The world is changing, probably irreversibly, and we are changing it together.
Agriculture has been an essential activity since millennia ago human societies abandoned nomadism and began to settle in ever larger communities. In a changing world like ours, it is not easy to predict how things will happen, it will depend on what we do in the coming years or decades .
Any future of humanity will have to maintain agricultural activity in one way or another, since it is the main source of food. In this sense, we cannot know what the agriculture of the future will be like, but we can try to understand what difficulties it will have to endure, and how they can be solved.
Many sectors advocate promoting what has been called ‘sustainable development’, a model that allows simultaneous economic growth and reduction in the use of resources and environmental impact. Being realistic, sadly, sustainable development understood from this perspective is a total utopia.
In order for a truly sustainable advance to take place, one that reduces environmental damage and makes it possible to stop, or if possible, reverse, the global change that is taking place, it would be necessary, first of all, to decouple economic activity from environmental impacts. This process is called decoupling, and to be really effective it must be absolute, global, permanent and fast . Absolute , because relative decouplings do not reduce environmental impact. Global , because local decoupling does not imply progress if the impact increases in other regions. Permanent , because a temporary decoupling will not solve the problem in the medium or long term. Quick , because the climate emergency requires it.
To date, no policy related to sustainable development has been shown to be sufficient in terms of decoupling, and it fails in at least one of the four requirements. Some propose relative decoupling that is not actually carried out; Others propose absolute local decoupling, in exchange for transferring part of their production —and therefore, their impact— to other countries.
A meta-analysis developed in 2020 by Tere Vadén, from the BIOS Research Unit, in Helsinki, Finland, is devastating in this regard. Currently, there is no evidence that the decoupling necessary for true ecological sustainability to occur has occurred.
To achieve the required sustainability goals, a total change will be necessary, not only in human activity, but also in how we understand the economy. Essential activities, such as agriculture, will have to adapt not only to a changing climate that is increasingly hostile, but also to a new model that allows an absolute decoupling between agricultural production and environmental impact.
Technology at our service
Throughout the history of civilizations, technological advances have provided a significant boost to agricultural productivity and efficiency. From the invention of the plow to the development of large machinery , technology has always been closely linked to agriculture.
New technologies, whether in the form of robotics , improvement in different types of sensors , increasingly sensitive, and even in artificial intelligence, can become the engine of a new agricultural revolution.
In the words of engineer Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University in Newport, UK, ” a robotic farming system can make crop production significantly more efficient and sustainable .”
Currently, robotic harvesting devices are being tested, as well as sensing technologies that allow plant growth or soil quality to be monitored and crops to be maintained more efficiently.
It is possible to detect the presence of pests and diseases early. In the agriculture of the future, these technologies could act with specificity and precision, without resorting to the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
Although some of these technologies already exist, most are in the research stage.
Genetic engineering as an ally
Technological advances can reach far beyond robotics, automation, sensors, or the predictive and analytical capabilities of artificial intelligence. In a way, the use of transgenic organisms it has already begun to revolutionize agriculture, though not always in the desirable direction.
The advantages of biotechnology are abundant, and allow us to develop more productive plants, capable of producing enriched foods, and even surviving in adverse situations where other plants fail.
Unfortunately, some companies have used this technology for their own benefit, which, added to unfairly restrictive policies, have relegated a good part of public research in this field to the virtual disappearance.
But taking a position against transgenesis, taking refuge in the exaggerated profit of large companies, is like taking a position against information technology, taking refuge in the monopoly of Microsoft and Apple, and ignoring the current and potential advantages that technology can offer.
The next step in this revolution is given by CRISPR technology. The agriculture of the future, or at least an optimal future, includes gene editing in its catalogue. In general, traditional breeding is unlikely to be enough to meet a growing demand for food, with a climate change scenario as predicted by climate models, and transgenesis, while promising, is limited.
In this sense, CRISPR could overcome these limitations and accelerate the genetic improvement of plants in a way that we cannot yet glimpse. But in order to take advantage of all its potential benefits and achieve good agriculture in the future, much more research will be needed to resolve its technical uncertainties and appropriate legal regulation , which considers the use of CRISPR as a new method of reproduction, capable of producing desired results. more predictably than conventional methods, much faster, and probably cheaper.
Always keeping the focus, of course, on the problems of the future, on that global change that is approaching, which in some way is already acting . Knowing that the direction to take is that absolute, global, permanent, rapid, and above all, real decoupling.
The one that really promotes sustainability in a society that finally recognizes that infinite growth is not possible when resources are finite .
Gao, C. 2018. The future of CRISPR technologies in agriculture. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology, 19(5), 275-276. DOI: 10.1038/nrm.2018.2
Giovannucci, D. et al. 2012. Food and Agriculture: The Future of Sustainability (SSRN Scholarly Paper N.o 2054838). Social Science Research Network. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2054838
Iglesias, A. et al. 2011. Looking into the future of agriculture in a changing climate. European Review of Agricultural Economics, 38(3), 427-447. DOI: 10.1093/erae/jbr037
King, A. 2017. Technology: The Future of Agriculture. Nature, 544(7651), S21-S23. DOI: 10.1038/544S21a
Vadén, T. et al. 2020. Decoupling for ecological sustainability: A categorisation and review of research literature. Environmental Science & Policy, 112, 236-244. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2020.06.016