When I was growing up in south central Kansas, agriculture was a way of life – it was all around us in the form of wheat fields, cattle ranches, pastures, and gardens. Agriculture has had enormous economic significance throughout the history of Kansas, first, as a territory then a state. And it continues to be an important factor in shaping Kansas’ future. However, changing conditions over the past 60 years transformed the practice and scope of agriculture in Kansas: myriad family farms vanished through improved mechanization and consolidation of farming operations, absentee ownership of farms increased as farming businesses incorporated and adopted professional management in an effort to be competitive in a global market, significant tracts of productive farmland were lost to urbanization, and productivity of farmland became more unpredictable as precipitation patterns shifted, water tables dropped, and soil and ground water became more contaminated through unsustainable agricultural practices. While there are arguments both pro and con for the direction these changes took and their consequences, it is safe to say that agriculture is very different today than it was even a generation ago AND it will change even more with the next generation.
Changes in agriculture experienced by Kansans are not much different than those experienced by people in other states. The same phenomena of mechanization, consolidation, absentee ownership, globalization, urbanization, and non-sustainability have had similar affects throughout the United States and many other countries in the world. While the productivity / hectare or acre has certainly improved substantially over the last 60 years, the complications arising from less arable land, more distance from the point of production to the point of consumption, less oversight, and undesirable environmental consequences makes agriculture an even riskier endeavor than when success was determined by fickleness of the weather! If one extrapolates the next 20-30 years based on historical trend lines across the previous 60 years the picture for agriculture is not a particularly rosy one.
But just as mechanization had a profound disruptive effect on agriculture over 100 years ago, there are forces at play today and into the near future that are going to have a similar impact. My contention is that agriculture, rather than being relegated to the ranks of the mundane, mistreated, and maligned, will witness a rebirth into a new golden age. Whereas agriculture meant wheat, hay, and livestock when I was a boy growing up in Kansas, today, it extends across a full range of plant and animal applications: food for human consumption, feed for animal consumption, fuel, fiber, floriculture, horticulture, and nutraceuticals to name a few. This broader scope, when prompted by rapid and far-reaching developments in information and communication technologies and placed into the context of Marshal McLuhan’s “global village“, opens the door to examine agriculture in a more approachable, personal, and wholistic manner. Agriculture is reinstated to a more historically accurate location – an explicit, integral part of our lives, individually and collectively, and our world.
The purpose of this posting is to introduce ten agriculture “megatrends” – to borrow from John Naisbitt’s 1988 book, MEGATRENDS: TEN NEW DIRECTIONS TRANSFORMING OUR LIVES – that portend a renaissance for agriculture. Together, these offer a framework within which further details will be added. For now, though, the highlights:
Agriculture Megatrends: Ten Trends Redefining the Practice of Agriculture in the World
1) Growing concerns about the depletion of fossil fuels, the environmental impact caused by consuming them, and the consequences of paying those who do not have the best interests of others at heart for the fossil fuels is contributing to an increased investment in bio-fuels, biomass, and bio-energy.
Renewable energy from plant material and animal waste will continue to be a high-growth area.
2) Modifying a crop portfolio to include more plant material for fuel rather than food or feed equates to less food and feed UNLESS more land is put into production and productivity and output per unit of land is increased to make up the difference. This means that land in urban and suburban areas formerly dedicated to non-edible, non-fuel uses such as lawns and landscaping will be converted into higher value uses.
Localization of agriculture will be a high-growth area.
3) Raising crops for food and feed or fuel and fiber requires more production with less cost on smaller land sizes. This leads to a continuing emphasis on genetics either by modification or selective breeding to make significant improvements.
Genetic research and applications of genetically modified or selected characteristics for valued crops will be a high-growth area.
4) Using seed stocks with uniquely valued characteristics warrant tight controls through growing, harvesting, and post-harvest handling to assure purity. This promotes the application of techniques like RFID tagging and tracking to maintain an audit trail of traits, conditions, and treatments from end-products to their source.
Traceability will be a high-growth area.
5) Knowing that fresh food is grown without the use of certain fertilizers, pesticide, and herbicide is of increasing importance to consumers. The classification of “organic” is gaining ground as a way to assure food is grown and prepared according to specific guidelines that preclude the use of these chemical applications.
Organic food production will continue to be a high-growth area.
6) Curbing the release of carbon into the atmosphere is complemented by absorbing it into plant material and converting it into sugar and starch through photosynthesis. As more countries adopt broad-based systems to manage carbon credits more interest will be shown in selecting crop portfolios that take advantage of carbon credits as well as other value.
Carbon sequestration will be a high-growth area.
7) Recycling water, waste, and unused raw materials is becoming a more important consideration to increase efficiency and prevent unnecessary losses. This leads to a more systematic integration of farming practices along with the management of waste and by-products. Such systems offer wholistic approaches to year-round food production in temperate regions with a minimum of energy consumption, maximum utilization of inputs, and reuse of unconsumed outputs.
Integrated farming and waste management systems will be a high-growth area.
8) Decentralizing the generation of electric power and making electricity the common energy source for the vast majority of people worldwide is a mounting imperative. This invites the possibility of those who live in yet-to-be-electrified rural areas of the world to generate electricity through wind, solar, methane, or geo-thermal and use that energy to meet the needs of their agricultural, business, and domestic operations self-sufficiently off the grid. The development of a full array of electric-powered equipment in all price ranges is a natural complement. Of course, as the grid reaches out to more remote locations it will be a straightforward way for those who are generating electricity by whatever means to sell their surplus and draw upon in times of peak usage.
Electrification of rural areas and agricultural and multi-use equipment, especially with VERY low-cost solutions, will be a high-growth area.
9) Increasing agricultural production in widespread areas as well as concentrating agricultural operations in urban, suburban, and near rural settings requires new ways of moving and storing the output from the point of production through processing and preparation stops along the way to the point of consumption. Issues of food security and food safety coupled with the management of inventory to assure the least amount of loss while delivering the highest degree of freshness and quality are critical. This applies to inputs as well as outputs and touches upon the coordination among diverse growers for individual production portfolios.
Agricultural logistics and complex production management will be a high-growth area.
10) Forming, utilizing, and managing connections between and among agricultural producers, suppliers, logisticians, and customers is essential for effective business relationships to develop and transactions to occur. Whether wirelessly or by landline by voice, written word, or graphics, there are many ways to communicate and transfer information. The most important step is having the information and communication infrastructure to reach anyone, anywhere at anytime so that knowledge and insight about markets, prices, costs, pick-ups, deliveries, funding options, investments, etc. can occur expeditiously and consistently.
Information and communication technologies will be a high-growth area.
While these megatrends are introduced individually, the reality is many of them work in concert with one another to form an infinite variety of complex solutions addressing a wide range of community and commercial opportunities. Future postings will not only elaborate on each trend, but will showcase those combinations that provide additional value through interconnection and integration. More to come…
Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Thursday, February 1, 2007