Agriculture: Twenty Years from Now…
Following is a summary of my remarks in an “Agri Panel” at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit earlier today, in response to the question, “What do you think will be game-changing about how we think about agriculture, twenty years from now?”
Soon after the panel moderator sent me this very interesting question a couple of days ago, the first thing I did was to post this question on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to crowdsource thoughts from my friends. There were nearly two hundred unique responses! They added up to twenty pages of text, without counting the number of pages in the links I received. Overwhelming, isn’t it?
All I am doing now is to simply synthesize those inputs and share with you J
The future of any system is shaped the current aspirations of the key stakeholders. Let’s take a look at the aspirations of the consumers, producers and the society at large…
Consumers want sufficient quantity of food (because we would be nearly nine billion by then, and on average richer than today), that is tasty (although, a friend did say in lighter vein, “since we will have nano-bots in our blood streams, and since our memories could be uploaded on to cloud, maybe we don’t need food and therefore no agriculture; we probably just need some electricity, or batteries, or just a few hours of exposure to sun ;-), is safe (you are all consumers here, don’t you agree that harmful chemicals in food is your topmost concern?), nutritious (scientists say that most of the world is suffering from invisible hunger), and all of these at reasonable prices!
Farmers want higher incomes (as you know, per capita income of farmers around the world, especially in emerging economies, is far lower than the general per capita) with lower risk (weather and disease related production risks, price volatility). Their labour deserves more dignity (as it is, hardly any youth from the next generation wants to be a farmer) and they deserve better quality life (as in, the conveniences and comforts that are common in urban settings).
Society at large would like agriculture to conserve natural resources (water and top soil, for example) and where possible, actually renew them. Agriculture needs to be resilient to climate change (the summer rains and warm winters, extreme climate episodes like heavy downpours on one hand and droughts on the other, etc), and again, where possible, positively impact climate change (sequester carbon, minimize greenhouse gas emissions etc).
An interplay of these different – at times conflicting – aspirations gives rise to three distinct scenarios, all of which will co-exist in twenty years. Let me label them: Farms as Factories, Homes as Farms, and Back to Basics!
Farms as Factories: By using the metaphor of factories, all I am saying is that the consistent quality of output will be produced, crop after crop, by leveraging the evolving technologies – both farming (like seed, nutrients, farm-equipment, agronomy practices etc) and digital (IoT, block chain, hyper-spectral imaging, GPS / GIS etc). A friend called them, “hardware, software, and liveware”). Another friend went to the extent of visualising a self-managing seed! These seeds will analyse the experienced conditions like soil, weather, water etc and invoke the necessary embedded features that would maximize the yield and quality. This may sound like fantasy today, but those of you who are familiar with experiments on seeds with multiple layers of coating in the past may very well say this could be a reality in twenty years!
Homes as Farms: I am sure, you have heard of vertical farming, balcony farming, kitchen gardens and such other names. Once supply chains are established to supply DIY-type mini production units, seeds, nutrients etc to the households, this phenomenon will expand more rapidly. This food is safe without any doubt in the consumer mind, and zero carbon miles! Business Models are also in the works for another kind of service. If you are not adventurous enough to grow crops in your backyard yourself, you can simply let out the space to Service Providers who can grow crops on a BOO model. Besides experts growing the crops in this model, a colony-level kitchen garden is more optimal than a household level garden. And a third model, which is not a ‘home-as-farm’ strictly speaking, is a partnership between a group of, say, five thousand, consumers and a community of, say, five hundred farmers. I know of several such partnerships across cities, built as WhatsApp Groups integrating even the e-commerce functionality.
Back to Basics: Much of today’s ills of agriculture are due to chemical-intensive mono-cropping paradigm. A more sustainable future scenario would be an integrated farming system consisting of polyculture, permaculture, organic compost, bee-keeping, animal husbandry, renewable energy. In fact, I already see some farms where solar energy brings larger revenue than the conventional crops.
As the panel went forward, there were other questions, but for now I am wrapping up this post without covering them.