While the world population currently stands at over 7.5 billion, a United Nations report published in 2017 calculated that there will be 8.6 billion of us in 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050.1 This means there will be 2.3 billion more mouths to feed. How are we going to do that?
Over recent centuries, developments in the agricultural sector have increased yields and the amount of land cultivated, thus enabling us to keep up with demand. However, during the last century in particular, deforestation, soil exhaustion, water pollution and decreased biodiversity have compromised the environment’s already fragile equilibrium. If we are to feed all the people in the world in 2050, we need to find new ways of producing more, more efficiently and without harming the environment. This means new expertise and new jobs, or changes to existing jobs, a revolution that will not only affect food production – farming, processing, logistics – but also the products and services available to consumers.
To meet these challenges, jobs within the agricultural sector will become more and more computerised and automated.2 Such precision agriculture (or intelligent agriculture) is more commonly known as smart farming.3
Farming (the smart way)
When developing their land, farmers have always taken the geological and meteorological environment into account. However, what was once guided by collective memory and farmers’ common sense is now driven by science and often assisted by technological decision-making tools, from the ancient temperature and humidity sensors to GPS and the use of big data. Nowadays, computers and smartphones can control everything via sensors placed on the ground, aboard farm vehicles, on drones and in cowsheds, or even attached to livestock. Farmers can thereby manage the yield of their various plots of land, optimise their use of fertiliser, view meteorological data, steer machines or check up on their animals’ health and wellbeing, all with greater accuracy.
Agricultural machines are becoming increasingly autonomous. Mechanisation changed farming practices in the last century, and automation is now set to change them further. The first robotic logistical support systems are already available to farmers. As an example, in 2011, researchers in France’s National Research Institute of Science and Technology for Environment and Agriculture (IRSTEA) invented robotic ‘mules’ to transport equipment or products while automatically following a person or group of people.4 And this is just the beginning! The first robots specialised in fertilisation, harvesting, weeding, or spraying fertiliser are in the making!5 Push-button equipment is also changing stockbreeders’ work: Programmable milking machines were first marketed twenty years ago and recent technological innovations for milking and feeding cattle are becoming more and more accessible. While robots were at first only profitable for large dairy farms, they are now viable for those with medium-sized herds of between 20 and 25 cows.6
The advent of smart farming (combining sensors, intelligence and the automation of tasks) is highly promising, yet it should be noted that technical progress does not appear to affect the number of hours farmers work. The time saved is used either to work more land or to manage larger herds.7
Professions in the agri-food industry undergoing major development
Jobs in research and development are growing fast. Researchers design, study and evaluate new products in laboratory conditions, then carry out live tests on a small scale. If the results are conclusive, these products can then be manufactured on an industrial scale. Research within the agri-food sector is constantly adapting to the evolution of constraints and to new consumer needs.
Professions related to product quality and to health and safety are also developing rapidly. The task of quality managers, or quality experts, is to optimise the standard of production processes, products or services. Their aim is to minimise or prevent production defects, raw material wastage, and late deliveries.
As logistics has become a key component of competitiveness, companies are now engaging transportation and logistics professionals to deliver their raw materials, ship their finished products and manage their stocks. To reduce costs and gain in efficiency, many companies subcontract these operations to specialists.
Finally, there are the marketing-related professions, such as market research, product management and brand management. This line of work focuses on consumer habits and on developing strategies to offer products which meet our needs, make us want to buy them and keep us coming back for more.