There’s something about beginning a new year that brings hope and anticipation. While a certain amount of reflection is good, January is more about looking forward, not backward. As I think about what the future holds for agriculture and for Bayer, I can’t help but get excited about the changes that are swiftly and irrevocably transforming our industry. Here are five trends that I think will create some unique challenges and opportunities for us over the next few years:
I don’t believe we’ve even scratched the surface of digital crop production and yet we’re already light years ahead of where we were a decade ago. People get excited about driverless cars, but this technology will likely be even more quickly adopted in agriculture. Self-driving tractors, drones and robots guided by a farmer’s phone or tablet will enable 24/7 farming during critical times of the season. And the integration of artificial intelligence, satellite imagery and sophisticated predictive software will help farmers make key decisions in real time, saving time, money and maybe even a crop from the devastating impact of pests or extreme weather.
Most of us understand that consumer preference is a major driver of change in our industry. We’ve already seen a shift toward more protein-rich diets throughout the world and some reports predict the global protein ingredients market will approach USD 50 billion by 2025. Consumers are the ultimate customer and everyone in agriculture must adapt to their needs and expectations, especially when it comes to the quality and safety of their food. But consumers are not the only demographic that is changing. While the average farmer is getting older, younger people are also entering agriculture. Many of them come from non-farming backgrounds, but all will bring new ideas about farming and with it a desire to embrace cutting-edge technologies.
Focus on soil health
Some have claimed that soil health represents the next frontier in farming. While we know full well the benefits of reduced tillage in preserving soils and preventing erosion and moisture loss, we are still in our infancy regarding the complexities of the soil biome. Our new partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks is just one example of the many ways Bayer is approaching this new frontier. This new company will look to improve plant-associated microbes and will focus on nitrogen fixation and utilization, which is a crucial need in most crops. If successful, this research could reduce the cost of crop fertilization, while driving down greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for runoff into waterways.
Innovation in plant breeding
We are on the doorstep of changing how our crops can better cope with evolving pest pressures and a changing climate. Innovations in plant breeding use a plant’s natural genetic variability as the basis for developing new crops and delivering foods that can satisfy the needs of both farmers and consumers. Recent methods, such as CRISPR, will enable breeders to knock out or silence a particular gene to produce a desirable characteristic. What once took breeders many years and thousands of random crosses can be done in a fraction of the time and cost. These breeding methods can be accomplished in small labs or large ones, which will accelerate our collective body of knowledge and bring new solutions to farming.
Collaboration and transparency
The fifth major trend I want to highlight is more philosophical than it is materialistic, but I think it forms the foundation of how agriculture innovates in the future. While we are proud of our rich heritage of research at Bayer, we know that we cannot rely on a “not invented here” mindset. Collaboration is critical and it’s why we’ve redoubled our efforts to establish strategic partnerships, VC investments, incubators and crowdsourcing – even in industries outside of agriculture. But innovation is useless if the public doesn’t accept what we’re doing. The best disinfectant for public mistrust is transparency and I’m happy to say Bayer is leading our industry by opening our safety research to public scrutiny. Our reason is simple: Since we all share the same planet, we can only progress if we work together and build trust through open and honest dialogue.
While these are my “Top 5” trends, I could have mentioned many more, such as new types of farming and food systems (e.g., vertical, indoor, high-tech greenhouse, laboratory-produced meat), vertical integration, for example Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, dealing with resource scarcity (especially water), changing agricultural policies, and politicization of the regulatory process. Clearly, there’s a lot going on and a lot to consider for the future.
Yes, times are changing – and so is agriculture. It’s up to us to make sure we stay focused on our primary goal, which is to help feed the world and remain flexible enough to help shape the future of farming.