Our global population is projected to exceed nine billion people by the year 2050. The number of actively producing farms in the developed world has suffered a slow, steady decline over the past two decades – while the global demand for fresh foods, protein, and feedstuffs has steadily increased. How will we feed a population of more than nine billion with fewer and fewer farms? The answers will likely demand that we become better stewards of water, energy, and land.
The farm of the future will need to produce more food and fiber per unit area of land than ever before. This means that production efficiencies must rise drastically, which will result in increased input costs and environmental interdependencies for farmers. The production of our food is already heavily dependent on three critical resources: water, land, and energy. The pathways to increase farm production efficiencies will likely include advancements in energy intensive strategies such as increased mechanization, automation, artificial climates, and food preservation techniques. More land under irrigation also seems inevitable if we are to produce more food on less land, with fewer human resources. Our farms of the future will be pioneers of both resource stewardship and innovation, preserving our precious natural resources while putting them to efficient use in producing agricultural products.
Today only roughly two percent (2%) of the population produces the food for our planet. This includes all the fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products that we consume. Over the past century, technological advances and improvements in motorized equipment have enabled the average farmer to feed roughly 150 people, compared to only being able to do the same for 19 people in the 1940’s (Prax, 2010). In the year 2050, a farmer will be required to feed at least 200 people, and based on the rate of reduction in both the number of farms and the amount of land under agricultural production, that number may be more like 300 people. But what will these ‘Farms of the Future’ be like?
The Nexus, Defined
The interdependencies of agriculture (water, food, land, and energy) has become commonly referred to as “the Nexus.” This term does not indicate a crossroads, where a pathway to agricultural production is independent of impacts on water supply and energy availability. Instead, it denotes a relationship of give and take: the decisions we make to utilize, exploit, or economize one of these critical elements of human existence are likely to have broad-reaching impacts on the other two. The realization of these interdependencies, and more importantly, the fragility of the balance of satisfying these needs must lead us to proactively invest in agricultural innovations, as much as we have with water and energy. The needs for energy innovations have been wildly popularized in society, such as may be seen through promulgation of solar panels the world-over. Similarly, water sustainability innovations, such as reclaiming water from wastes, water conservation devices, and even desalinization have become more commonly deployed. However, the drive for innovations in maximizing the productivity of healthy foods through sustainable agricultural practices seems, by many, silent in comparison.
There is no doubt that the ‘Farms of the Future’ must be able to be self-sustaining; but what does that mean? How will farmers supply the water needs of crops and livestock in ways that do not increase demands on other water users? Many farmers already utilize animal manures as nutrient-rich fertilizers for their crops and bedding for their animals – will they be able to take the manures from livestock and convert them to biogas to run the machinery serving their farms, Will they be able to return nutrients, water, and carbon to the land in which the food is produced in such a manner that none is wasted (meaning the only export from the farms is the food products that are to be consumed, rather than in the form of air emissions, water waste, and exported solid wastes)? What alternate sources of revenue may be developed to sustain small, locally sourced farms? And, perhaps most importantly, how may farms of the future also provide energy for 200 people in addition to the food they require?
The following paragraphs explore the demands that farms of the future will face relative to this precious, limited resources required for their delivery of the food and fiber we need; as well as some of the approaches we may see come to fruition that address the competing needs for land, water, and energy.
Demand Placed on Lands
About eleven percent (11%) of the land surface of planet Earth is used in crop production, which amounts to approximately 13.4 billion hectares. Although this seems to be a substantial amount of land, it is estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations that this only represents slightly more than one-third (1/3) of the land that is estimated to be suitable, to some degree, for crop production. In addition to increased production efficiencies (kcal produced per unit land area), we will likely need to place a larger area of land into arable production to feed the world’s population. According to The World Bank, over the past decade, the percentage of total land used for agricultural production in developed countries has been on a slow, steady decline. This means that we, as a globe, must look to developing countries to play a more significant role in the production of foodstuffs. Compare this with the acknowledgment that the greatest population growth is projected to also occur in developing countries, and the strain for agricultural land use becomes even greater.
According to the FAO, over the past 60 years, the amount of land used for crop production across the globe has increased by a little over ten percent (10%), while over this same period the population has more than doubled. The resultant land dedicated to providing agricultural crop production (food) per person has decreased by more than forty percent (40%). Much of this land has been repurposed for other uses, such as residential and commercial development. Still, some of these lands have also been repurposed for energy generation, such as through the proliferation of utility-scale solar farms. This is not to suggest that renewable energy development is in competition with agriculture and food production at all; rather, it underscores the importance of our decision making process and what influences our decisions to affect any leg of the nexus. In many cases, solar deployment on lands that may have been previously used for agriculture may be very beneficial, as it provides for a source of close, reliable electricity in areas that may be underserved with energy infrastructure, supporting the more energy-intensive strategies for increasing agricultural productivity. However, we must be careful not to incentivize the displacement of highly productive agricultural lands for other purposes, thus compounding the nexus issues.
