4.0 AgriTech: A Secure Global Food Ecosystem
In 2050, 10 billion people inhabit the earth. To feed them all, a combination of high-tech and low-tech solutions will be used, guided by the principle that water, soil and land are non-renewable materials and their conservation is utmost to secure the feeding of future generations. Enshrined in law will be the right to food security for all, finally ending world hunger for good. The mantra is doing more with less. It is a future where renewable energy sources will prevail and fossil fuels have been consigned to the past, and the word "waste" no longer has a meaning.
A Look at Now: The Farming of Inequality and Degradation
Much of humanity’s progress in achieving food security for some of the global population has come at a considerable cost to the environment; food systems are responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the important agricultural advancements that have fed the world in the last 60 years, it is stated that global farming productivity has fallen 21% since the 1960s, due to Climate Change. For many years, the degradation of soil and land has been a feature of industrial farming; an assumed necessary tradeoff for feeding the global population. Consequently, approximately one-third of the world’s farmland is being moderately to highly degraded.
The rapid growth of agriculture has both contributed to Climate Change and is increasingly affected by it. With the effects of Climate Change expected to impact crops more profoundly in the next 10 years, it is predicted that as average global temperatures rise, North and Central America, West Africa, Central Asia, Brazil, and China will see maize yields decline. While wheat, which grows best in temperate climates, may be able to be grown in a broader area as temperatures rise, to include the Northern United States and Canada, North China Plains, Central Asia, Southern Australia, and East Africa. However, these gains may level off mid-century.
While yields are dropping, and there are few opportunities left for further expanding agricultural areas, there is the additional pressure of feeding more people. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecast that in 2050, 70% more food will be needed to fulfill the demands of the growing population, from 7.3 billion today to nearly 10 billion by 2050; an increase of two billion.
In an effort to find solutions to produce more food while making use of fewer natural resources, such as water and energy, the present future scenario draws alternatives enabled by technological tools that can both lower greenhouse gasses and cope with Climate Change. Here, you will garner ideas to nurture an upcoming agricultural revolution, one with a consideration of how technology can help us find genuine solutions to these problems.
A Pair of Hands Sieving Soil
A Pair of Hands Sieving Soil
The Future is Increasing Yields while Protecting Resources
Guarding Against Water Scarcity
By 2050, it is expected that five billion people will have inadequate access to water, with increasing droughts and floods as global warming gets worse, with Asia and Africa feeling the worst effects. For agriculture, defective water irrigation is intrinsically related to poor access to water resources, and, although around the world many crops depend on rain, in some places rainfall is not sufficient. Irrigation, therefore, is the answer to avoid water mismanagement and scarcity.
In order for the agriculture ecosystem of 2050 to no longer depend on applying water uniformly across fields, farmers will have to use the minimum quantities and target very specific areas. Variable Rate Irrigation can help farmers of the future do just that. Using satellite and weather data and plant growth models, the optimal amount of irrigation for a field is identified with the ability to have sections of the same field receive more or less water depending on their requirements. For example, BayWa AG is already using this technology as "VariableRain" in Zambia, South Africa, Canada and Spain, where higher yields with significant water and energy savings have been achieved.
While data can help irrigation be more precise, another aspect to consider is the current design of irrigation systems. Nowadays, irrigation networks push water through hundreds of feet of pipe, which farmers supply to their crops through pumps; electric ones if they have power in their fields, or carbon-emitting diesel ones if they do not. Requiring the use of renewable energy, like solar power, to power irrigation systems could provide a less energy intensive approach, and potentially make operating costs lower. While solar panels have reduced considerably in cost since they first came to market, the cost could still prove to be out of reach for some farmers, especially in developing countries.
Another irrigation option that requires no pumps, and therefore has no energy usage or carbon footprint, but instead relies on the power of gravity to deliver water is a micro drip innovation, named N-Drip. It allows farmers to increase yields, conserve water and conserve energy, while reducing land depletion by eliminating run-off and top-soil erosion. Plus, compared to other drip irrigation systems, it has considerably cheaper start-up costs, being thus a reachable and accessible future reality for smallholder farmers.
