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How Can Agriculture Support More Than 5 Billion People?

Predictions previously estimated agriculture could only support 5 billion people. This excerpt from IDC’s e-book, The Digital Agriculture Revolution: A Survival Guide. describes the Fourth Agricultural Revolution (Agriculture 4.0) and technologies supporting food quality and production efficiency.


The 1973 movie Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Leigh, describes a future where uncontrolled population growth, ecological disaster and climate change have caused agriculture to collapse, turning the Earth into a dystopian landscape. In this future, food riots are a common occurrence throughout the world, and the main source of food is a wafer made of plankton called Soylent Green, which in the end turns out to be made from recycled humans. The population of that dystopian world was set at a hyperinflated, unthinkable 7 billion people.

Soylent Green is set in 2022.

If you read science fiction from before 1970 that mentions world population, it will usually cap the populace of Earth at about 5 billion people. At that point the Earth either resorts to draconian population control, cannibalism, or extra-planetary colonization. Currently, our population is estimated at 7.96 billion people. Cannibalism is still frowned upon in polite company and despite the best efforts of billionaire playboys, our current extra-planetary population sits at around zero people. Why were these predictions so far off?

The Third Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Green Revolution, started in the 1950s. It saw the development of technologies including mechanization, chemistry, and breeding techniques that dramatically increased food production. The Green Revolution has contributed to the reduction of poverty, prevented hunger for billions, eradicated widespread famine, reduced GHG emissions, and tripled yield per acre, thus leaving more land for natural habitats and averting ecological disaster. This revolution silently changed the world in ways that were unimaginable even in the 1970s, 20 years into the Green Revolution.

In 2022, we are facing similar predictions. Food production must increase by 60% in 30 years. We are facing a future defined by climate change, ecological collapse, and worldwide famine. The insatiable modern diet for food and energy is consuming the planet, leaving nothing for the next generation. Some predictions claim that we only have 30 harvests left before agriculture collapses.

What many are unaware of (or deliberately ignorant of) is that we are solidly into the Fourth Agriculture Revolution.

We are on the cusp of a much brighter future

The Fourth Agricultural Revolution (Agriculture 4.0) is the incorporation of IoT, automation, data collection and data analysis into food production systems at scale. Agriculture 4.0 is enabling food producers to do more with less and create new digital commodities which are revolutionizing the way we produce and distribute food. As the world becomes more affluent, markets will demand more diverse foods, higher protein, increased quality, and environmentally sustainable foods at an affordable price. Data is the key to meeting these demands. Technologies to collect and use data are being incorporated at every level of food production. The Fourth Agriculture Revolution will be the collection, movement, processing, packaging, and marketing of data at scale.

What does that mean? Better, cheaper, and environmentally friendly foods.

Waste Not, Want Not

An excellent example of the power of tech is the reduction of food waste. Roughly 33% of the food produced in the world is wasted either along the supply chain or in the home. In the US, estimates suggest that enough to feed the population of Italy (67 million ton) is wasted at the retail and consumer level alone. The use of IoT, data technologies and data analysis is already reducing spoilage in storage and transport, helping match the right crops to the right processors, lengthen shelf life or shorten supply chains to connect farmers to consumers. The enormous potential to build a better world (and make a bit of money) has agriculture and technology companies hungry to work together.

Let’s Clear the Air

Agriculture contributes up to 25% of GHG emission worldwide, but the industry could become carbon negative in the next decade. Widespread adoption of practices that encourage soil carbon sequestration could remove up to 5 Gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere each year, turning agriculture into one of the best mechanisms to fight climate change. Agtech is rapidly reducing GHG emissions by creating emission benchmarks, improving production practices, and creating digital commodities that put a price on environmental services. These environmental service markets provide incentives speeding research, development, and adoption of environmentally beneficial technologies.

Robots and Their Vision of the Future

Autonomous machinery has the potential to revolutionize agriculture. Swarm farming, in which multiple autonomous machines work in concert, will allow for farming to be highly efficient, with timely seeding, automated crop scouting, judicious crop protection applications, and quicker harvests. Better timing of processes will increase yield and crop quality. Simply reducing soil compaction from heavy machines could raise yields by 10%. Automation will also allow for smaller, more agile equipment, while automating processes will also allow producers to focus on higher order tasks and promote more diverse cropping systems. These machines will be able to gather a wealth of information which can be used to refine best practices, improve predictive models, and provide actionable insights.

Computer vision (CV) has been gaining momentum in agriculture. Satellites, drones, and other cameras scout field, predict disease, and enable farmers and agronomists to work efficiently. “See & Spray” technologies using CV can cut herbicide use by 95% and other autonomous weeding machines bypass herbicides altogether. CV in animal agriculture can detect illness or stress before it would be detectable by humans. By identifying stress and diseases in plants and animals faster, CV will allow for quick, precise action, thus minimizing waste or treatments while helping create optimal growth environments for crops and livestock.

What’s Next?

Revolutions are times of massive opportunity to build. What we have covered is only the tip of the iceberg. Other technologies are being incorporated into agriculture that will reduce transaction costs, increase nutritional value, connect farmers to consumers, enable smallholder farmers, revolutionize genetic selection, and change the face of food production either subtly or radically. The cost of technological development and deployment has been vastly reduced by investments in connectivity and integration of cloud computing from major players. This opens the way for new companies to enter this space, find partners and build a brighter future. Optimism about agriculture building a brighter future is historically the most profitable trend for any company looking to change the world.

To learn more about the Fourth Agricultural Revolution (Agriculture 4.0) and the technologies supporting the food quality and production efficiency, read IDC’s new, complimentary eBook, The Digital Agriculture Revolution: A Survival Guide. Click the button below to download the eBook now.

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