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University of Illinois Agricultural Robot with Sensors Gathering Data

Global agricultural production might have to double in the next 30 years to meet changing food consumption patterns. Along with population growth, consumption patterns for some population groups are expected to converge on those typical of affluent countries. Four crops, maize, rice, wheat and soybeans, currently provide nearly two-thirds of global calorie intake. However, yields in these four crops are increasing at less than the 2.4% per year required to double global production by 2050. 

The further intensification of agricultural production to meet growing food demand may increase its environmental impacts. For example, agriculture can have high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because of the use of fossil-fuelled heavy machinery, such as tractors, and inputs, such as fertilisers. It is responsible for approximately 24% of global GHG emissions, with transportation accounting for 14%, and electricity and heat production for 25%. Agriculture is the biggest polluter of freshwaters in many countries, rates of water use for irrigation exceed replenishment in others and agricultural practices are partly responsible for declines in biodiversity and soil degradation.

An estimated 29% of all farms globally are involved in initiatives to increase food production without increasing their land use, which amounts 9% of agricultural land. Innovation and technological advances, such as data-enabled precision agriculture and robotic farming, may be one option for increasing yields while lowering inputs. However, studies have highlighted that such approaches will be insufficient to reduce the environmental impacts without changing dietary habits and reducing food waste.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Global requirements for food are changing. These include demand for higher quality products in developed countries and for higher protein diets in developing countries.
  • Increasing future levels of agricultural production will be challenged by factors such as climate change, declining soil quality and agricultural land availability.
  • Attitudes and behaviours of consumers affect production, such as trends in consumption of meat, demand for organic vegetables or locally sourced products.
  • Regulation of the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and subsidies for technology will affect farmers’ choices, farm productivity, and may drive innovation.
  • New agricultural technologies being developed to aid production include robots, drones, satellites and sensors.
  • New breeding techniques may produce crops and livestock with novel traits, or accelerate the ability to deploy known traits.



POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees (some of whom were initially consulted in 2016) and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Professor Michael Winter, Professor of Land Economy and Society, University of Exeter*

Professor Ottoline Leyser, University of Cambridge* 

Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford* 

Professor Keith Goulding, Sustainable Soils Research Fellow, Rothamsted Research*

Professor Achim Dobermann, Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research 

Professor Lorna Dawson, Principal Soil Scientist, James Hutton Institute* 

Dr Jemma Gornall, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh* 

Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI Gateway/Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange, Scottish Parliamentary Information Centre*

Professor Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex* 

Dr Louise Manning, Senior Lecturer in Food Production Management, School of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Royal Agricultural University^

Professor Derek Stewart, Leader of Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilization Theme, The James Hutton Institute^

Professor Pete Smith, Chair in Plant & Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen^

Professor Ian Crute, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board Member* 

Tom Hind, Chief Strategy Officer at Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board 

Dr Bill Parker, Research Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board

Ken Boyns, Market Intelligence Director, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board^ 

Dr Pete Falloon, Impacts Model Development Manager, Met Office^

Kristy Lewis, Met Office

Dr Helen Ferrier, NFU Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs Adviser

Gail Soutar, NFU Chief Economics and International Affairs Adviser^

Dr Andrew Francis, NFU Chief Economic Adviser

Sean Rickard, independent economic consultant, Sean Rickard Ltd.  

Daniel Pearsall, Front Foot Communications Ltd   

Professor Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientific Adviser 

Maria Gonzalez-Rey, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 

Stella D’Italia, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Agri-food Technology Leadership Council

Jane Jackson, Government Office for Science 

Arjune Keshwala, Government Office for Science 

Peer review comments from Defra were also provided by: Luke Ridley, Mark Jacob, Louise Courts, James Heatley, Nancy Singh, Chloe Smale, Heather Dines and George Clarkson* 

*Denotes people who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

^Denotes people who were consulted in 2016

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