The drivers of change in agriculture

Food and farming are increasingly gaining prominence on national and international economic, political and research agendas.

The drivers of change in agriculture
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Amongst the many reasons for this is the urgent need to increase food production in response to global population growth, as well as to changing consumer preferences.

Global crises such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have also brought to the fore the vulnerability of food production systems and the food supply chain.

Because of this renewed focus on the world’s oldest industry, there has probably never been a better or more exciting time to work in agriculture.

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However, what is also clear is that the way in which food is produced and distributed needs to change rapidly to avoid adding more souls to the nearly 690 million people who, according to the UN, suffer from hunger (8,9% of the total global population).

Given what is at stake and because of the many opportunities that exist in this field, it should come as no surprise that some of the most exciting technologies and innovations around the world are being designed to address challenges and improve efficiencies in food production.

According to Lux Research, an international research company specialising in technology innovation, in its recently published annual outlook report, ‘Foresight 2021: Top emerging technologies to watch’, the prominence of new technologies in the agriculture sector is an indication of how fast and profoundly the food and farming industries are changing.

The report identifies and ranks 12 key technologies that will reshape the world, and this year the report also ranks the top five technologies in the food and agriculture space.

One of the company’s senior researchers, Joshua Haslun, says that a clear shift, enabled by emerging technologies, is the rise in smaller companies, whereas in the recent past, growth was concentrated mostly amongst 20 or so mega agribusinesses.

This, he says, is because “smaller and more agile brands meet consumer demand for personalisation”, a trend that might see larger brands look for innovative solutions to regain lost ground.

One of the innovations identified in the report is bioinformatics, which involves the development of computer software tools that can enable a better understanding of biological data, in particular when the data sets are large and complex.

On the list of five innovations is alternative proteins. The report says that alternatives to the resource-intensive traditional meat industry are emerging rapidly, with immediate impact from plant-based proteins. This is putting pressure on the farming sector to diversify away from meat and fish, leading to changes in areas ranging from land use to ingredient supply chains.

Precision agriculture is also on the list, and the report says that digital tools are continuing to revolutionise agriculture, improving product yield and quality and reducing environmental impact.

The other two innovations that directly relate to agriculture are biofertilisers and ingredient informatics. Biofertilisers and other microbial biostimulants use living micro-organisms to improve nutrient use efficiency and agriculture’s sustainability.

The report describes ingredient informatics as the practice of applying machine learning to recipes and ingredients in order to produce new product formulations more quickly. This has the potential to rapidly accelerate new food product launches while also reducing the cost of doing so.