The Future of Food: Innovation and Technology
Within the next 30 years, we will be adding another 2 billion people to the global population. But it’s not just more mouths to feed, we are also seeing a fundamental shift in diets around the world. The population as a whole is becoming more prosperous, demanding higher quality foods, eating more prepared foods, and expecting to eat more proteins.
The result will be a doubling of food demand in the next 3 decades, a 50% increase in protein demand and an unprecedented increase in the agricultural output required. In parallel to this trend, we are also seeing more crops diverted to feed and fuel uses limited land availability and a chronic limitation on freshwater resources. In fact, lack of access to freshwater will be one of the greatest challenges in the next few decades.
The last time we faced such global issues was in the 1970s when the Club of Rome published its dire warnings of population explosion and starvation. Thanks to the great work of agricultural scientists like Norman Borlaug we were able to dramatically increase crop yields and continue to feed the world.
Today while we still see improvements in farming techniques, fertilizer use, and crop protection, our progress has slowed. Based on analysis of historical yield improvement, we may expect the yields for corn, rice, wheat, and soy – the four crops which account for about two-thirds of globally harvested food calories to grow only by 38% to 66% by 2050. Much less than what is required.
Add environmental and sustainability issues as well as activists’ desire for cage-free, antibiotic-free and non-GMO foods and we will be severely challenged to meet the demand of feeding 9 billion hungry people.
So, the big question for all of us is – Can technology provide a path forward?
Consumers are more in touch with their food and food preparation. Celebrity chefs, cooking shows, and over 30 million Youtube videos on food are making an impact on the new generation. As a result young people are getting back to the land and driving increased production of organic, artisanal, and local foods.
Technology is waking up to this new Ag revolution. Funding of Silicon Valley startups in the food and agriculture sector increased dramatically at a 60% CAGR from $400 million in 2010 to an estimated $4.2 billion in 2015. According to the USDA over 60,000 high skilled agricultural jobs are needed but only 35,000 graduates are available to fill them.
Is Agriculture the next Silicon Valley?
Innovations in digital technologies such as advanced data analytics, predictive modeling, and robotics are making farms more efficient. Biotechnology advances in genetic engineering and the new CRISPR tools will help us create better and more abundant foods. And process innovations such as precision farming, vertical crops, and hydroponics/aquaponics allow us to grow food where we could not before.