The increasing demands for both more land to be placed into agricultural production and more production efficiency per unit are of land will require a significant investment in energy. Much of the new land to be placed into agricultural production will be done in areas where rainfall will be insufficient, and this, irrigation will be required. The impacts of increased irrigation are discussed in more detail in the subsequent section of this article. Other areas, conversely, may be too wet and must me drained, or are in very remote areas where access to energy infrastructure – electricity and fuel – have previously inhibited the growth of agriculture. Other practices that include land levelling, fencing, clearing, and technology implementation are available to aid in the conversion of lands to agricultural production, but will come at significant capital cost, and with ongoing energy demands. As we develop these lands into agricultural (food) production, we must take care not to lose sight of providing for the energy needs of these farms of the future. We have a great opportunity to develop on-farm energy production and harvesting systems that complement the food production systems that will be placed into production – namely, bioenergy systems that repurpose organic wastes (manures, crop residues, and other inedible or undesirable organic products of agriculture) into fuels and electricity. Doing so will result in energy cost savings for the farmer, and promote the use of advanced technologies and equipment that increase food production at lessened burden to our existing, sometimes over-taxed, energy infrastructure.
Demand Placed on Water
Much of our modern agricultural lands are already irrigated. According to various sources, as much as seventy percent (70%) of modern-day fresh water consumption is for irrigation, as compared to only 22% for industrial use, and 8% for domestic use. In most areas of the planet under agricultural production, irrigation increases crop yields by a factor of 2 to 5. It is estimated that irrigated crops represent nearly forty percent (40%) of our total food supply already, and based on the increased pressures placed on agriculture to produce for food per unit area of land, there is no disputing this percentage will increase. Without significant improvements in the water efficiency associated with agricultural production, many areas may face a significant challenge in managing the scarcity of water brought on by agricultural needs.
Some of the most productive agricultural lands that feed our planet, such as the American Midwest, rely on irrigation for agricultural production. Much of this area has been faced with drought conditions over the past two decades that has led to increased water use for irrigation simply to maintain typical production yields. Unfortunately, many parts of our globe that can be very productive in growing food chain crops and livestock are underutilized due to lack of irrigation resulting from technological, economic, infrastructure, and water supply constraints. Many times, irrigation use is also inhibited due to lack of access to electrical infrastructure or fuel supplies to power the irrigation pumps and controls systems required to implement this practice.
One of the greatest economic barriers to increased irrigation is the operational costs associated with electricity and fuel required to power these systems. For us to feed our growing population, farms of the future must develop less energy-intensive means of satisfying crop and livestock water needs in the future. In the same manner in which farmers of the future must learn to produce even more food value (kcal) per unit area of land, they must also learn to do so with less water inputs (kcal produced per unit volume water required) – particularly water inputs that may be required from beyond the farms fences. Farms of the future must lead our planet in demonstrated water efficiency, and inherently, energy efficiency.
Demand Placed on Energy
There are great opportunities to improve energy efficiency in agricultural production, and farms of the future must learn to accomplish more work with less energy inputs. However, increases in mechanization, irrigation, food preservation, and transportation of inputs and harvested goods will all require a much greater portion of the planets energy reserves. For these reasons, farms of the future must also be leaders in the transition from finite fuel supplies, such as fossil fuels, to renewable sources. As previously stated in this article, these farms must learn to not only provide food for the planet’s population, but must also learn to be energy providers; capitalizing on land availability and use, harvesting solar energy, harvesting carbonaceous fuels from agricultural wastes, and growing energy crops in a manner that does not compete with the production of food crops.
One approach to satisfying the great demand for energy that will arise from agricultural production is through energy generation on the farms, themselves. These ‘fuel farming’ systems may include approaches such as using anaerobic digestion to harvest the carbon from animal manures and crop residues for use as fuel, incorporating hydropower systems in irrigation impoundments, and smart incorporation of solar panels in ways that complement agricultural production rather than compete with it (such as on the rooftops of barns and buildings).
