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.
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.