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Eating more, spending less: the fourth agricultural revolution I

Graphic showing the decrease in percentage of spending on food with respect to the average income in the US. The decline has been significant in the US and it is in line with the decline in other developed Countries. Credit: USDA

We went through 3 farming revolutions in our 300,000+ history.

The first one happened some 10,000 years ago with the “domestication” of some plants (like wheat, barley…). That increased the yield of agriculture through selection of those plants that best suited our nutritional needs.

The second one initiated some 5000 years ago with organised labour and irrigation infrastructures, lasting till the last century. Most people on Earth became farmers. The yield increased but remained quite low (you needed over 80% of people to feed the Earth population, roughly speaking the surplus in production was able to feed 20% of the human race).

Mechanised farming, fertilisers and insecticides drove the third agricultural revolution -the green revolution- multiplying the yield in an amazing way. In the US (and that applies basically to all Countries affected by the green revolution) the percentage of farmers went down from 82% of the 1800s to 2% of today. It means, roughly, that 2% of people produced a surplus able to feed 98% of the human race.

In parallel to this production increase we have seen a decrease in the percentage of income dedicated to buying food for feeding (we are spending more and more for eating as a social occupation, like going to fancy restaurants…), see the graphic showing a decrease from 14% to 6% in income dedicated to food eaten at home in the US (similar decrease is seen in other developed Countries) over the last 50 years.

This amazing result is what allowed the Earth population to expand from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to the 7.6 billion we have to feed today.

A look at the annual income spent on food in many Countries. The size of the bubble represents the percentage of the income spent on food -the larger the bubble the more percentage of the income spent on food. The colour of the bubble gets darker as more people are suffering from malnutrition. In general the more income percentage is spent on food the more people are suffering from malnutrition. This is not unexpected since feeding is a primary need and people dedicate as much income as possible to fill that need. Only when the need is met money will be spent on other “needs”. Credit: USDA

Yet we are facing even bigger problems today. We should prepare to feed a further 2 billion people in the next 30 years. More than that: we must prepare to meet the changing feeding habits of some 4 billion people in developing Countries that will be shifting from vegetable to an increasing meat based food. We are already using over 30% of the Earth arable land for raising livestock and it gets difficult to use more.

Technology is coming to help. Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems are fuelling the fourth agricultural revolution based on:

  • Vertical farming
  • Fully Automated farming
  • Engineered food
  • Meat factories

I’ll explore each of these in the next posts.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.