Take it from a site dedicated to trends and innovation: forecasting the future is a tricky business. In an effort to help clarify the conversation, the National Farmers Union (NFU) released a report on Sunday that highlights what it thinks are likely to be the most marked changes in the way we produce and consume food in the next two decades.
The author of the report, Dr Andrea Graham, is head of policy services at the NFU and based her prognostications on conversations with industry leaders, farmers, scientists, environmental groups, government representatives, retailers and economists.
So what will the year 2040 look like for agriculture?
In five years, the global market for agricultural robots is expected to be worth $73.9bn, a gigantic leap from just $3bn in 2015.
From selective harvesting to livestock feeding, automatons are becoming more skilful, able to care for crops and animals alike. Unmanned aerial vehicles in the sky can be used to provide real-time information on fields, detecting the onset of disease early, while nanosensors on the ground – named one of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2016 by the World Economic Forum – relay soil data and moisture levels to smart applications.
Ear tags on cows and sheep are being tested for use as both health monitors and virtual electric fences, but the most advanced gadgets touched upon in the report are those that use quantum sensing and measurement to map invisible underground features through minute changes in gravity.
Controversial but with a large body of supporters, tech like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, if you must know) will eventually win out over detractors to become commonplace in 20 years, according to the NFU. CRISPR essentially allows producers to edit the genomes of crops and animals, making them resistant to common diseases, more versatile in different climates and nutritionally richer. The main stumbling block stems from concerns over how the technology could irreversibly damage DNA, causing unforeseen issues down the line, though proponents say enough is now understood about manipulating genes to avoid such pitfalls.
Moving away from the complexities of genome editing, vertical farming is a much simpler concept that is already transforming supermarkets and suppliers. “Hydroponics, aquaponics and other controlled environment systems will not just be a niche market or a novel urban enterprise,” remarks the NFU report, citing how these techniques require less soil, fertiliser and ground space – as well as being able to reduce waste. Cons: the energy consumption required to run these facilities is currently quite high and not all crops can be grown in this environment. Yet.
Food in 3D
There are definitely still some kinks to work out with this Star Trek-esque innovation, but the NFU believes its flexibility means it can be utilised in a multitude of ways, including adding nutritional value, reducing the need for preservatives or just creating really attractive eats.
“More direct government intervention is likely, as are waste reduction targets,” according to the report. Fortunately, it also says consumers are increasingly accepting wonky veg. Plus, there are many routes emerging to combat leftovers, from technology that helps to streamline and manage production processes, to increased creativity in the use of the entire animal or vegetable in NPD. “Smart packaging will be commonplace, as will smarter ordering systems for domestic restocking, which will help reduce waste in the home and improve the efficient use of resources needed to deliver food to where it is required,” adds the NFU.
4 ways our eating habits are changing
Consumers are spending much less time than before preparing their meals – about half as long (30 minutes) as in 1980, according to Kantar Worldpanel. At the same time, food-to-go offerings are growing at twice the rate of overall grocery retail, according to IGD, which estimates the category will grow from £17.8bn last year to £22.8bn in 2023. Lifestyle habits tend to change slowly, but the nudge towards quick eats has been a long time in the making.
Considering the UK’s ageing population – the Office of National Statistics estimates 18% are already over 65, with that figure only expected to rise in coming years – health would have been on the plate regardless of any other market changes. Combine that with the general desire for more nutritional ingredients and dishes in younger generations, however, and it’s one of the most important aspects of modern eating. Over the five years to 2017, there was a 14% increase in the proportion of food served at home specifically chosen for health reasons, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Kantar Worldpanel. Meanwhile, genome sequencing is becoming so affordable that personalising dietary recommendations are already an area of enthusiastic experimentation.
Food as theatre
More people are shopping online, and they’re doing it while on the go. As a result, IGD forecasts that big-format stores will lose out in the next five years, as consumers opt instead for regular mini shopping trips rather than big weekly splurges. That doesn’t mean that bricks and mortar is dead – instead, these spaces need to become experiential areas where customers come to taste, touch and explore products before buying. The NFU report also predicts more ‘subscription buying,’ where products are purchased direct from the manufacturer or producer to cut out the costs of the middleman – not such good news for retailers, but a potential new revenue stream for farmers.
Cultured meat and insect protein
While the former is currently too expensive and the latter suffers from the ‘ick’ factor, the NFU says both have potential once these barriers are overcome. “There has been considerable research into the potential contribution that insect protein could make to food systems of the future, including by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), and cricket flour is already being used as a way of integrating protein into bakery goods,” notes the report. It adds that despite the rise in meat and dairy alternatives, these are unlikely to directly replace traditional animal products in the shopping basket by 2024, despite the rise in flexitarianism – 41% of meat eaters are now encompassed by this term, according to Kantar Worldpanel.