How will new technological shifts shape the future of agriculture?

2nd September 2022
Nowadays, de-globalisation is creating new order and new disorder* on a world scale, disrupting well-established supply chains and forcing human endeavours to adapt. While many areas are negatively impacted, good news is coming from the world of agriculture. Technology is driving plant-based agriculture towards increased quality of nutrients, local production, sustainability of means and variety of output. We are on the cusp of the next agricultural revolution and agrarian reform

Broadly there are two scenarios of the future to think about. On the one hand, there is the return of native production, with focus on high quality products that are sourced locally, ideally at the point-of-sale. On the other hand, the coming of age of the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0

New Industry 4.0 technologies such as vertical farming, DAA (Decentralised Autonomous Agriculture), PA (Personalised Agriculture), Precision Agriculture, AIoT (Artificially Intelligent Internet of Things) and digital twins  – are transforming the industrial age concept of mass agricultural production.

Once synonymous with poor quality and poor global distribution managed centrally by a handful of multinational enterprises, today agriculture is rhyming with high tech, higher quality, local production, and increased sustainability. How will these new technologies and new trends shape the future of agriculture as we know it?

The case for Vertical Farming

Leaving aside the first scenario of native production, let’s consider a technologically imbued, Industry 4.0 future scenario, by zooming in on vertical farming. First, what is vertical farming?

Vertical farming completely reimagines greenhouses. Plants are grown with no soil, using only nutrients and placing plants in high-density vertical stacks of multiple layers.  Vertical farms produce many times more per square-metre of land-space than on a two-dimensional land space in a greenhouse or traditional field.   Today vertical farming technology is optimal for producing green, leafy vegetables. In the future it may be potentially be extended for fungi-based meat alternatives, fruits and cereals.

Vertical farms can be located anywhere with an electricity source (water is circulated in a loop so is not a constant need.) Produce could be grown in an industrial area in London for example, or in brownfield spaces such as abandoned brick-and-mortar stores – potentially reinvigorating high streets that are increasingly composed of chain stores, charity shops and gambling outlets. Rather than having to move produce across the country in an unsustainable fashion, neighbourhoods could take advantage of local production.

As the technology scales, becomes more readily available and vertical farming increases, other benefits will emerge. Produce can be moved from point-of-growth to a local point-of-sale store shelf in hours — not days.  The produce can be shifted with a much reduced carbon cost.  This challenges incumbent supply chains which ignore environmental costs in their operation. It also challenges traditional business models by opening up community and harvesting with a greater scale of production than an individual might realise through their garden or allotment.

OK, but how does this benefit us in practical terms?

Changing farming as we know it comes with obvious risks. However, failure to change and keep up with the demands of growing populations is the biggest risk of all.

The benefits brought by vertical farming are manifold. The controlled environments mean less risk from outdoor scourges such as pests, flooding, or drought — the so-called externalities.

Vertical farmers can choose from a wider and tastier variety of produce that might not otherwise make it to a local grocery store. The indoor environment allows them to grow crops without pesticides or herbicides — and with much less water than is used in traditional farming (building on the approaches used by white goods manufacturers in becoming more resource-efficient in their dishwashers, washing machines and fridges, for example). In a closed loop, the moisture that growing plants emit is sucked up by dehumidifiers and recycled for irrigation.

In the picture, an artistic depiction of a future grocery store with embedded vertical farming.

Sustainable water usage is one of the biggest issues currently facing farmers around the world. Check out some of the technology solutions that involve local communities from Imperial’s innovative ecosystem – SaltyCo and Materra.

Fruit growing represents another milestone. They are a leap into the more challenging — and higher margin — world of fruit crops. Think of the “dirty dozen” list of fruits and vegetables grown with high levels of pesticides.  Fruiting plants are ripe for genetic refinement, another growing technology, to make them more suitable for vertical farming.

Introducing digital twins in vertical farms: The Industry 4.0 scenario

In this context, digital twins of vertical farms are built out of the real-time data coming from AIoT (Artificially Intelligent Internet of Things) smart sensors -something we covered in TF2041: Computing, energy and the planet.

AIoT sensors continuously monitor the state of the crops, feeding data into the digital twin. Farmers are able to visualise the whole farm in a 3D digital reproduction.  They use this to monitor and act on the state of crops in real-time. They can intervene directly on the plants without the need of physical action by stimulating electrically the plant’s growth or varying temperature and water flow. The goal is optimising plant’s growth, health, yield, and time of harvest.

