Three horizons for the future of agriculture and food

Wind-Farm-on-the-Horizon__26778-480x320The food system of tomorrow will be different than today. By looking at trends and developments, we can see emerging horizons of future food systems. These ‘pockets of the future in the presence’ may give a fair indication of what the future could look like. One method to look more systematically into this has been Three Horizon approach, by Bill Sharpe. It has been designed to unravel patterns of change and start the conversation about future systems. Regarding the emerging change in the food system, the Development Centre for Green Education, developer of educational and didactic content, is aware that in the future professionals in agriculture and food will require different skills and knowledge base. Not only the food system is changing, the education system is changing too and may require a different approach to educating young professionals. To anticipate these changes, the Development Centre for Green Education has invited their network to engage in the conversation of future food systems and educational needs. Add to their network’s visions an analysis of emerging technologies, and the future starts unfolding.

Three Horizons approach



Three Horizons is way to visualize different visions for the future that can be recognized in the present. Working from a group process, it starts by mapping out the first horizon, which is our current system and how that may change in the future. The current system may need to evolve to avoid a ‘lock in’ of  obsolete structures, in a way that video stores have become obsolete to the larger public. The third horizon displays an alternative future. This is the transformative future of an entirely new system. For the film industry this could be streaming services that have displaced video stores. The second horizon focuses on technological innovations that could either serve the transformative future of the third horizon or the future version of the current system. Technologies that allow online shopping may an add-on feature to a regular store. The same technologies could also support a third horizon future of completely new online market places, that are built around social networks.  Understanding these emerging futures helps to find new business opportunities and stay ahead of what is coming next.

Horizon 1: a sustainable agricultural sector in the bio economy

The current first horizon system of agricultural production and the larger food system is envisioned to adapt to a more sustainable system, which includes animal welfare. Yet the future food system should be capable to expand yields, and apply side streams (formerly thought of as waste) or apply dedicated production for the bio economy of non-food and energy products. New value chains will be created and new services will emerge. The agricultural production is part of an ecosystem. Therefore, some of these services are dedicated to the environment, tourism or healthcare.

Horizon 3: a local, connected, value based food system

The emerging third horizon food system is built around local food chains with limited food miles. The story of where the food comes from, unique local varieties, the identity of the farmer, and everything around that creates ‘real’ food. This stands out against anonymous, processed supermarket food products. The artisanal character of food production is highlighted. The love of local food is shared in local networks, such as food clubs, ‘foody’ websites, and food sharing services that are accessed through social media. Currently we may observe the early bits of this food system that may grow into an established system which serves a place next to mainstream food system.

Horizon 2: emerging, transformative technologies

We are living in an exceptional time where tons of emerging technologies are hitting the scene, which could completely alter the way our systems work.  The second horizon is looking into that. In 2013 McKinsey has presented a list of transformative technologies that are likely to impact economically in many domains, including the food system. Here I will mention them briefly.

Mobile internet

Affordable products with intense calculation power and online connection enable all sorts of services on location. As a society we have embraced smart phones and use may services accessed through them in our everyday life. The potential of upcoming services is still huge. For farmers, the most widely used apps are agricultural weather apps. The mobile farmer can rely on this for management decisions. In the future, the array of mobile services will expand widely.

The Internet of things

A network of sensors connected to products enables data collection, monitoring, decision making and optimization. Information provided by products could be used for all kinds of services. For instance, sensors added to farm equipment could be used to optimize the use and maintenance of their tractors and other machines.

Cloud technology

By relying on large databases that are stored on remote servers are an enabling technology to provide services based on these data. Cloud technology is behind mobiles services and the internet of things. Together, these technologies enable big data and big analytics.

Automation of work

As we will get more services from mobile apps, there is less need for humans to perform jobs in services and advisory. Given that it is not just the jobs that rely on manual labor, but also basic and advanced services jobs that could be automated, there is a growing concern that many jobs could disappear.

Advanced robotics

In the old days, robots were dangerous machines in car factories. Nowadays, robots can work next to humans. The milking robots are increasingly common on farms. Other types of robots, for planting, weeding and harvesting various types of job will follow in a similar direction.

(Semi) autonomous vehicles

Some milking robots can be considered autonomous vehicles. But what to think of driverless tractors and other large farm machinery. The farmer can operate it with a tablet computer. Note that this technology relies on a sophisticated system of sensors and data analysis.

Next generation genetics

Big data technology can also be used in genetics. The use of big data sets enables predictions and testing of DNA fragments, much faster and much lower costs. In each generation, geneticists can unlock new potential, and work towards a desired crop. When synthetic biology would come in practice, this would even unlock further potential of designing future crops.

Renewable energy

Farmers already know that they have good assets for producing renewable energy, whether this is wind, biomass or solar. However, in many places the energy system still needs to get used to decentralized production and local entrepreneurs producing for the electricity net.

