Barry Teater is a writer with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
In speculating about the future of agriculture, David Hollinrake, president of Syngenta Seeds and North America region director, is certain of one thing: “It’s not going to be my daddy’s farm moving forward.”
Hollinrake, who grew up on a 600-acre corn and soybean farm in Illinois, believes dramatic changes are coming to agriculture. Five megatrends will reshape the industry, he said in a keynote address to more than 300 people at Triad BioNight, an awards banquet sponsored June 20 by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Greensboro.
Drawing upon data reported by the Boston Consulting Group, Hollinrake had these projections:
Megatrend 1: A growing demand for food, fiber and fuel
Today’s global population of about 7.5 billion people will swell to about 9.5-10 billion people by 2050, resulting in 2.5 billion more mouths to feed, Hollinrake said.
“The opportunity is there for farmers, but the question remains, how on earth are we going to achieve this great demand load,” he said. “The fact is, we need about 60 percent more productivity in the future than what we have today, and we have to do it on likely less land than we have today.”
About 30 million acres of farmable land globally is degraded annually “to the point where they’re longer productive,” he explained.
Additionally, as more people achieve greater economic prosperity, they will eat more protein-rich meat, requiring greater production of plant crops to feed livestock, he said. Growing demand for renewable fuels will also drive the need for greater crop production.
Megatrend 2: Technology will help meet demand
When Hollinrake’s family was growing corn in Illinois in the 1980s, the typical yield was 130 bushels per acre. Now it’s 176 bushels per acre, due to new hybrids combined with technologies that allow plants to resist damaging insects and help farmers prevent weeds.
“The next generation (of technologies) is even more exciting,” he said. The convergence of biotechnology, crop-protection chemistry, emerging technologies like gene editing and digitalization will be key to feeding a growing world population.
Solutions are needed for abiotic stress in crop plants caused by conditions that are “too wet, too cold, too hot, too dry” and for diseases caused by fungi and other pathogens, he said.
Climate change also “will be part of our innovation requirement going forward,” he said. “We’re going to see corn grown much farther north. Canada will be a corn growing region in the future.”
Despite the high cost of developing new ag products – typically $150 million for a biotech application and $275 million for a new chemical – many new technologies are coming from startup companies, and “certainly the Triad region is rich with startup opportunities in this space,” he said.
“I’m really proud to represent a company that’s committed to investing in this space,” he said, noting that Syngenta invests about $1.3 billion per year globally in research and development.
Greensboro is the site of the Swiss company’s North America operations for crop protection, and Research Triangle Park is home to its global biotech operations.
Megatrend 3: Farmers will adopt advanced practices
Hollinrake said he expects to see “huge changes in farming practices, and I think we’re only at the beginning with AI (artificial intelligence) and many other things to come.”
Farmers will increasingly adopt GPS-guided drones for gathering field data and farm-management software for analyzing the numbers, he said. Genetically modified plants will resist fungi, viruses and insects, and will use nutrients more efficiently, requiring less fertilizer, water and crop-protection chemicals.
“This scenario may sound like a vision of farming’s future, but most of these individual elements are here today,” he said. “Suppliers and farmers that adapt the quickest will be the winners.”
Digital technology in particular will earn a prominent place on modern farms.
“Digitalization in agriculture was a pipedream just five years ago, and farmers were frustrated because they couldn’t harvest data and make meaningful decisions from it,” he said.
Now growers can collect and analyze data in real time, thanks to drones, smart sensors, connected field units and central control rooms.
“Today we can say that we’ve moved from precision ag to decision ag,” Hollinrake said. “The digital revolution is here and it’s here to stay, and it’s going to have a profound impact on our business. I never in my wildest dreams, growing up on a 600-acre farm, ever thought any of this would be possible.”
He said the adoption of advanced farming practices will increase dramatically by 2030, driving greater yields and efficiency, and allowing larger-scale farming.
“It’s going to lead to farmers farming a whole lot more acres than what they have today,” he said.
Megatrend 4: Structural shifts will change the family farm
The average age of today’s U.S. farmer is 59, and many farmers don’t have succession plans for their farms, Hollinrake said. This a recipe for the consolidation of farms into larger operations.
Already 13 million acres of U.S. land is farmed by only 714 farmers, he said. That’s an average farm size of more than 18,000 acres, a scale requires more sophisticated management.
“I coined the term farmer as the CEO,” he said, “and I think that will become the new norm.”
These large-scale farmers “are return-on-investment, tech savvy, CEO operators that have employed in their operations a CFO, a head of agronomy, a head of operations, a head of HR,” he said. “They really are functioning like a corporation, when in reality they’re a family farm.”
Megatrend 5: Sociopolitical issues will challenge growth
While Hollinrake is bullish on the future of ag innovation, his expectations are tempered by global challenges such as a lack of global regulatory harmony, political tensions, trade issues, product lawsuits and consumer distrust of ag technologies.
“I can’t help but think the sociopolitical challenge really is going to have a significant impact” on the ag industry, he said.
In particular, consumer opposition to engineered crops and crop-protection chemicals is a major challenge.
“We have to understand why there is opposition . . . and we have to do more about it,” he said.
Much of the consumer distrust of ag technology exists because “most people aren’t connected to where or how their food is grown,” he said. Only about 1.5 percent of the population is involved in agriculture, so misconceptions are inevitable.
“We have to understand on the innovation side of the business that there is an increased demand for locally grown, organic products, Hollinrake said. “We can’t argue with the trend toward organic, but we must help people understand that organic won’t produce the same type of output as conventional or more modern tools. In fact, it’s about 40-50 percent less on the large-scale row crops that most of the farmers that we interact with would represent.”
Despite having such statistics on its side, the ag industry needs to “connect the head and the heart” among consumers, Hollinrake said.
“We’ve been guilty in our industry of using data as our source of defense,” he said. “What we’ve lacked is the ability to connect with people’s emotion – why they have opposition. If we connect with the heart and show people we care, we really have a chance to connect all of us with what we’re trying to do with technology.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”