This data, information and automated intervention helps to remove the disorder caused by externalities, reduce human labour, and eliminates the carbon cost coming from transportation of exotic goods from thousands of miles away the point-of-sale. For example, avocados, goji beans and quinoa are produced in any London neighbourhood. It increases land use efficiency per square metre and agricultural water consumption through recirculation.

Digital twins allow precision agriculture to flourish, with more quality, more output, and products from all over the world being produced locally with purpose, rather than necessity or opportunity driven by climate change. Digital twins enable agriculture to protect and foster nutrient diversity on the dining table.

Farming in mixed reality, for example live statistics about plants through a data enhanced visor, also means enhancing the fun of the overall work experience for farmers. Automation frees them from heavy and repetitive physical labour. Farmers become orchestrators of automated and highly specialised labour. They are more like artists creating beautiful outputs experimenting with different growing conditions suggested by AI assistance. They sell high-quality produce that is healthy and exotic.

But if that all sounds like a beautiful utopic depiction of the future of farming, why aren’t we doing it now? What are the barriers to a vertical farming revolution today?

The energy problem of vertical farming

A recent article, sceptical about the cost of vertical farming, commented:

“If you solve the energy problem, you win the vertical farming game”

One of the biggest bottlenecks today to vertical farming is energy consumption. There are technologies on the horizon that may solve that.

Community microgrids are a sustainable energy solution on the horizon.  Microgrids pull together energy production from home solar and other sources and make it available for local use.  Vertical farming buildings can be connected into community microgrids and provide surplus energy to the farms to lower their costs of production.

Check out Sitigrid, one of our featured startups in TF2041.

A blockchain business model in the community microgrid system could monitor contributions and consumption. A positive loop could be created in which sharers of energy are rewarded with produce credit for their surplus energy sharing. This leading to a win-win situation for both local consumers and producers.

The technology and approaches behind vertical farming appear often across science fiction depictions of how populations sustain themselves on long journeys through space and in resource-poor environments on other planets. This imagination is already available in reality, and it’s down to businesses to make the commercial case for developing these sustainable techniques to feed society.

In conclusion, the merging of these technologies, vertical farming, microgrids and blockchain, could cut down costs of production in the long run. Inviting technology people to come back to the land via the ways of the future.

More food for thought

What is DAA (Decentralised Autonomous Agriculture)?

Imagine having a fully autonomous production to consumption chain. How would it work?

New orders by customers could be planned months in advance, predicted by machine learning algorithms. Everything from the planting of the seeds to the harvest to drone delivery could be automated, leaving humans to deal with only the expansion of the business, the care of the customer, and the creation of new ideas and new products.

Customers could purchase yearly production in blocks through the blockchain, ensuring constant replenishing of vegetables and fruits directly to their home. They could monitor production from seed to seat, notifying the automated vertical farm about changes in habits and preferences. Changing weekly their desired variety of vegetables and fruit to reach goals of personalised nutrition.

Speculation: How could genetic engineering and the blockchain lead to personalised agriculture?

What if we could grow produce in a matter of hours and could use genetic engineering to enhance the nutrient levels, the taste, the texture and appearance of our vegetables and fruits according to our evolving preferences?

Personalised agriculture could allow that. Customers purchasing blocks of production could experiment with their produce according to health enhancing parameters, e.g. more b12 and more vitamins, and personalised dietary choices based on individual microbiomes.

They could test varying results and even decide to sell their modified block through Dynamic NFTs (Non-fungible tokens whose register is modified to consider changes in quality and profile of the produce) to the highest bidder, creating a market within a market.

Even further out is the possible development of novel foodstuffs that mimic neither plant nor animal but can be grown as plants.

So, where does that leave us?

In a world in which plant-based meals are becoming common and future cities will host most of the world’s population, this new agricultural wave could solve many of the world’s problems caused by climate change, carbon emission, excessive water and land us and new dietary requirements.

Reducing the pressure caused by unsustainable transportation over-seas, wastage and shortage of fresh produce caused by disruptions of the supply-chain.

Welcome to the revolution.

Want to know more?

Get in touch with Imperial Tech Foresight and learn how Imperial College London tackles the future of agriculture.

Also – check out our special vision of the future of water, which we produced a few years ago and in which many of the speculations are starting to bear fruit (excuse the pun!)

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*for more on order and disorder, look out for our upcoming publications later in the autumn and winter as part of TF2042: Nature Meets Future