Energy storage

With peaks in renewable energy production, local storage would open up opportunities for energy use off-peak times and allow for continuous energy supply. This helps for energy producing farms  to maximize profitability and be a reliable energy supplier.

Advanced materials

Lighter, stronger, durable, re-usable, environmentally friendly materials could be used in many kinds of farming equipment. This is ruling out aluminum and other metals.

3-D printing, additive manufacturing

Advanced 3-D printing could be a whole game-changer, together big data computing, modeling and simulation tools. Additive manufacturing, another term for 3-D printing, allows small and large companies to create designs and prototypes of complex shapes, that are impossible by traditional manufacturing methods, in a much faster way. This reduces manufacturing cycles and costs. In addition, additive manufacturing produces less waste materials.

Transformative technologies in the future horizons of agriculture and food

Technologies are neutral. They can be applied in different systems, with different values. The new opportunities provided by technologies help to build a future, which has started earlier in people’s imagination. With this manifold of transformative technologies, that in combination give even more possibilities, we can imagine future agricultural and food systems. Let’s go back to Horizon one and Horizon three and see what they might look like when these technological innovations have been introduced in businesses and in daily life. I will show a few examples to give an idea. But I am sure that in the future we will see many more ways in which technology will transform agricultural businesses.

Innovation in horizon 1: a sustainable agricultural sector in the bio economy

Big data farming

Big data, cloud computing, the internet of things and mobile services offer a wide range of opportunities for services to farming. The data that is generated by farm equipment and livestock through sensors can be used to monitor virtually every the whole workflow of farm workers. It can reveal where there is room for more efficiency in terms of saving time, energy, and equipment use. And show what the farm workers can do to get better yields and more productive and healthy (happy) animals.

Robotized, automated work

When much of the work is taken over by machines and supported by mobile services, farming could become less labor intensive. That means, either farms could become larger, or farmers could take up additional services. Farms tend to be spacious with large farm houses. When they are close to metropolitan areas, like in Europe, this provides plenty opportunities for activities that involve groups of people. From hospitality services, B&Bs, conference retreats, to healthcare and cure by providing daycare activities, and to training for students in green education or professional training courses. This diversifies not only the income of the farmer, it also could give joy of introducing other people to farm life.

Specialized production of bio materials and crops

Next generation genomics, that makes use of big data, enables the development of specialized crops. These crops can be used either as food products with special features, like resistances against droughts, insects or salinity. But they can also have special characteristics for non food purposes to be used in the bio economy. These can be bio based materials, bio energy crops, or ingredients for cosmetics or medical purposes.

Energy producing, energy independent company

An energy producing farm that uses sophisticated technology for energy storage, can power its equipment and machinery, and also provide electricity to nearby housing blocks or industrial sites. Their energy supply is an additional way of integrating a farm into the local community.

Innovation in horizon 3: a local, connected, value based food system

Mobile apps, cloud connected services, business platforms, instant gratification

In a connected, value based food system, technology helps to build the platform that connects consumers to local businesses. New service platforms, like Uber and Airbnb, all put reviews at the core of the experience. Not only products and services get a rating, also shop owners, hosts and customers are rated. Customers can participate and share their experience online. This is the way to express reliability, satisfaction and the joy of an exciting experience. Customer decisions are made in an instant. And customers get what they want in one mouse click. ‘Add to cart’, means ‘on my doorstep within 24 hours’. No hassle, instant happiness. Good ratings can get you on top of the ranking. And this applies not only to large enterprises with a big wallet, but especially small, authentic businesses can touch the hearts and minds of consumers. New technology makes this much more accessible and easier.

Local, renewable, cradle to cradle

Sustainability does not only apply to production, it is part of a lifestyle. Renewable energy, upcycled materials, but also reuse of old products, vintage icons that connect a technologically advanced system with the past. Just like our food tells us who we are, our identity is built by our history. Reused building materials, vintage designs, combined with products made by a 3-D printer can be an expression of artisanal ingenuity. The uniqueness and personal touch makes this local manufacturing appealing.

Challenges for educating future professionals

While all these technologies will shape businesses in a profound way, for the education system it is sometimes hard to keep up the pace of change. Students will work in professions that don’t exist yet, and work with technologies that are currently in beta version. How can the school system prepare their students for their future careers? The traditional learning method of spending days in your chairs at school rooms may also be over sooner than we think. Already MOOCS, massive online open courses, are used by students all over the world to absorb learning materials. As developments go fast, it is key to pick up new things fast and translate this into learning materials. In addition, internships, practice in startups, entrepreneurship is the way to get experience with a new way of doing business. Creativity and a keen eye on new opportunities will be essential in either horizon that we have laid out in our sessions. These are great challenges for education. The Development Centre for Green Education is a future oriented organization and very well aware of that. Their way to address this is by starting the conversation with educators and entrepreneurs. With the creative minds and distributed intelligence of their network, they envision to build the future of learning materials and education formats. By joining the conversation everyone involved takes part in shaping the future.



About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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