Lightbulb session – Agricultural Futures

24th July 2020
What might be the future disruptors in agriculture? How might technology impact how we consider food? On the 12th February 2020, Imperial Tech Foresight was invited to share insights on the Future of Agriculture to the Agri-Business team at European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

The session was part of a series of Tech Tonic events that helps the bank explore the future disruption from different insight areas. We created a lightbulb session based on the Disruptive Table, and the following topic areas: 3D Printing Food and Pharmaceuticals, Cell-culture meat and Precision Agriculture.

At the event, we went beyond this to explore critical ideas around the future of agriculture and food. Below we have shared some insights from the session. The Imperial Tech Foresight team created four provocations about the future of agriculture that we shared during the session:

Augmented crops

Agriculture is limited by space and efficiency of plants. We will see agriculture being re-shaped by the increasing expertise of researchers in manipulating plants and feedstock down to metabolic pathways and genetic architecture, spurred on by breakthroughs in synthetic biology, molecular biology, gene-editing and bio-tech. New science at the cellular level will allow us to re-imagine new and existing biological species for food production, engineering genetic circuits and cellular machinery in plants and microorganisms for the expression of novel and augmented features. These new technologies allow the use of bacteria to create fertilisers (with soil that enrich themselves) to hacking the photosynthesis for increased efficiency. 

Signals of change:

    1. Researchers have invented a “bionic” leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertiliser in the very soil where crops are grown.
    2. Researchers are exploring how we could genetically engineer better light reactions in plants to enhance photosynthesis and increase yield. 
    3. Research for electropism to understand how plants can grow in space and new types of farming structures.
Hybrid agriculture

Agriculture can become layered and more perceptive by embracing technologies emerging from the fourth industrial revolution. We will start to see the integration of new technologies, such as predictive data analysis, spectral sensing, smart sensors, IoT and autonomous vehicles in agriculture. Sensors will develop their own perceptive layer to identify what previously was unseen from new insect infestations to mould. Data analysis will allow for predictive and proactive farming. The focus will be on creating digital twins that create an almost intuitive and holistic understanding of the farm – hyper-connected with real-time updates – diagnosing and adapting to contextual changes. Empowering communities and farmers to live more balanced with the environment reducing land, water and pesticide use for the benefit of the environment. 

Signals of change:

    1. Researchers are exploring the combined use of drones and spectral sensing to identify fungi at an early stage seeing beyond visible light such as infrared. 
    2. Researchers are creating PEGS are low-cost sensors that can be used to identify nitrogen and ammonia helping to determine whether or not an area of land might be over-fertilised. 
Designer food

The production of agriculture products from cell-cultures using a combination of biotechnology, tissue engineering and molecular biology to design new methods of producing proteins, fats, and tissues that would otherwise come from traditional cultivation. It will allow the production of milk without cows, cheese without milk, and reproduce any kind of meat taste and texture without the need of killing animals or impacting the environment. It can give new elevated flavours by using additive manufacturing to create textural profiles. 

Signals of change:

    1. Multus Media, an Imperial College London start-up, is enabling a next-generation growth media for animal cells to make cultivated meat cheaper and more accessible. 
    2. Researchers have grown rabbit and cow muscles cells on edible gelatin scaffolds that mimic the texture and consistency of meat, demonstrating that realistic meat products may eventually be produced without the need to raise and slaughter animals.
    3. Personalised nutrition by using an understanding of genomics and NMR-based metabolic profiling techniques 


Regenerative communities

The future of agriculture is strongly interlinked with the future of communities. Technology and innovation will need to open up to new models of systems that combine food, water and energy production, paving the way for self-sustained, regenerative communities to emerge. Mindfulness towards the consequences of monoculture and certain types of agriculture will become even more critical, as we see over-farming impacting wild-life and biodiversity services which are essential to farming. Redesigning and rebuilding food systems so that they deliver nutritious food for all, climate stability, well-functioning ecosystems, and the prosperity of all who produce food (including smallholders) as well as thriving rural communities. Those threatened by climate change need special attention to ensure that healthy diets, livelihoods, communities and value chains are protected and resilient. 

Signals of change:

    1. Agri-voltaics is the process of growing crops under the shade of solar panels. In hot regions, this method has shown to increase the yield and quality of outputs while reducing water usage. Other technologies point to the same movement, which showcases a holistic perspective to agriculture. 
    2. Seaweed is an example of a great future food source, and it is the only vegetable grown in saltwater and produces water. 
    3. Research balancing risk and reward to enable healthier eating.

To conclude the event, there was a panel discussion. Where the attendees and audience discussed the following areas:

Farmer-centric approach 

  • It is easy to think about the future as something devoid from the farmer, especially when discussing technology. Instead, we need to think about how the farmer as a profession can be elevated not just industrialised. How might we become farmer-centric in the way we discuss farming?

Sustainability Development Goals – What is holding us back?

  • We are all aware that we are facing future climate emergencies, and we have SDG that shows that we need to take into consideration going vegetarian and changing our habits significantly. There is no longer “normal business”; how can we as organisations make the sustainable choice more desirable?

Technology investment integral to the future

  • Technology is moving quicker than imagined, and organisations need to be open to change and new ideas. New emerging start-ups can understand the space better and create unique innovations for their local markets. How might we create a technology-forward view of food production?  

In summary: The future of agriculture might be nearer than we know, we need to be open to disruption and aware of the consequences of our food production systems on the world around us. 

If you are curious about the future and interested in hearing more from Imperial Tech Foresight and the work that we are doing, get in touch with us, follow us on Twitter and join the Imperial College London Enterprise Divison Newsletter.