Read Time: 6 minutes

Agriculture in 2050: Big Challenges, Bigger Dreams

The Future of Food and Farming

“There’s so much we can learn from nature.”
– Sam Fiorello

Imagine if we could grow plants that treat the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Or plants that convert sunlight into food more efficiently. Or bioluminescent plants that glow in the dark, lining a city sidewalk or hiking trail.

Seem outlandish? Not to people like Sharon Berberich and Sam Fiorello, who spend nearly all their time imagining the future of plants and agriculture. Berberich is CEO at Plastomics, and Fiorello is COO and Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance for the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

“When I think about dreaming, I think of imagination at work…creativity... all things possible,” says Berberich. “And I also think about the random and unexpected.”

She believes this sort of imaginative work is necessary. “We have to dream about it now, and we have to be open to the unexpected intersections of different types of technology, and different factors that are going to make our dreams possible in 2050.”
 

 

Facing the Challenges Ahead

In the developed world, one could be forgiven for thinking we’ve got agriculture all figured out. However, our astonishing prosperity and low food costs are recent accomplishments. There is much more to be done. Especially in developing nations, the challenge of growing enough food for our planet by 2050 is real. 

Fiorello knows this well. He has worked closely with researchers who are focused on improving farm productivity and efficiency in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Asia. 

“We’re going to have to almost double our food and we’re going to have to do it with a lot less inputs.”
- Sam Fiorello
[unex_ce_article_full_width_photo layer-name="We're Going Quote" img="2474" image-filename="FULL-WIDTH_1-1.jpg" id="content_oi7d09k1t" post_id="2450"]
“We’re going to have to almost double our food and we’re going to have to do it with a lot less inputs.” 
- Sam Fiorello
[/ce_article_full_width_photo]

 

Smart People, Smart Plants

In the ag tech startup and plant science research fields, Berberich and Fiorello frequently encounter people who dream about the future of ag. 

“I feel lucky every single day to be part of this,” says Fiorello, who is clearly passionate about his work.

 

We’re talking about an elite group of researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. They are intelligent and curious, and they have years of experience and a clear vision of how to proceed.


For Berberich, that vision involves a partnership between people and plants.


“Plants are already smart,” says Berberich. She believes researchers should continue to look for ways to support this intelligence in plants.

[unex_ce_indent_outdent_videos layer-name="Looping Video of B Roll" video_url="https://modernag.org/app/uploads/2018/06/Resize_Update.mp4" poster_url="" id="content_j9hfnondc" post_id="2450"]

We’re talking about an elite group of researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. They are intelligent and curious, and they have years of experience and a clear vision of how to proceed.


For Berberich, that vision involves a partnership between people and plants.


“Plants are already smart,” says Berberich. She believes researchers should continue to look for ways to support this intelligence in plants.

[/ce_indent_outdent_videos]

Five Fantastic Futures

Berberich, Fiorello, and their peers in the innovation world have some pretty amazing ideas about what agriculture might look like someday. Here are five intriguing possibilities.

Increased Biosynthetic Efficiency

Fiorello thinks we’ll see improvements in how plants convert sunlight to biomass. Currently, plants convert between six and eight percent of the sun’s rays via photosynthesis. 
“If we can figure out a way to increase biosynthetic efficiency, and move that from six-to-eight percent to twelve-to-fifteen percent, now think about the difference that makes.”

This could have far reaching implications, especially in developing nations. The potential yield increases could help smallholder farmers raise standards of living in their communities.

Insects on the Menu?

Berberich thinks there are a number of intriguing possibilities. Because insects are often vectors for plant disease, she believes they could also be vectors for the prevention of disease, perhaps even the delivery of nutrients. Fiorello thinks we will also see more bugs on the menu, in a future world facing increased demand for sustainably-raised protein.

Blockchain Benefits

Fiorello says, “Another big need is traceability. Our consumers are demanding that.” He imagines a future where someone cooking a pasta dinner can scan a code on the box and track all of the ingredients, all the way back to the Italian farmer who grew the wheat. The direct connection between consumers and farmers can be restored with the kind of record keeping made possible by blockchain, which creates an encrypted, cloud-based ledger of every transaction or transfer in the supply chain.

Plants as Pets

 “I look up to plants, and aspire to be like them.” says Berberich. She believes we have much to learn from these resilient survivors. She also believes we could be looking to them for more than just nutrition. She sees a future where plants could offer medicinal benefits, treating rheumatoid arthritis or delivering a vaccine. She even sees the possibility of closer plant relationships with humans. “Maybe you could design plants that could interact with people, and they could be pets.”

 

Independent, Autonomous Farmers

Fiorello believes technology will allow farmers to gradually remove themselves from the current commodity crop system, which places them at the mercy of market forces and price swings. Individual contracts might help farmers forge closer relationships with food suppliers, where farmers could grow custom crops with specific nutrient profiles. The sort of connectivity we now have in the on-demand consumer product world could easily become a feature of future agriculture.

Berberich believes these are all possible, but there is still much to learn. “I think that we’re going to get smarter about understanding the relationships between agriculture and, particularly, the plants, and other things in the environment,” she says. 

“That’s how things get discovered, when you finally understand the relationship...
between the plant and the soil or the plant and the insect.”
- Sharon Berberich
[unex_ce_article_full_width_photo layer-name="Sharon Quote" img="2475" image-filename="FULL-WIDTH_2-1.jpg" id="content_10mhjsez8" post_id="2450"]
“That’s how things get discovered, when you finally understand the relationship...
between the plant and the soil or the plant and the insect.”
- Sharon Berberich
[/ce_article_full_width_photo]

More Crop Per Drop

Nearly everyone working on the future of modern agriculture is focused on efficiency. Every drop of water, soil, fertilizer, and pesticide is considered a resource. Modern innovations help farmers use them in the most precise manner possible. As these tools evolve, and farm automation continues, Berberich envisions farmers sitting at a dashboard of controls managing automated processes. 

“I see the farmer almost like a pilot,” she explains. 

Fiorello imagines a world where farmers wake up and enjoy their coffee while viewing the data gathered by early morning drone passes over their fields. 

In effect, that data will help farmers answer the question, “What should I do today and how much of it should I do?” 

Automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, microbials, advanced breeding methods, and much more. All with one goal: produce more with less. That’s what agriculture in 2050 could look like.

Related Articles

Read Time: 5 minutes

The Science Inside A GMO

Over time, the agriculture industry has evolved to meet many challenges, like climate change. Genetically modified seed can help farmers become more efficient by empowering them to use less of our natural resources. Many people have questions about how genetic modification works and why farmers might choose to grow GM seeds.

Read Time: 3 minutes

Soil to Satellites: Farm Solutions for a Changing Climate

Carbon emissions contribute to a changing climate, but modern farming technology strives to help reduce these emissions. Discover how emerging innovations like satellites are helping farmers to protect our planet.