Last week, saw “SIA 2019” take place in Paris, the codename for the 55th edition of the International Agricultural Show. This event, in addition to being loved and acclaimed by the French (1% of the nation’s population comes to wander around the show), enjoys European and international fame. So, with agriculture at a turning point, it is interesting to consider the future of “the show” and wonder what it will look like in 2050. This symbolic year represents, as everyone knows, the historic dateline when demographers have estimated that humanity’s numbers will have grown to an impressive 9 billion people. In full awareness that this will only be possible if agriculture succeeds in the challenge of continuing to feed an ever larger and more demanding human race. Hence this fundamental question: what will this agriculture look like?
Will there still be a mascot?
Every year, the SIA choose a cow as a mascot. This year she was called “Imminence”. In thirty years, what will she be called? Will this tradition which sums up the very essence of the show carry on? Or will other practices get the better of it? What scenarios might we imagine?
Will synthetic meat, after unsuccessful laboratory trials, eventually find industrial applications that will replace animal husbandry? Will veganism impose its uncompromising edicts on everyone? Will entomoculture be practiced by Man, resigned now to eating insects? Let’s think about some really crazy possibilities: what if humanity, experiencing a “sudden awareness of the prehistoric origins of its decline” and greatly influenced by the theories of the prophets more than those of the magicians, felt obliged to return to the condition of “hunter-gatherer”? That would not be surprising when we read the analyses of some archaeologists who see the Palaeolithic as the “beginning of climate change, ecological risks and the democratic crisis.”
One last possibility: quite simply, the mascot will be a cow of the 2050s, which could be called Hal 9000 in a cheeky nod to the Supercomputer of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey; her breeders will have chosen this name in order to highlight the sophistication of the technological solutions that have been necessary to raise it from the traditional breeds.
Explaining tomorrow’s agriculture today
But there’s no need to imagine ourselves in 2050: Precision Agriculture, the technology that can feed the 9 billion people of 2050 is already here, and mastering it is ever more crucial with every day that passes. This explains the great amount of information that farmers are served on a daily basis about Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, drones, blockchain, IoT. It’s likely that tomorrow’s farmer will look more like an engineer of the living world.
In a recent Stop Intox show on “Big data and innovation in the fields: a question of sovereignty?”, journalist Pascal Perry asked Rémi Dumery, a farmer specialising in precision agriculture, a key question: “Is there not an opposition in the minds of the public, between very high precision, connected, quite scientific agriculture and the organic sector which is what the public wants?” Dumery’s answer was very enlightening: “I talk a lot about precision farming, because we don’t want the same thing to happen to us as with GMOs or glyphosate. There’s a risk. But this risk is minimal. We can take organic along with us. My neighbours who are in organic farming are using new technologies. The new technologies for precision hoeing with satellite guidance are clearly popular with the organic farmers”
The agricultural expert then insists on the need to explain all these new practices in order to reassure the public. Crucially, Dumery adds that certain politicians are currently blocking funding for technological solutions, such as digital technology or artificial intelligence in agriculture, because they wonder what farmers are going to do with it.
When we understand just how behind France is in precision agriculture which, although ahead of the times in the 1980s, was only rediscovered by the government only in 2015, we realize that there is an urgent need to speed things up.
The farm of 2050 already exists
We find it difficult to imagine this “cow of the future” because when it comes to agriculture, we always prefer to immerse ourselves in tradition. For food, nothing beats the good ole dishes of the past. And even if we were ready to accept the sophistication of the system that will allow the rearing of this cow in 2050, with its accompanying value chain, we don’t dare push fantasy to the point of turning it into a fantasy animal, derived from genetic engineering, that would be equipped with additional udders to better supply thirsty earthlings with milk…
In our minds, agricultural innovation must remain in the service of tradition, which means in this context the conservation of breeds and their improvement, as well as the protection of the environment and the ecosystem writ large. However, as we have just seen, we can reconcile new technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, with organic farming, and we might even say that this future has already begun. Some countries have already implemented this thinking, as illustrated by the work of Professor Graeme Martin of the University of Western Australia on the farm of the future. On a 1,600 hectare farm, his team of researchers imagined “best practices for 2050 and immediately set about transforming the farm.” The team set three goals: the first is using precision technologies and robotics to obtain a greener agriculture. The second is “clean, green and ethical” livestock management. Finally, the third objective is to “restore the ecosystem that has been degraded by imported production systems and very poorly adapted to our soil and climatic conditions.”
As Graeme Martin points out in a statement collected by the French Academy of Agriculture: “Our future farm is part of a global network with currently a dozen farms spread across all continents (India, Uruguay, England, New Zealand…). In this network of future farms, we share the same questions about sustainable livestock farming, biodiversity, adaptation to the climate, the involvement of other farmers. And of course, there is no one single answer. There are many leads, they must be adapted to local conditions, soil, climate… and markets.”
Martin’s vision reconciles science, technology and respect for the environment and ethics and is light years ahead of sterile ideological quarrels. Undoubtedly the best compromise we can imagine to get us to 2050.
 In a recent article published in Libération, Thibaut Sardier quotes archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule, who says “Hunter-gatherers gradually settle down all over the world. The domestication of plants and animals increases, agriculture spreads. As a result: the population increases, cities and states are born and grow, writing allows them to be administered, leaders appear, societies become more unequal, wars become more numerous… In short, humanity as we know it acquires most of its fundamental characteristics, for better or for worse. While the best has long been featured the most prominently — agriculture marks the beginning of the infinite progress of mankind — philosophers, historians and geographers now embrace a somewhat less flattering reading, echoing our present situation of climate change, ecological risks and the crisis of democracy.” https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2019/02/27/le-neolithique-aube-de-la-crise-ecologique_1711985?fbclid=IwAR2GZrqef3uwyy4fZcBcWfUWZanQa9jOL6fCOdmmpruhG7KOxwGyLHGYW0Y.