The anaerobic digestion process produces an energy-rich biogas that may be used to fuel a combustion engine to generate electricity. Alternately, the biogas may be purified and compressed to an alternative to Natural Gas (CNG) to fuel the farm equipment and vehicles. Excess biogas (biogas produced above and beyond the fuel needs of the farm) could be trucked or piped to other fuel users for similar purposes, providing for energy sustainability and cleaner options for transportation fuels, as compared to gasoline or diesel fuel. In some places, biogas is already used to fuel public transportation buses and fleets of vehicles. All of these forms of energy generation through use of wasted organic materials present farmers with additive net revenues, either through direct sale to market or simple cost aversion by reducing the amount of energy purchased for farming operations. In addition to carbon-based fuels, farms of the future may look to utilizing solar panels in applications that do not compete for space with arable production.
Used wisely, solar panels can play a very productive role in sustaining agricultural production. Solar panels are easily placed on the rooftops of animal confinement buildings, storage barns, silos, and other structures vital to food production. Solar panels may also be configured to provide wind breaks that protect certain crops, and provide shade for plants that thrive in partial sunlight, such as coffee. Solar panels may also be configured to direct rainfall to cisterns and irrigation storages for specific utilization on receiving crops. And, in addition to photovoltaic solar, thermal solar panels may be deployed to provide hot water for heating animal confinement buildings, cooking and preserving harvested crops, and sanitation.
Similarly, wind turbines may be strategically placed atop buildings and in areas that do not infringe upon productive agricultural lands. Alternate energy sources, such as hydroelectric power turbines that derive energy from impounded water (such as irrigation impoundments), geothermal, etc. can all play a vital role in satisfying the energy needs of the farm, and provide energy to the surrounding community that may be consumed by land uses less suitable to these approaches. Farms of the future will likely utilize a combination of these strategies, similar to crop diversification, to ensure economic vitality and sustainability.
What it all means
Farms of the future be called upon to nourish an astounding number of people in the near future, resulting in greater pressures on our planet’s water, land, and energy resources. It will be imperative that farms of the future develop technologies, systems, and practices that have much greater efficiencies (more food per unit area of land, per unit volume of water input, and per unit measure of energy input) than the farms of today. They will need more energy to irrigate crop production lands and water livestock. They will need more energy to fuel increased farm mechanization to reduce labor requirements and land requirements. More energy will be needed for information technologies, such as sensors and computerization that improves farmer’s ability to make informed decisions on nutrients, irrigation, pesticides, and food freshness. Increased energy demand will result from the needs to support the significant reduction in food waste due to spoilage, contamination, and pests through improved food preservation systems.
In addition to the conservation initiatives and energy efficiency initiatives that will be implemented by farms of the future, they must develop on-farm energy recovery and generation systems that utilize excess carbon associated with by-products such as animal manures and crop residues to generate fuels and electricity. The harvesting of excess carbon must be balanced with the needs to return organic materials to the soil to sustain soil health and plat health. Other methods of renewable energy generation must also be employed, to the extent practical, such as harvesting solar energy for electricity and heat. Other opportunities exist to derive multiple benefits from on-farm energy systems, such as harvesting wind energy from wind turbines that provide wind-breaks, solar panels that provide shade for certain crops, and hydropower derived from impounded surface waters for crop irrigation.
The practices and techniques described above, including crop irrigation, better sanitation practices, cooling, cooking, preserving, and mechanization will afford the opportunities to greatly reduce the amount of food that is wasted, while supporting increased food production efficiencies. As previously stated, though, these advances in food production cannot occur without addressing the impacts on the planets water supply and energy reserves. Through developing techniques to allow farms of the future to create and use fuels and electricity produced on the farm, these farms may not only seek energy independence, which reduces risk imposed by climatological and political factors beyond the farmers control, but creates opportunities for farmers to grow our energy as well as our food.
To aid in reducing the demands placed on our resources to support food production, our society must also learn to greatly decrease food waste. Some estimates report as much as 50% of all food produced is wasted (Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimate). While some of this waste is due to poor sanitation, lack of food preservation techniques, and spoilage, much is a result of our unsustainable eating habits. Too often, consumer preferences result in disposal of edible products due to aesthetics, presentation, and overall poor utilization of the food that is grown. This results in not only a waste of the food products themselves, but all the water and energy inputs that were invested in the production of that foodstuff.
At Cavanaugh, we believe that the proper balance of land, water, and energy can be achieved to sustain our population, but only through active planning and communication. The needs for water, food and energy must be met but not at the expense of one another – or our global economy. Cavanaugh works passionately with agricultural producers, processors, industry experts and policy makers to develop and implement tools that create the most value out of every drop of water consumed. We also focus on generating clean bioenergy from agricultural wastes, which strengthens the agricultural economy and lessens environmental impacts from modern farming operations.
The preceeding article reflects concepts from a presentation Gus Simmons made at the Fifth International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste, San Servolo, Venice, Italy; 17 – 20 November 2014 Additional information can be found in the Proceedings. ã 2014 by CISA Publisher, Italy