Usbek & Rica is a French media on a mission to “explore the future” through a magazine, digital content and events. SUEZ gave it a free hand to imagine two forward-looking scenarios on the future of food. Marius Robles, a futurologist, co-founder of Reimagine Food think-tank and creator of the start-up Food by Robots , commented on both scenarios.
Scenario 1 - Agriculture and livestock farming: in cities first
© Clément Audouin
2038. Today, two out of three earthlings live in cities. In two decades, food - and its production - have been radically transformed. Agriculture has become mainly urban and local.
“Agritecture”, or the successful combination of architecture and urban agriculture, is now the norm. Urban farms born in the early 2000s have set the trend. Today, in the major cities, large vertical and self-sufficient energy farms have been installed, often based on aquaponics, while residential buildings include several floors or terraces dedicated to growing crops. Light, temperature and humidity are skilfully controlled, water is carefully dosed and recycled, and pesticides and insecticides are banned. Smart systems oversee and optimise the crops, while adapting the quantities to the locations and the seasons. Fruits and vegetables are no longer transported in trucks, they are produced where they are bought and consumed. Avoiding transportation and limiting storage helps to reduce the carbon footprint, but also leads to much cheaper, fresher, healthier fruits and vegetables.
Even back in the 2010s, robots could pick 25,000 raspberries per day. Today, machines are used everywhere to plant, cut and harvest with precision and incomparable efficiency. Farmers wear enhanced reality goggles or contact lenses, and labour the soil using advanced scientific knowledge and techniques to coordinate the sowing operations and to orchestrate the work done by the machines. But traditional agriculture is not dead yet. It still exists in many regions, where it plays a fundamental role in preserving biodiversity and living capital in the broadest sense.
What we used to call “meat” has also changed significantly. Meat can now be grown in vitro from animal cells, it can be synthetic, often based on plant proteins, or it can be reconstituted from a varied range of sources, including plants and insect powder. In the 2010s, several start-ups demonstrated the economic viability of meat that is produced in laboratories from animal stem cells. In 2019, this development resulted in the creation of the “MPF, Innovation” industrial alliance, with a view to developing the market for meat, poultry and fish produced directly from animal cells.
By 2021, hamburgers and nuggets produced from plant proteins and nutriments had become the new norm in most fast-food brands. At the same time, interest in the development of edible insects on an industrial scale seems to be a matter of course. Insect farms emit 4 times less CO2, occupy 14 times less land and demand 50 times less water than beef livestock farms. The pioneering companies in this sector emerged in the 2020s and are now powerful multinationals. Their farms, some of which are urban, produce several million tonnes of edible insects every year, which are praised for their nutritional qualities. In 2038, more than one half of the proteins consumed in the western world come from insects.
Intensive livestock farming has almost completely disappeared. Less than one quarter of the “meat” consumed today comes from beef, lamb or goat farms. Several countries have purely and simply banned all “animal” meat production, as well as imports. 30 years ago, livestock farming was criticised for its water footprint and greenhouse gas emissions that accounted for 15% of emissions due to human activity; today, its environmental impact is almost negligible.
Marius Robles’ opinion of this scenario
In the next 30 years, we will witness more changes in food than in the 17,000-year history of what we call agriculture.
Energy will most definitely be free. Agricultural land will no longer be necessary, and nor will farm animals. Food production will have become independent of the weather conditions. It is probable that the need to import or export food products will no longer exist.
“Smart farming” will take the form of connected and robotic urban farms where cutting-edge technologies will be made available to farmers to meet their needs. The people who operate these smart farms will be reinvented farmers, who have become urban farmer-scientists. Robots will do almost anything, from sowing and harvesting, to selecting, distributing and cooking. To be honest, smallholder farmers will tend to disappear. In fact, it is already the case. Since 2003, the total number of farms in the EU has decreased by more than four million.