Restoring Soil Health
Fertile soils play a pivotal role in sustaining agricultural productivity and thus food security. As a matter of fact, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils concluded that farmers are essentially mining the soil, and soil should be considered a nonrenewable resource. In 2050, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides will be consigned to the past. Used for decades to increase agricultural yields, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides have contributed to degradation of soil to such a rate that we risk losing the world’s topsoil within 60 years.
Replacing the synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides of today with natural and eco-friendly approaches is a necessary step to ensure good soil health in the future. Seaweed Biofertilizer, for instance, could enhance the germination of seeds, increase the uptake of plant nutrients, and give resistance to frost and fungal disease in an eco-friendly and economical way. Likewise, the use of Nano Silica Fertilizer could increase plant resistance, seedling growth, root development, and photosynthetic rate, thus helping farmers improve crop efficiency through more sustainable practices. By using soil additions that nurture soil while helping to increase crop yields and plant health, feeding more people is possible without an outsized impact on the earth’s non-renewable and precious resources. These fertilizers of the future do not have a high cost, and as such, could be more accessible for farmers in developing and emerging countries.
The Future is Nature Receiving an (Artificial) Helping Hand
Moths on a flower
Moths on a flower
In the future, creating plant varieties with improved traits could promote greater food production success rates, as well as optimize the inputs needed to make agriculture more productive. Seed enhancement is key for this to happen, as it could improve the quality of agricultural productivity. Seed enhancement refers to a chemical, typically antimicrobial or fungicidal treatment in which seeds are treated prior to planting. It can be an environmentally friendly way of using pesticides as the amounts used can be very small.
The German company,Seedforward works on biological seed treatment for maize and wheat, which result in increased yields, stress resistant development, improved nutrient and water use, and higher field emergence. A relatively cheap option, seed enhancement ensures the overall health and survival of a crop, and its lower costs means that it could be more applicable to emerging countries. However, treated seeds may still fail if constraints such as slow soil fertility are not overcome.
A field of yellow flowered crop
A field of yellow flowered crop
Pollination by Machine
Globally, nearly 90% of flowering plant species depend on animal pollination. The production volume of pollinator-dependent crops has increased threefold over the last five decades, making us more reliant on pollination. Bees are one of the most efficient pollinators, but in the face of declining bee populations and other insect pollinators, farmers have resorted to renting swarms of bees to fertilize crops, adding additional expense to a sector that already struggles to stay profitable. This practice also creates stress for the bees, making them more susceptible to disease and parasites, thus reducing their numbers further.
A solution to the decline of natural pollination that is threatening farmers' ability to keep up with food demand and insecurity is artificial pollination. Different techniques have been tried, including bubbles filled with pollen dropped by drones onto plants and LiDAR. The latter is already on the market and involves using machines that separate pollen from flowers. The pollen is then stored for up to 18 months. When it is time for pollination, vehicles drive through the orchard, gently blow out the pollen, giving it an electrostatic charge to keep the individual grains from sticking together. The vehicles use LiDAR sensors for precision, staying within 10 cm (4 in) of the trees’ contours. An Israeli startup, Edete Precision Technologies for Agriculture, is rolling out its artificial pollination technology in Australia's almond markets later this year, after tests showed significantly increased yields using robotic pollination and mechanical pollen harvesting.
The Future is New Foods & New Farms
Animal Protein, But Not as We Know it
While research shows cutting meat consumption is vital in tackling Climate Change, alongside a rising population and the effects of climate change on agricultural systems, there is a growing appetite for animal protein, a characteristic of developed societies for years, which has also spread to developing countries due to income growth giving rise to a global middle class. As this appetite shows no signs of abating, and as animal-based foods are more resource intensive than plant-based foods, alternative forms of protein could be on the menu in the future.
