The fourth agricultural revolution: what this will mean for British Farmers

29 January 2021

The British farming industry is currently facing more challenges than ever before. On a local scale, Brexit will result in numerous legislative changes to agricultural policies; with little available information on what these changes may look like, there is a level of uncertainty for some farmers. On a more global – and longer term - scale, projections of population increases will continue to put enormous pressure on farming. By 2050, projections indicate a global population of 9.6 billion people. To keep up with demand, there will need to be around a 70% increase in food production.

Meeting this significant increase in food production is no easy task. A bigger population means less land available for farming as cities, towns and villages expand to accommodate more people. Additionally, with studies suggesting that climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1-2 percent per decade over the last century, adverse impacts projected to only increase going forward, farmers could also be battling against smaller yields.

With an awareness of where farming will need to be in the future, and these challenges in mind, farmers are beginning to turn to new technologies, to get more out of available land. This movement has been dubbed as the fourth agricultural revolution. What does this mean, and what might it involve?

Revolutions of the past

There have been 3 previous agricultural revolutions in history. The first occurred in Neolithic times, around 10,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Scientists hypothesise that an increase in temperature following the end of the last ice age drove this revolution, as wheat and barley began to grow in the region as it got warmer. This led the move from hunting and gathering to settlement and cultivation, making the generation of surpluses and the beginning of trade possible. This trend then spread from the Middle East into Europe.

The second agricultural revolution was pioneered in Britain between the 17th and 18th centuries, spreading to the rest of the world by the 19th century. The development of sophisticated crop rotation techniques and selective breeding of livestock, among other new techniques, led to a significant increase in agricultural production. In turn, an equally large increase in population numbers occurred which in turn, sustained the industrial revolution.

The third revolution – also known as the green revolution - was the largest in scale. Occurring in the 1950’s and 1960’s, new agricultural practices were developed to help improve the output and quality of crops, improving the efficiency of land. Techniques included growing new, high-yield varieties of crops through selective breeding. This transformed food production worldwide, improving yields, fertiliser manufacture, pest control and provided developing nations with a way to overcome hunger.

Looking at these revolutions of the past, it is clear, that for an agricultural movement to become a revolution, the scale has to be global with a significant impact on yield and the local population. The fourth agricultural revolution will be no different.

What will the fourth revolution look like?

Accelerating technological advances, including artificial intelligence, sophisticated big data analysis, drone development and machine learning, should lead to greater productivity through an enhanced understanding of land and its management. Referred to as smart farming, through these tools, the need for labour, number of natural resources required and the use of chemical products such as pesticides and fertilisers should decrease, despite a higher yield.

One such example of how smart farming can enhance understanding of land and its management is SwiftDetect; this rapid test is capable of detecting crop disease from Septoria in wheat to Ramularia in barley, before visible signs emerge and with results provided within one business day.

This has the power to transform the industry, as when armed with the actionable insight from SwiftDetect as to the level of disease in the crop, the type and dose of fungicide used can be fine-tuned by farmers and agronomists. If a low level of Septoria is shown, for example, a more basic fungicide may be used. In turn, this will save money and prevent the over-use of advanced fungicides for when a higher level is identified. In this case, whilst the advanced fungicide with curative properties costs more, it could improve yield. 

Changes from traditional farming techniques to newer smart farming methods also can help improve yield. Higher yielding and more sustainable crops created through gene editing, though somewhat controversial, could have the potential to accelerate the advances made through selective breeding previously. By speeding up the process of evolution in this way, crops could have better, natural resistance to pests and disease, reducing the need for expensive and environmentally damaging chemical protectors and fertilisers.

Vertical farming is yet another change in method which we may begin to see more regularly. Vegetables are grown in controlled, indoor environments which guarantee high yields and limit external environmental factors. These farms minimise land use and can be located close to towns and cities, reducing food miles and presenting a solution to the limited availability of land we may experience in the future.

Challenges of new methods

Perhaps the first challenge, particularly with regards to smart farming, which springs to mind is cost. Although efficiency will be increased through new methods and technologies, making it worthwhile in the long run, an enormous amount of investment will initially be required. For smaller farms, who would benefit from getting more out of their land, accessibility to these technologies could particularly be limited due to the cost factor.

In addition, change in the industry is often met with resistance. Many farmers have been using the same techniques for decades, so investing in more technology and different ways of doing things could be daunting for the traditional farm – even if meeting demand is becoming increasingly difficult.

Finally, methods such as gene editing are met with controversy from many farmers and consumers alike. Concerns over the safety of modified crops for consumption and its environmental impact mean many people actively avoid consuming produce developed in this way. Likewise, the environmental impact of vertical farming is a topic of debate, as controlling the environment relies on energy inputs which are expensive and carbon intensive.

What will all this mean for British farmers?

There is no doubt that the farming industry will need to change to keep up with future demand, and that science will enable us to do this. For other, more controversial methods such as gene editing, there is still much debate to be had. Despite this, for British farmers willing to innovate, new technology is likely to play an increasingly large role so at the very least, we will begin to see more smart farms up and down Britain.

*Microgenetics are a bio-tech company who have developed SwiftDetect – a super sensitive rapid detection test which can detect crop disease even in the latent stages, with results in 1 business day. Through using the test, growers can get an early warning and quantify the level of disease, so can tailor fungicide use to be more efficient and effective. In turn, protect yield, save money and help the environment. If you are ready to join the smart farming movement, or would like to learn more, click here.*