As part of its ongoing efforts in “Building Tomorrow,” Volvo CE has partnered with professional futurists to gather their forecasts for the industrial industries. Futurists forecast the coming trends in science, technology and business. They help companies understand how the innovations of today will impact the industries of the future.
David Zach and Glen Hiemstra — known for their work with dozens of innovative Fortune 500 companies — provided their forecasts for the agriculture industry. To support the growth in world population, agriculture will see tremendous innovation as humans seek to boost the efficiency at which we can grow food.
With rapid urbanization already occurring, a majority of the world’s population will live in cities in the coming decades. That means that farms are going to move closer to the urban populations they’re meant to feed, and with those moves, farms will no longer exclusively look like the large fields of crops we’ve come to know.
“The farm will be moving to the city,” Zach says. “This will make for the more efficient transportation of crops and will enable us to better control the environment in which those plants are growing. We currently use a bludgeon in the way we control pests and utilize nutrients and phosphates, and that’s not going to be sustainable.”
RFID technology and sensors will be embedded on each and every crop, enabling control of the amount of nutrients and water they receive down to a single drop, maximizing the efficiency of our natural resources. In many cases, only 1% of the current water, pesticides and nutrients needed to grow a plant will be used.
“In 2040, every major city will have large indoor farming operations,” Hiemstra says. “Vertical skyfarms near cities will boost the amount of food that can be grown on a single piece of land. They will use less energy, water, herbicides and pesticides and yield significant amounts of fresh produce.”
These indoor skyfarms will have multiple stories and give agriculture companies the ability to control weather, irrigation and pests and be able to grow cash crops at a faster rate. Combined with RFID technology, LED lighting and air quality controls, the plants will live in more conducive growth environments and be better protected from the elements and insects that often decimate a year’s harvest.
Automated machines will also take over much of the laborious and difficult work of farming, especially the harvesting of crops. Robots that use artificial intelligence will pick fruits and vegetables and sort them for either human use or composting on the spot. In these better controlled agricultural environments, crop growth can be optimized according to human dietary habits to reduce food waste. Smaller batches can be grown in more continuous cycles to ensure that the amount of food grown is exactly what is needed, eliminating large harvests of unwanted or unused crops.
“Machines will handle a lot of the tasks in agriculture,” Zach says. “They will be automated, connected and physically able to pick something as delicate as a berry off the vine.”
Autonomous and fully electric construction equipment, such as wheel loaders and haulers, will help prepare lands and transport harvests to food centers. They will help construct vertical farms, much like building a new skyscraper or mixed-use development. Sensors on the machines will send critical data to agriculture management companies to ensure a bountiful and efficient harvest. These advances could reduce the cost of food for people in many countries.
New technologies will enable us to better develop halophytes, crops grown in saltwater, where the water is nutrient rich. These plants will help tackle freshwater shortages around the globe and help feed populations that may struggle with providing fresh water.
The saltwater farms can be combined with solar and wind farms to provide food and energy from the same patch of land, while lessening the demands for fresh water. New pieces of equipment that hold up well to corrosion will boost efficiency in constructing and harvesting these saltwater farms — both in terms of the halophyte growing infrastructure, and the solar panels or wind turbines constructed on the farms.
“Over the next 20 years, farming will look very modern and very old fashioned at the same time,” Hiemstra says. “There will be a major effort because of climate change to grow crops in a way that sequesters more carbon and uses less fresh water. We will tackle energy, food and water all at one time by rethinking agriculture.”