Alternative protein sources have the same look, taste and biological structure as meat. Cultured Meat, produced in Bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has already been approved for sale by a regulatory authority in Singapore. Also, a meat giant, JBS, plans to bring cultured meat to the European market by 2024. It is predicted that cultured meat, in comparison to farmed meat, will have a significantly lower energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use depending on the protein product.
However, the exact results remain subject to huge uncertainty. Cultured meat involves very high costs, high energy demands, and possibly high water usage, which for emerging/developing countries could prove to be prohibitive. As for many of the technologies mentioned, much of the minimization of climate impact depends on the use of renewable energy sources. For the time being, renewable energy is still in its infancy towards mass adoption, and the world still relies heavily on fossil-based energy sources.
Another option for protein-based diets could be insects. While deemed somewhat as a novelty in Western societies, if we look to African indigenous cultures, insects have been providing protein for years, either as an addition to everyday items like dumplings, or as a delicacy, such as in Mexico where escamoles (ant larvae and pupae) are highly regarded. While in demand from high-end restaurants in Europe, imports of escamoles are currently not allowed due to their insect status.
South-African startup, Gourmet Grubb, has created an alternative dairy product, Entomilk, made from black soldier fly larvae, which can be farmed on a large scale with minimal space, making them a more sustainable choice for insect-based dairy products. Black fly larvae can be farmed in a number of days (not months), and they don’t produce greenhouse gasses, making them more water and energy efficient than any traditional dairy milk. However, in the natural environment, habitation degradation is leading to a decline in insect populations, so if insects are to be a food of the future, the conservation and nurturing of their natural habitats must be a consideration.
Farms of the Future: Vertical, Insects, and Machine Learning
Up until now, it has been rural areas that are dominated by farming, but in tandem with the prediction that 68% of the global population will live in cities by 2050, some farms in the future could relocate to urban areas. Vertical Farms, or Plantscrapers, require much less space than conventional farms, due to their vertical structure, which allows for crops to be grown in layers, one over the other, creating much higher yields of crops than in comparison to outdoor farms. Vegetables are grown using hydroponics with a light source either coming from energy efficient pink LED lights (allowing for plants to be grown all year round) or from natural light (resulting in significantly lower operating costs).
From an environmental perspective, vertical farms have many positives; they use up to 95% less water than outdoor farms, do not require pesticides, reduce the carbon footprint involved in the transportation of crops, and provide a buffer from the mounting effects of climate change. But, currently, vertical farms are very energy intensive, potentially negating any of the previous mentioned positives.
For them to truly be a sustainable pathway to the future, they need to run off renewable sources of energy and include a circular model in their framework, such as closed loop water systems. A further challenge for developing countries towards the adoption of Plantscrapers is the extremely high costs related to start-up and the running of the farm, making them, more than likely, out of reach for most farmers in these countries. Likewise, another barrier is access to reliable and consistent energy as, for example, many African cities experience frequent power cuts. However, the use of solar power or other renewable energy sources could potentially solve this problem. Finally, as most vertical farms are set up with a focus on a reduction in the miles a crop has to travel to get to a consumer, there is no export model, meaning countries with flourishing vertical farms may no longer need to import crops or vegetables. This could impact the standard of living for countries who are dependent on export farming models, invariably making inequality more pronounced.
Another approach to future models of farming is insects, which can be produced in a more climate friendly manner, while using less resources such as space, water, and food. In Tanzania, Chanzi is producing feed for animals, replacing soya and fish meal, from black fly larvae (chanzi) fed on food waste. Chanzi’s circular approach allows for protein to be produced at a much cheaper cost than what people can buy it for otherwise. Similarly, MadebyMade offers protein production from waste through the black soldier fly using standardized modules, so that the size of the plant can be variably adapted according to certain circumstances, thus reducing planning costs and shortening construction time.
Additionally, when you consider that 22 million tons of the fish caught globally are destined for non-food uses, mainly to produce fishmeal and fish oil, insect farming could provide a promising solution to the question of how to feed animals in the future without the huge environmental cost. As insects exist in virtually all parts of the world, through them, local supply chains could be guaranteed, which could have far-reaching positive consequences in the future, in regard to local food stability.
