Agriculture historically was the dominant employer, but in the developed world, it now only employs a few percent of the population as mechanization and industrialization reduced the needed headcount. These trends and others are continuing to revolutionize agriculture. Here are five major agriculture trends to watch for in 2017.
Calling All Drones
Farmers in industrialized nations have been using massive tractors guided by GPS and sensors in the field to monitor soil moisture so they can tightly control water usage. A new trend in agriculture is the use of drones. They are used to fly over an area and give a clear picture of pest infestations or crop diseases, while their use of spot treatment is only beginning. There are drones already developed with sensors to detect dying plants before they are obvious to the human eye, letting farmers know when they need to treat an issue before it costs them a fraction of the crop.
Eyes in the Skies
Aerial satellites are one of the major agriculture trends. They provide information for farmers on soil conditions, measures of greenness and the ground layout. There are innovative uses of satellite data and third world farmers, such as the TED talk featuring crop insurance for the poorest subsistence farmers that allows them to text a code found on the bag of seeds from their farm. The monitoring software tracks rainfall in the area, and if severe seedling loss is detected, the farmers get money that lets them purchase new seeds. This model allows subsistence farmers to get new seeds early in the season so they have crops to harvest instead of cash payments in the fall that lead to many abandoning the farm and moving to the cities. It also eliminates local starvation at harvest time due to crop failures.
Goodbye, Migrant Farm Worker
The United States is likely to severely curtail its number of migrant farm workers in the hope of increasing rural employment and bringing many of the working class displaced by both automation and immigrants in the workforce. Yet automation is continuing to reduce the need for field hands. In 2016, Business Insider featured robots designed to prune vineyards, weed fields, pick fruit, thin lettuce, and a rover intended to herd cattle.
The same technology driving (pun intended) automated cars in the cities is encouraging adoption of automated vehicles in the field. Because of the fewer people around, automated vehicles are already being used in mining and they are likely to be adopted quickly in rural areas to haul in the robotically harvested crops. Automated combines and tractors are also in the works.
International Land Grabs
One classic observation from Mark Twain was that you should buy land because God isn’t making any more of it. Fertile land is even more precious, given how much has been ruined by over-grazing in the western US and borderlands around the Sahara or damaged by poor irrigation practices in China. This is leading to agricultural farmland buys in Africa by nations like China and Saudi Arabia. They are buying large chunks of fertile agricultural land, displacing local subsistence farmers, in order to bring in industrial agriculture to feed their own people. The issue is so significant that there are Africans who call China a new colonial power, though national governments support it because Chinese money donated to their regimes doesn’t come with demands for human rights as money from the West does.
As people move up in income, their appetites for meat go up exponentially. This explains why global demand for beef, chicken, pork and fish are growing far faster than the population. Biotechnology is attempting to meet this demand through industrialization of tissue culture to make beef without raising a whole cow, while others are trying to develop insect-based protein alternatives that use less feed and water than mammals. Expect work toward better vegan meat substitutes to continue due to the lower cost for beans, nut milks and Quorn compared to a beef steak and growing demand for vegetarian alternatives that taste like meat. It’s one of the major agriculture trends that would dominate the future.
It will be interesting to see what other trends occur over the coming year.