To accommodate the increasing number of land use drivers, including food production, energy, fiber and nature recovery, land must be used intelligently, sustainably and fairly. Part of that will be up to policy, such as the land use framework, which was due to be published last year. A further part will be left to market forces in terms of which forms of land use are profitable. Another part will fall to innovation. Exactly how much of a part depends on the scale of innovation and the agriculture sector’s willingness to adopt it.

In the near term, artificial intelligence (AI) will be difficult to ignore. Besides enjoying a rapid rise in awareness in 2023, it has a huge range of potential applications too, including for agriculture:

  • Facilitating the use of robotics; AI is already being used in horticulture to pick fruits at the perfect time, alleviating labour constraints and improving product quality.
  • Making land management decisions; through knowing previous cropping decisions, soil types and fertiliser prices, AI could help inform decisions on what to plant, where to plant it and what to do when it’s planted.
  • Disease and pest management; with appropriate sensors, AI will identify pest and disease far earlier than traditional methods and farm management decisions can be modified accordingly.
  • Market analysis and predictions: by analyzing factors like weather and hectares planted, AI could forecast final yields and, therefore, expected prices for agricultural commodities.

The level of success AI can ultimately achieve will be down to a number of factors, but none more so than data. AI is only as good as the data that is fed to it, so in order to help with land management decisions, land managers must first be able to collect robust information. The higher the quality of the data, the higher the quality of the AI decisions and, therefore, the final outcome.

…and beyond
Experts are realising that modern science still has a lot of work to do to catch up with millennia-worth of natural evolution. Replicating, scaling and utilising the biochemical processes harnessed by the natural world since before humans existed will demand vast quantities of resource that we simply do not have. Flavorings, medicines, and other chemicals are already extracted from farmed crops the world over. Scientists are turning more and more to plants and organisms to synthesize the chemicals and materials the modern world demands, with some input from modern science, too.

Unfortunately, certain useful chemicals are only produced under precise conditions, conditions that controlled environment agriculture (CEA) can replicate at scale. Given the difficulty of producing these chemicals and materials via other means, they are inherently valuable and provide a means for CEA to create high-value products to offset the high costs of controlling the environment so precisely. This form of high-value cropping is one way in which indoor farming can overcome financial obstacles, particularly in nations where indoor farming is seen as less of a necessity due to food or water security concerns. Moreover, CEA can produce these chemicals while catering to increasing consumer demand for sustainable products rather than those from petrochemical origins.

A similar result might be achieved by alternative means, such as precision fermentation. This uses fermentation and genetically modified microorganisms like yeast to produce valuable products, including low-carbon food products or next-generation medicinal therapies. The exact mechanisms that produce those specific compounds in plants could be transplanted or replicated in other microorganisms, which can then be propagated via precision fermentation. The future is unlikely to be black or white but rather a greyish mix of the two technologies, at least to begin with.

Three key themes
So, as land is being used for more and more reasons, agritech is responding in three main ways:

  1. Finding ways to make traditional land use more sustainable. Even regenerative agriculture can still rely heavily on herbicides to control weeds, but agritech could change that. For example, using a combination of robotics, AI, and existing, non-chemical weeding methods.
  2. Increasing the yield of commodities, be that food, fiber, fuel, or something else. There will be a ceiling to exactly how much a crop can grow in a certain patch of land, but agritech is a way to break through that ceiling. CEA removes and changes the nature of the ‘land’ that crops grow on. Equally, technologies like genetic editing and precision fermentation could change that crop to yield more or completely remove the need for the crop.
  3. Creating solutions to enable new kinds of land use. Take carbon credits. If they are to be used to tackle climate change in any meaningful way, there needs to be a way to quantify the carbon sequestered across vast swathes of different kinds of land. Agritech solutions could be anything from an on-the-ground soil sampling kit to an AI analysis of satellite imagery.

Much of this agritech is still in its infancy but we still have a way to go to achieve our new ambitions so it is fair to expect these three strands to continue for some time to come. Timing adoption to balance the avoidance of teething problems and realizing the benefits of being an early adopter will be key.

For more information:
Joe Lloyd
Head Office London, Research Analyst
+44 (0) 207 299 3016

Alex Bragg
Cambridge Director, Head of Cambridge Rural Department
+44 (0) 1223 347 206