The previous examples have focused on models of farming, whereas AgTech applications, such as wireless soil sensors and hyperspectral imaging (HSI), could make farming more precise. In the future, all farms could be equipped with AgTechs to improve the efficiency and output of agricultural processes. By placing sensors in fields with satellite image processing (SIP) to provide data from real crops, machine learning algorithms could use this data and make real-time projections on real-world scenarios. Planting patterns, tillage systems, sunlight and shading, water availability and microbial interactions are some of the variables that could be digitally tested.
Making These Futures a Reality
Alongside the specific challenges detailed above related to individual technologies, further challenges exist in bringing these technologies to market in many forms. For example, for decades, European dairy farmers have been given massive subsidies under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which could be a point of tension when trying to bring alternative animal-protein products to market. Additionally, price is often the deciding factor in people’s food choices, so for the wide-scale adoption of alternative proteins and lab-grown foods, cost parity with conventional animal protein products will need to be reached. Also, the adoption of technologies by farmers, especially in emerging countries, is often constrained by their ability to pay for the technology, so a lower entry cost will be necessary for these technologies to gain widespread acceptance.
Human hand holding a plasma ball
Human hand holding a plasma ball
Private companies typically act as a main driver for technological innovation, due to their expertise, ability to innovate, and higher level of investments. As such, they could help to make the technologies discussed in this future scenario more widely available, especially in the case of developing countries. At the same time, it is crucial to prevent mistakes from the past such as promoting hazardous pesticides, chemical fertilizers and monocultures that proved to have damaging effects to the environment, biodiversity and human health. In the future, partnerships between research institutions, governments as well as international companies and businesses from the Global South are needed to share know-how, find locally adapted solutions and ensure that useful technologies are distributed and adapted equally across the globe. This is especially important to address current inequalities in food distribution and to secure global food security.
There is an urgent need for new technological solutions to reach every corner of the world. Climate Change is a reality with severe consequences on a global scale. Private companies who seek to bring their solutions to emerging markets and developing countries can benefit from the support structure of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ): The Strategic Partnership Technology in Africa (SPTA), a network of German development cooperation and over 220 European companies, supports interested companies in developing suitable project concepts, piloting technologies on the ground, and finding possible financing sources. Launched by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in 2017, the SPTA aims to promote the potential of innovative technologies in African countries through public-private cooperation projects. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Further, the matchmaking platform leverist.de connects companies with business opportunities and needs for technological innovation in developing and emerging countries.
Future Food Systems and Emerging Countries
In conclusion, while the technologies mentioned here are deemed essential in the global food security of the future, there are some caveats to add. Producing more food with less resources is not enough to solve the problem of feeding a rising global population; inequality of access is something to be dealt with. The unequal distribution of income and access to assets, persistent extreme poverty, and the lack of earning opportunities for hundreds of millions of people is one of the primary aspects causing food insecurity to persist. Reducing poverty and food insecurity cannot be achieved without increased employment and income. The FAO points out that enhancing the productivity and incomes of smallholder family farmers, investment, and social protection are key to progress.
Furthermore, any changes to the agricultural sector will impact employment prospects. The agricultural sector employs more than 25 percent of the world’s working population, with a far higher proportion of people employed in agriculture in developing countries than richer ones. Currently, three-quarters of the labor force in Madagascar are employed in agriculture, whereas in Germany, it is only 1 in 100. Therefore, changes to agricultural systems such as alternative proteins and Plantscrapers, could result in large changes to employment access, which would have an adverse effect on achieving food security. As such, any changes should mitigate against employment losses or replace income through an alternative means, such as the Universal Basic Income (UBI).
While this future scenario takes a speculative approach, hopefully some of these ideas mentioned will prove to be transformative for global food security. The future of food does not need to follow in the footsteps of our current approach. With a focus on circular methods, doing more with less and new models of farming, we can feed a growing population through the use of emerging technologies that promote environmental sustainability, the cooperation of private and public sectors, and a belief that inequality of access should be consigned to the history books.