The Next Agricultural Revolution?

Ian Alexander, Natural England

We, humans, started farming at the end of the last ice age, over 10,000 years ago.  Whatever initiated that transition to farming it enabled both substantial population increase and phenomenal technological and cultural development as, buffered by stores of produce, people were freed from the daily need to hunt and gather and could focus on the component tasks needed to build what we now term civilisation.  Agriculture has been and still is transformative.  It has been transformative in allowing our present and all previous civilisations to evolve but also transformative in the changes it has wrought on much of the world’s environment.  In the last century the net environmental changes can reasonably be described as damage.  From felling the Amazon to raise cheap beef or the soya to feed our livestock to the nutrients washing from farmland and contributing to the eutrophication of Poole Harbour this is damage.

The American designer Buckmaster Fuller is quoted as saying “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  Which begs a question – is it possible to build a new model for agriculture, to radically transform it?  I contend that the answer to that is clearly yes and there are numerous models.  Many of the best fit into a class of agriculture commonly referred to as agro-ecological.  But if they are clearly better, more sustainable, why do they not replace the old damaging systems?  Possibly because there are an awful lot of vested interests determined, for their own rational corporate reasons, to keep the present model going as long as possible.  (Why do oil majors continue to spread misinformation about climate change and renewable energy?).  A further question then is what might break that hegemony, is there a new and different suite of technologies that might drive a change?

I think that there are four linked technologies either already in the market place or about to hit it that, collectively, will likely overwhelm and displace much of industrial agriculture.  For my whole career we have been told that we must make a choice between land sharing (lower intensity agro-ecological systems that can also support biodiversity but require the conversion of ever more wilderness to agriculture if we are to ‘feed the world’) and land sparing (continued industrialisation and intensification of farming so that food can be produced from a smaller land area so that we can have more ‘nature reserves’).  This may be a false choice. If I’m right then in a very few years we will no longer be asked to make a choice; we’ll clearly be able to have both.

At the core of this is an understanding that a large proportion of the demand for land for farming is linked to the production of meat and dairy, not so much to house the animals but to produce the crops used to feed those animals, most especially those in intensive productions systems.  Approaching half of the world’s crop lands are busy growing plants to be fed to animals and this is a gigantic inefficiency, both in terms of land use but also energy inputs to create the final food product.

Already multiple firms are using vegetable substitutes to make meat facsimile products.  Most of us are familiar with veggie burgers and as food technologists get better at this the ‘acceptability gap’ for consumers is narrowing.

Microbial foods have also been with us for a while in the form of fungal based substitutes for meat but it seems probable that new bacterially based foods will be on shop shelves very shortly.  The inputs to these microbial production systems in terms of water, energy, land and other resources are trivial by comparison with conventional agriculture.

Acellular agriculture utilises genetically modified micro-organisms and a fermentation system to produce the proteins that we have traditionally relied on livestock to supply us with.  The micro-organisms (the GM component) are both completely contained within an industrial production system and do not appear in the final food stuff, just the proteins that they produce.

Finally companies involved in cellular agriculture are taking tiny biopsy samples of stem cells from living animals and growing them in vitro to produce genuine meat tissues but without many of the costs (financial and environmental) of needing to raise the whole animal. 

Now these technologies are a long, long way from producing your Sunday roast.  But your Sunday roast is a tiny amount of the demand for animal agriculture.  Most of the output from animal agriculture goes into manufacturing and manufacturers look for cost, quality and consistency in their supply chains – all factors where these technologies will score highly.  That may be why some of these innovator companies are being backed by agri-businesses like Tyson Foods and Cargill.  I think they can see which way the wind is blowing and want a bit of the action along with a clutch of ‘green’ venture capitalists whose motivation seems to be as much finding a disruptive technology with the potential to save the planet from the damage caused by animal production as to make money.

Awareness of the environmental damage being caused by farming and animal agriculture in particular is growing in the public consciousness and I don’t see there being a shortage of a market place for this suite of products when they become cost and quality competitive.

I’m not predicting the end of farming but it is looking as though a big part of bulk commodity production – the type of industrial farming that, post WWII, has driven most of the environmental damage could be rendered obsolete and soon.  If you doubt the speed with which this might happen just reflect – UK electricity production had its first coal free day since the 1880s in 2017, in May 2019 we had our first coal free week and in the summer of 2020 we went around four months with no coal generated electricity.  Would you have predicted that in 2010?  We might want to start thinking now about the sort of farming industry that we wish to emerge from the coming transition; one that delivers both land sharing and land sparing.


Example of companies involved in disruptive technologies outlined above:

Vegetable Meat Substitutes – Beyond Meat / Impossible Foods

Microbial Food – Quorn / Solar Foods

Acellular Agriculture – Perfect Day Foods / Clara Foods

Cellular Agriculture – Memphis Meats / Vitrolabs

Sunday Roast photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash