Scientist working in the field
Copyright: Rothamsted Research

On Friday 22 September 2017 the UK officially bid farewell to summer and welcomed in the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – epitomised by Keats in his poem ‘Ode to Autumn’. The arrival of the new season is signalled by changes in the environment around us – chlorophyll breaking down to reveal the gold and red hues we associate with autumn. And so, with thoughts of harvest in the air, the recent completion of the Hands Free Hectare caught my attention.  This project, a collaboration between Harper Adams University and Precision Decisions, is the first ever in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop via autonomous vehicles and drones. It provides a glimpse of how innovative technology can transform current approaches to agriculture, including harvesting, and stimulates thoughts on what our food production systems might look like in 2050.

Predictions of population growth suggest that by 2050 the world’s population will have expanded to over 9 billion and 60% more food will be required to avoid mass malnutrition and starvation. A huge boost in agricultural productivity will be needed to meet this demand. It is not simply about using more land for food production, but maximising efficiency of land use and resources, increasing the resilience of food supply chains, while at the same time protecting the environment. On the face of it this might seem like an impossible task, but the convergence of sensor technologies, robotics and autonomous systems, big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, together with advances in genomics, crop and livestock breeding, offers an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionise farming practises. This opportunity applies equally to emerging and developing countries, as well as developed nations.

Combine harvester in the field
Copyright: Harper Adams University

So what could food production in 2050 look like? The Economist’s Science and Technology editor, Geoffrey Carr, wrote a chapter in the recently released book ‘Megatech: Technology in 2050’ – entitled ‘Farming Tomorrow’. The chapter vividly explores the possibilities that lie ahead for the future of farming; apps with answers on soil, weather conditions and equipment availability. And further reading suggests faster growing crops through boosting photosynthesis, underground urban vegetable factories and ‘synthetic’ food consumption.

Scientists working in the field
Copyright: Anthony Cullen, Earlham Institute

Deployment of smart technologies and integrated digital solutions on farm, in the field and factory, coupled with new crop and livestock species, has the potential to transform the entire ‘farm to fork’ supply chain, greatly enhancing resilience.  With autonomous systems and digital technologies providing farmers real-time sensing, testing, measuring and reporting capabilities, the UK would be in a much stronger position to farm sustainably, producing healthy, nutritious and economically viable food, while preserving farmland and protecting the wider environment for generations to come. The UK has the world class research capabilities in institutes, centres, universities and businesses that could deliver such a transformation.

What does Harvest 2050 look like to you?

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