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Trends in Agriculture

In the last century, agricultural production intensified, but this increased its impacts on the environment, waste in supply chains and in some regions of the world, disconnected it from people’s lives. Projections of global population growth and changing consumption patterns out to 2050 suggest further increases in food production will be needed. This POSTnote outlines key drivers of global agricultural trends and the challenge of safeguarding both food production and environment value in a changing world.

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University of Illinois Agricultural Robot with Sensors Gathering Data

Global agricultural production might have to double in the next 30 years to meet changing food consumption patterns. Along with population growth, consumption patterns for some population groups are expected to converge on those typical of affluent countries. Four crops, maize, rice, wheat and soybeans, currently provide nearly two-thirds of global calorie intake. However, yields in these four crops are increasing at less than the 2.4% per year required to double global production by 2050. 

The further intensification of agricultural production to meet growing food demand may increase its environmental impacts. For example, agriculture can have high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of the use of fossil-fuelled heavy machinery, such as tractors, and inputs, such as fertilisers. It is responsible for approximately 24% of global GHG emissions, with transportation accounting for 14%, and electricity and heat production for 25%. Agriculture is the biggest polluter of freshwaters in many countries, rates of water use for irrigation exceed replenishment in others and agricultural practices are partly responsible for declines in biodiversity and soil degradation.

An estimated 29% of all farms globally are involved in initiatives to increase food production without increasing their land use, which amounts 9% of agricultural land. Innovation and technological advances, such as data-enabled precision agriculture and robotic farming, may be one option for increasing yields while lowering inputs. However, studies have highlighted that such approaches will be insufficient to reduce the environmental impacts without changing dietary habits and reducing food waste.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Global requirements for food are changing. These include demand for higher quality products in developed countries and for higher protein diets in developing countries.
  • Increasing future levels of agricultural production will be challenged by factors such as climate change, declining soil quality and agricultural land availability.
  • Attitudes and behaviours of consumers affect production, such as trends in consumption of meat, demand for organic vegetables or locally sourced products.
  • Regulation of the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and subsidies for technology will affect farmers’ choices, farm productivity, and may drive innovation.
  • New agricultural technologies being developed to aid production include robots, drones, satellites and sensors.
  • New breeding techniques may produce crops and livestock with novel traits, or accelerate the ability to deploy known traits.

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