For decades, advances in farming technology came in analog and extra large: huge agribusiness conglomerates, gargantuan machines, vast lands.
But now digital is catching on fast, and small is in: tiny sensors in fields can monitor the chemical composition of the soil to optimize production, while drones can save water and fertilizer by alerting farmers to individual plants that are under stress and need help. Digital is making an ever bigger difference in the developing world, where inexpensive mobile phones give even the poorest subsistence farmers access to sophisticated new apps and data that let them make better planting decisions and track the weather. The new intel could help produce as much as 550 million additional tons of food by 2030.
Meanwhile, installing sensors and Big Data analysis along the agricultural logistical pathway could preserve some of the food production that is lost or spoiled each year (1.3 billion tons worth) while reducing fraud (horsemeat masquerading as beef, anyone?) and the risk of pathogen-infested food that causes disease.
Be prepared to make room at the table for about 2 billion new middle-class consumers (mostly from Asia) by 2030.
Meeting the expected new demand for hosting heifer would require 25% to 95% more arable land than will ever exist. Worse, cattle roam 77% of today’s useful agricultural land while providing fewer than 20% of the world’s calories.
We could sit back and wait for the price of a prime rib meal to hit $200 a plate while undernutrition continues to cause 50% of the deaths of the world’s children under five. Or we could rethink how we create and consume protein. We could start eating burgers that substitute lab for loin (though they’re still working on the price and taste). Or we could start eating crickets instead (a mild, nutty taste). Switching to these alternative protein sources by 2030 could save 950 megatons of CO2 and 400 billion cubic meters of water, and it could free up 400 million hectares of land to feed people instead of cows.
Though 36% of the world’s land is considered suitable for agriculture, only about 11% is actually being farmed today.
However, that other 25% is seriously overrated. Why? Because clearing new land is expensive and time-consuming, and much of it (such as the South American rainforest) is of poor quality (not to mention the negative effects on climate change).
In response, we are increasingly using technology to grow food in places unfriendly to traditional agriculture. “Plantscrapers” are urban residential and commercial buildings that stuff plants into every conceivable crevice, providing food and cleaner air in exchange for human-created heat and fertilizer. Or you could use that old semitrailer you’ve had hanging around the backyard to start your own vegetable farm. Not into DIY truck hydroponics? No fewer than three different startups are ready to hook you up (tractor truck not included). D!