Plants, Gardens Of The Future Will Be Radically Different, Grueber Says

In a packed room at Cultivate’14, Garry Grueber of Cultivaris and Global Breadfruit commenced to blow the minds of everyone in his audience when he discussed what the future of horticulture may look like in 30 years.

Those attending may have thought they were going to get a glimpse of new varieties or new genera that would be popular among consumers of the future. What they got instead was an awakening to the problems our industry – and all of agriculture – faces in the coming years. While plants still play an important role, their function may be completely different than that of the ornamental crops we grow today.

Over the next 20 to 30 years, Grueber says, the horticulture industry will need to address such issues as population growth, feeding a hungry world, less availability of water and land resources, rampant climate change and increased focus on the environment and sustainability.

drought_cracked earthEarth’s Growing Challenges

In 2014, the Earth’s inhabitants number 7.2 billion, but at a growth rate of 75 million per year, the population is set to level off at around 9 to 10 billion in 40 to 50 years. Currently, 1 billion people in the world suffer from malnutrition and hunger, the number one risk to health, even more than that of malaria and AIDS.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science says the Earth will be altered beyond recognition by 2050 as the result of this population growth, and there is a need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the past 8,000, Grueber shared.

Water shortages may be catastrophic for horticulture and agriculture, and with climate change happening at an unprecedented rate, it will continue to produce more extreme weather that will have an enormous impact on the industry, he said.

Biodiversity is also becoming a challenge, as wild plant and animal species are disappearing faster than we can discover new ones, Grueber said. Twenty percent of all plant and animal species are on track to be extinct by 2030, and 50 percent by the end of the century. The Earth is in Anthropocene, or the “sixth great extinction,” causing extinction at an alarming rate, he said.

The Changing Human Race

The diversity of the human population is also changing, with an aging society, better mobility, more urban residents and higher income. By 2030, we will see more than 60 percent of the population living in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants, Grueber said.

Europe is aging, he said, and by 2050, more than 60 percent of people living in Germany, where Grueber lives, will be over 60 years old. In North America, Millennials represent 25 percent of the population, and their ranks outnumber the Baby Boomers. They have $200 billion in collective buying power and are a racially diverse generation. America’s majority will be non-white by 2043.

Trends Of The Future

With such profound development, there are several related sociological trends, Grueber said.

Networking via social media leads to transparency to the end consumer, he said. With more access to information, consumers are more critical, well-informed and thus, fickle.

Consumers are losing touch with nature because they spend more time with their computers (more than 50 percent more time). However, this is leading toward a desire to slow things down. Gardens are a refuge for relaxation, where consumers can slow down and relax. And more urban dwellers are looking to garden, and maximize their small spaces to grow plants.

“Gardening is better than therapy, plus you get tomatoes,” Grueber said.

GG January 2014 coverIn cities, there is also a guerrilla gardening movement underway, where people are planting gardens and “seed bombs,” in random places, from traffic medians to pot holes. This movement has no industry connection, but Grueber said people are seeing increased value from the green spaces and gardens they create. In urban areas, these spaces help bring down the ambient temperature and filter pollutants.

The New York City Highline is another urban example of how city residents are yearning for more of a connection with nature. The former railroad track has been saved and converted into a park and a green space that runs through Manhattan.

It’s a hypothesis called biophilia, a suggestion that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

Meanwhile, with increased population and less land to produce food, operations like Gotham Greens, which grows produce in rooftop greenhouses, are our future, Grueber said. In London, a vegetable operation is growing produce in an old bomb chamber. Growing in closed warehouses is possible with advances in technology like LED lighting. Technology like this will allow cities, where previously there were food deserts, to grow their own food.

In Chicago, the city is selling parcels for $1 each, for residents to grow their own food, he said. Public gardens in other cities are producing food forests, and inviting the public to harvest them.

Trends Call For Industry Action

Because of all of this increased attention toward the outdoors, the industry needs to produce cool new plants that consumers can get excited about – plants that will knock people’s socks off, Grueber said.

A European survey reported that 73 percent of people want to be informed about new plants and 75 percent are enthusiastic about plants.

The gardens of the future will be radically different than traditional gardens. They’ll be low-maintenance, water-wise, small, minimal, simple and urban, Grueber said. He pointed to examples like the vertical forest in Milan, and construction underway in Sri Lanka to build the world’s largest vertical garden. This method of food production will require less water and maintenance, be tolerant of climate and city conditions, be disease resistant and offer year-round appeal. Ornamedibles is the new term for multi-functional food crop production, Grueber said.

These types of gardens will require breeders to produce compact versions of larger plants, including smaller forms of vegetables that will be more tolerant of temperature extremes, he said.

New Breeding Must Be Focused On Solving Challenges

Since Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution began in the 1960s, breeding has caused crop technology to increase production three-fold, and the population has increased by 5 billion people. But the yield increases of the future are limited and arable land is declining.

We need a new Green Revolution urgently, Grueber said. Plant breeders need to produce perennial food crops with extensive root systems that will tolerate drought, to reduce the need to plant crops every year. That’s the future of the world’s cereal crops, he said.

But developing new food crops is tricky. Out of 500,000 plant species, about 30,000 are edible; however, 95 percent of our food comes from just 30 species, Grueber said.

Through his company, Global Breadfruit, Grueber is involved in providing breadfruit to countries in the developing world. To date, the company has shipped tens of thousands of trees around the world. Breadfruit was a source of food used to feed the slave trade. It is most often used like a potato, but can be made into flour to make bread, beer and other goods. One breadfruit tree can feed a family of four for 15 to 70 years. For the sale of every tree, a royalty goes to the country where it’s sold, Grueber said.

For every new beginning, he said, we need to have an understanding of the past. Domestication of wild plant species meant the beginning of plant breeding. For instance, wheat and barley are 9,000-year-old plants, rice is 8,000 years old and sorghum is 7,500 years old.

“Every quantum leap in mankind’s existence was made possible by new plants,” Grueber said. “We are on the verge of a new threshold.”

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