The next agricultural revolution

February 19, 2010

(Excerpt from my upcoming book, Future Harvests)

The next agricultural revolution to feed nine billion people will be different from the previous one. After World War II, agriculture advanced thanks to chemistry and petroleum. This time, biology and renewable energies will lead us to progress. It will not be just a revolution in science and technology. It also will be a different way to think about the economy and the environment. Knowledge and communication will become increasingly important, even more so than today.

Agriculture is a life science. Biological solutions will gradually replace chemical applications. All sorts of organisms will be involved to improve the way farmers and the food industry will produce.

Bacteria and viruses will help fight pests and diseases. They will help us reduce our use of chemical herbicides and pesticides dramatically. Genetic engineering will evolve and, as a business, it will mature. DNA science will focus on eliminating flaws and on increasing the metabolic efficiency of living organisms. Genetic engineering cannot continue to be about intellectual property and patents. Soon, seed companies all over the world will know how to do the same. Competition and market forces will determine which model will survive. Governments will not allow a select few to control food. They will get involved in genetic engineering programs and they will break monopolies. Genetic improvement will become collective property again.

Ecology will be a part of food production. Agriculture will manage ecosystems, and economy will become the management of the planet. Living organisms on land and in water will assist us. Farmers will think in terms of systems and cycles. Instead of isolating the field, they will integrate environmental parameters as well.

Organic matter will become central in the future agriculture. Farmers will recreate the cycles to improve the structure of the soil and its fertility. Agriculture will help fixing carbon. The use of mineral fertilizers will decrease sharply.

The economics of agriculture will be different, because the economics of energy will be different. New technologies will come. Solar power and wind energy will become common sources of energy. The economics of water will change, too. The management of water will reshape our food production. Water will become substantially more expensive and only systems that save and preserve water will survive.

Information technology will help make decisions faster than ever before. Portable computers will give the farmer the ability to get data almost instantly about the status of the crops, markets, health status and conditions of production. It will allow them to optimize inputs and outputs better and faster. It will save time, inputs and money. Knowledge and information will be our best tool to act efficiently and to improve our food production.

Transparency will become the rule. There will be no secret because consumers will be better informed and because there will be nothing left to hide.

The most critical part of the next agricultural revolution is leadership. Having a responsible long-term vision is critical, but it will not be enough. The world will need leaders that will make the right things happen. In all sectors of the society, there will be a need for such leaders who can muster the energies and who make the general interest and the long-term come first. The need for food security will alter our governance systems, in government as in business ethics. A challenge will be to manage greed and fear. First, there will be greed. Then, there will be fear. Until this day, humans have done a poor job of feeding the world. Famines have come and have gone and there still are hungry people. Humans have done a poor job at preserving their environment, too. With nine billion people, such a poor performance will have much heavier consequences. Procrastinate or being sloppy are attitudes the world cannot afford anymore. The proper leadership will come, but the change will not happen per accident. There will be a heavy crisis first.

Agriculture will regain its place in the economy as the most important activity. A change in the attitude towards funding and investments will also be part of the revolution. More players will engage in agriculture because returns will be higher for all.

The revolution will not just be for farmers and the other players in agriculture to carry out, but consumers will have their share to deliver. A change in mentalities is necessary. Wasting food is not acceptable. Selfishness will not work anymore. Food security is not a given, it is work in progress.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.