion of their land to produce renewable energy through solar, wind or biomass, and sell them to its surrounding community.

But alas, not all farmers will be this entrepreneurial. The second farmer cohort will see the writing on the wall and turn to each other to stay afloat. These farmers (with the guidance of farm lobbyists) will form massive, voluntary farming collectives that will operate similarly to a union. These collectives will have nothing to do with collective ownership of land, but have everything to do with generating enough collective buying power to squeeze out heavy discounts on consulting services, machinery, and advanced seeds. So in short, these collectives will keep costs low and keep farmer’s voices heard by politicians, while also keeping the growing power of Big Agri in check.

Finally, there will be those farmers who will decide to throw in the towel. This will be especially common among those farming families where the children have no interest in continuing the farm life. Fortunately, these families will at least bow out with a sizable nest egg by selling their farms to competing investment firms, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, and large-scale corporate farms. And depending on the scale of the trends described above, and in previous parts of this Future of Food series, this third cohort may just be the largest of them all. Ultimately, the family farm could become an endangered species by the late 2040s.

The rise of the vertical farm

Traditional farming aside, there is a radically new form of farming that will arise in the decades ahead: vertical farming. Unlike farming from the past 10,000 years, vertical farming is introducing the practice of stacking several farms on top of one another. Yeah, it sounds out there at first, but these farms may play a key role in the food security of our growing population. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Vertical farms have been popularized by the work of Dickson Despommier and some are already being built around the world to test the concept. Examples of vertical farms include the following: Nuvege in Kyoto, Japan; Sky Greens in Singapore; TerraSphere in Vancouver, British Columbia; Plantagon in Linkoping, Sweden; and Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming.

The ideal vertical farm looks something like this: a high-rise building where the majority of the floors are devoted to growing various plants in beds stacked horizontally one over the other. These beds are fed by LED lighting that is customized to the plant (yes, this is a thing), alongside nutrient-infused water delivered by aeroponics (best for root crops), hydroponics (best for veggies and berries) or drip irrigation (for grains). Once fully grown, the beds are stacked on a conveyor to be harvested and delivered to local population centers. As for the building itself, it is fully-powered (i.e. carbon-neutral) by a combination of windows that collect solar energy, geothermal generators, and anaerobic digesters that can recycle waste into energy (both from the building and the community).

Sounds fancy. But what are the real advantages of these vertical farms anyway?

There are quite a few actually—the benefits include: no agricultural runoff; year-round crop production; no crop loss from severe weather events; use 90 percent less water than traditional farming; no agro-chemicals needed for pesticides and herbicides; no need for fossil fuels; remediates gray water; creates local jobs; supplies fresh produce for inner city dwellers; can make use of abandoned city properties, and can grow biofuels or plant-derived drugs. But that’s not all!

The trick with these vertical farms is that they excel in growing as much as possible within as little space as possible. One indoor acre of a vertical farm is more productive than 10 outdoor acres of a traditional farm. To help you appreciate this a bit further, Despommier states that it would take only 300 square feet of farmed indoor space—the size of a studio apartment—to produce enough food for a single individual (2,000 calories per person, per day for a year). This means a vertical farm about 30 stories high in the size of one city block could easily feed up to 50,000 people—basically, the population of an entire town.

But arguably the biggest impact vertical farms could have is reducing the amount of farmland used around the world. Imagine if dozens of these vertical farms were built around urban centers to feed their populations, the amount of land needed for traditional farming would be reduced. That unneeded farmland could then be returned to nature and possibly help restore our damaged ecosystem (ah, dreams).

The path ahead and the case for markets

To sum up, the most likely scenario for the next two decades is that traditional farms will get smarter; will be managed more by robots than humans, and will be owned by fewer and fewer farming families. But as climate change gets scary by the 2040s, safer and more efficient vertical farms will eventually replace these smart farms, taking over the role of feeding our enormous future population.

Last, I’d also like to mention an important side note before we move on to the Future of Food series finale: much of today’s (and tomorrow’s) food scarcity issues actually have nothing to do with us not growing enough food. The fact that many parts of Africa and India suffer from annual periods of starvation, while the US is dealing with a Cheeto-fueled obesity epidemic speaks volumes. Simply put, it’s not that we have a food-growing problem, but instead a food delivery problem.

For instance in many developing nations, there tends to be a wealth of resources and farming capacity, but a lack of infrastructure in the form of roads, modern storage, and trading services, and nearby markets. Because of this, many farmers in these regions only grow enough food for themselves, since there’s no point in having surpluses if they will rot due to a lack of proper storage facilities, roads to quickly ship crops to buyers, and markets to sell said crops. (You can read a great write-up about this point at The Verge.)

Alright you guys, you’ve made it this far. Now it’s finally time to take a peek into what your diet will look like in the wacky world of tomorrow. Future of Food P5.

Future of Food Series

Climate Change and Food Scarcity | Future of Food P1

Vegetarians will reign supreme after the Meat Shock of 2035 | Future of Food P2

GMOs and Superfoods | Future of Food P3

Your Future Diet: Bugs, In-Vitro Meat, and Synthetic Foods | Future of Food P5

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Next scheduled update for this forecast
February 22, 2021. Last updated February 22, 2019.
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