Drones, robotic tractors, vertical gardens and automated farms? The future of food production might not be what one would normally expect

Photography: Henri Kugler

Photography: Henri Kugler

Part I | Introduction

When thinking about the agriculture of the future, one is normally inclined to picture scenes involving drones, robotic tractors, vertical gardens, animals raised in automated farms… Meanwhile, there are also those who tend to picture very different scenarios: one in which farms utilise biological inputs, integrating different food production methods, planting without plowing the soil, using native vegetation in large quantities within the rural property, among other possibilities.

This article, however, proposes a different way to understand what the agriculture of the future may be like. First, we must understand the future food demands and what environmental challenges we will encounter in order to meet this demand. Secondly, we shall discuss the issue of technological development in the field. I would also like to highlight that this complex debate also involves the social and economic aspects of food production, but in this article we will only focus on the pressing environmental issues we will be facing in decades to come.

Part II | A growing demand

The demand for food in the future is closely related to two basic issues: the increase in population and the increase in the purchasing power of this new population.

In the first question, research indicates that the world population is expected to jump from 7 billion in the year 2000 to around 10 billion in 2050. According to data compiled by “The World in Data”, a consortium of institutions that include the University of Oxford and the Washington Post, Asia will maintain its population growth until 2050 and then stabilize. Africa, on the other hand, will maintain its population growth even after 2050, approaching the Asian quantity in 2100. The other regions of the world show low growth or stabilization of its population quantity in the same period.

In the second question, we have an increase in the purchasing power of this new population, which consequently will increase the demand for more elaborate foods. This increase includes traditional foods such as grains and flour, but it also includes animal proteins, in particular cattle and chicken, followed by dairy products and eggs.

Part III | Environmental challenges

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to meet the future food demand of 2050, it will be necessary to increase world food production by 60%. With so much technology available, it may seem easy to imagine that rural producers will increase production to the desired levels, if it were not for the challenges to be overcome. Here I highlight some of the environmental challenges we are already facing or are expected to face:

Photography: CPRA

Photography: CPRA

Climate change

The change in temperature in different regions of the planet will bring different results in the dynamics of agricultural production. Temperate regions will become warmer and will make it possible to grow plants that were previously impossible. Tropical regions will reach very high temperatures, reducing the diversity of agricultural crops. This will be stronger in regions such as Africa, Asia (specially in India), South America and Australia. The “gain in area” in temperate regions will not compensate for the losses in tropical regions, leaving a global negative balance in the availability of land with climatic conditions for the production of food along the traditional lines.

Soil degradation

Humanity has struggled for about 12,000 years to maintain the fertility of the soils to cultivate food. Before the arrival of chemical fertilizers, humanity achieved some increase in fertility with ashes, manure and forage plants. However, much of the planet's land was cultivated and abandoned after its fertility was reduced to levels that did not allow new harvests. Currently, even with the advent of chemical fertilizers and the development of technologies to increase organic matter in the soil, most of the cultivated land already experiences some level of degradation. This degradation is expected to worsen with climate change. This means more pressure on the most productive regions to meet the 2050 food demand.

Water supply

About 70% of the fresh water pumped by humanity meets agricultural demands, especially through irrigation. The degradation of water resources by agricultural activity occurs mainly due to deforestation, soil erosion and pumping water above the replacement capacity. Reports on highly impacted regions are easily found in the scientific literature. The reduction of the Aral Sea and the dead zone at the end of the Mississippi River are just some examples. With climate change, the availability of water will worsen – putting even more pressure on the use of this natural resource.

Energy source

With the massive use of oil, a series of equipment, inputs and related activities made it possible for food production to reach levels never before seen in history. The production of pesticides and fertilizers is only part of the equation. The mechanization of production through combustion engines, the transport of inputs and products, the use of electrical energy for processing, as well as the use of plastic packaging make up the rest of the equation. Thus, food production at current levels has become highly dependent on oil, which explains the variation in the price of food in proportion to the price of this input. Despite the fact that oil stocks still have about 50 years of supply, their use has caused great damage to the climate. Its replacement in each of the stages of food production requires customized strategies that should gain large scale.


Deforestation for food production plus contamination by pesticides and the use of fire to clean agricultural areas have resulted in one of the greatest forms of biodiversity degradation on the planet. The importance of biodiversity in food production has been studied and disseminated frequently. Noteworthy are pollination by insects and the use of native genetic material in processes of genetic improvement of consecrated foods. Increasing areas with native vegetation will bring gains in food production.

Part IV | Towards a virtuous cycle

Having understood these complex environmental challenges that lie ahead of us, one question arises: what are the sustainable alternatives to meet the demand for food for 2050? The solutions go through two major fronts: change in consumption patterns and change in the form of production.

When it comes to food consumption, it is important to substitute – or decrease – the consumption of foods that are highly demanding of natural resources and energy, such as meat. This is not an apology for vegetarianism. Producing meat requires a lot of space, a lot of water and a lot of energy. With the same resources, vegetables could be produced to feed many more people. A few years ago, the FAO recommended the consumption of insects as a source of animal protein. Consuming insects is a habit for many cultures, with emphasis on traditional populations in tropical forests. Indeed, it is already possible to find several entrepreneurs producing cricket flour, for example, to be incorporated in the manufacture of breads and cookies. Here is one exercise: ask your friends and family if they would be willing to increase their consumption of vegetables, decrease their consumption of meat and incorporate new food sources in their diets. Their answers will help you understand the difficulty in feeding the world’s population in 2050.

Regarding the change in the form of production, the best recommendations follow in the direction of mitigating the environmental challenges that I have already mentioned.

Regarding climate change, it is recommended to implement adaptation strategies in production based on the basic premise that our climatic patterns will continue to be altered and that the current mode of production will not be adequate in the future. One example: the cultivation of annual plants, which have shallow roots and suffer during short dry periods, can be replaced by perennial plants that have deeper roots that are able to capture water deeper in the soil.

In soil degradation, it is recommended to implement techniques that reduce erosion and increase the level of organic matter. The implantation of terraces, precision fertilization, direct planting, organic fertilization, and conservation of riparian forest stand out.
In the proper use of water, it is recommended to cultivate crops that have a greater productive response with a smaller amount of water, use of more efficient irrigation techniques and increased production with perennial plants that reach deeper waters.

In the reduction of energy consumption, the consumption of foods less demanding of fossil energy stands out, with emphasis on foods that require low chemical nitrogen fertilizer, little transport, little processing, and few packages. Food produced locally, sold “in natura”, are preferred, as well as foods that require less chemical inputs such as organic foods.

In the conservation of biodiversity, the use of bio-inputs, conservation of native vegetation within the rural property and not using fire as a technique for cleaning cultivated areas stand out.

The good news is that most of the practices mentioned above have been in the hands of humanity for many decades, but have not yet gained the necessary scale – either for economic reasons or for cultural resistance. Many of these techniques are part of production systems known as organic agriculture, agroforestry, no-till, precision agriculture, crop-livestock-forest integration, among others. Increasing its use ensuring that they will eventually replace less sustainable systems, is part of the alternatives we currently have to meet humanity’s future food demands.

Adolfo Dalla Pria
Agronomist with a PhD in Sustainable Development, he teaches at Brasília University and works as a project manager with focus on agriculture and the environment

The project Farming for the future: ecological agriculture and food security in the 21st century is a cross-border initiative aiming to document the trends, challenges and opportunities in ecological farming across the world. This project was financed by the UK Chevening Scholarship Programme.