Grow: Cultivating New Trends in Food Production
sentax @ stock.adobe.com
From 1970 to 2017, the annual global extraction of materials grew from 27 billion tons to 92 billion tons. These numbers continue to grow, especially in high-income countries which are boosting their economy by outsourcing resource-intensive production. Current development models of extraction are adding excess stress to the environment; present production methods account for half of the world's carbon emissions. As alarming as it sounds, farming is at the forefront of these numbers. Food production is responsible for the majority of biodiversity loss, accounting for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, soil erosion, and a large share of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Historically, developed nations have instituted subsidies to support their competitiveness, often at the disadvantage of developing countries. Multinational corporations make us globally dependent on monocultures that rely upon deforestation, biodiversity loss, and massive volumes of external inputs such as pesticides, mineral fertilizers, and fossil fuels. The lack of diversity in a monocultural system eliminates all the functions provided by nature for plants and the soil, decreasing their natural resistance mechanisms to climate variability and pests. Also, the expansion of this model weakens the social fabric of rural residents, the indigenous, and traditional communities by displacing them from their territories, undermining smallholder livelihoods, and worsening local food security as well as mental well-being.
Expanded industrialization of the agricultural sector has alienated smallholders and reduced the scope of their rights. There has also been a significant decline in indigenous agro-biodiversity and genetic erosion of both people and their habitats. 2019 has borne witness to some of the highest levels of Amazonian deforestation and invasion of demarcated indigenous lands. This is especially worrying since they are on the front lines of rainforest survival (indigenous peoples’ territories cover about 22 percent of the surface area of the Earth and contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity).
Raising cattle and vast monoculture soy and palm plantations are the major causes of deforestation. However, in a world where resources and environmental impacts have turned into the limiting factor of production, it seems beneficial to look more closely at different closed-loop resource management strategies. Development must support dynamic agrosystems that mimic natural, biodiverse ecosystems, while diversifying farmer income, stabilizing the local microclimate, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Technologies could optimize natural systems of food production by preserving original forestland and producing more food on less land than their industrial, monocultural counterparts.
In order to address solutions for systemic issues within the current food chain, this cluster aims to explore how emerging technologies could accelerate the shift from a resource-extracting model towards a resource-productive system. To better explain these changes, we have come up with three movements intended to support sustainable growth through remediation, holistic growth, and automation.
Intensive models of plantation and mariculture have led to numerous abiotic and biotic stresses in soil and eutrophication in coastal waters. A number of efforts across scientific and agro communities are chasing approaches to reverse these harmful impacts. Solutions in Biosaline Agriculture, for instance, could help mitigate damage by engineering the soil without relying on fossil-fuel-based agrochemicals. Eutrophic Bioremediation, in turn, improves water quality while harnessing the restorative power of nature to regenerate itself. All in all, it takes nature as an inspiration — and as a tool — to integrate human activity as part of the environment in a symbiotic alliance.
Without healthy ecosystems, there cannot be healthy food. A more sustainable agricultural model must interact with a multiplex of ecosystems, agricultural lands, pastures, aquaculture, labor, policies, culture, traditions, and institutions; technologies can also value a more holistic approach in their development. Solutions in Resource Recovery are evidence of how innovations may help close the loop of the food supply chain by generating value from agricultural residues. By relying on relevant production metrics, innovative adaptations, and working within an entire system aware of the future consequences, a new model of sustainability might become a reality in the years to come.
For the vast majority of agricultural history, labor was the major limiting factor of production. As a consequence, we have been pursuing advancements in labor productivity at the cost of the Earth’s natural resources. However, new technologies could improve production rates while automating heavy and potentially dangerous farm labor functions, including the application of pesticides. The technology method Drone Monitoring, for instance, can be agile and accurate enough to apply just the right amount of pesticide at a specific location, thus reducing potential risks to both workers and the environment. One of the possible gains from automation is that rather than displacing people from their jobs, repetitive and dangerous tasks would be handled by automated devices and become an asset to support the workforce. Controlling and assisting these devices would generate new roles and humans would be free to carry more intelligence-based assignments. Machine Learning Data Analytics, for instance, could improve decision-making by offering a new model of hyper-personalized animal care with more informed insights.
As humanity has continued to pervasively interfere with Earth’s ecosystems, many specialists believe that the direct, measurable consequences of the actions of humankind are so significant that it should declare a new geologic epoch — the Anthropocene. The resulting scenario outlines the possible survival of human beings only if a new system of thinking becomes mainstream by actively building a world in which hybrid human innovation and nature are well-integrated. Otherwise, as the population increases and natural resources become even more scarce, the coming decade might bring about the collapse of states, more civil conflicts, increased mass migrations, and sooner or later, resource wars. The narrative must change from blaming humankind for the decisions made in past decades to a scenario firmly placed on the need to build robust and resilient systems as the best line of defense against future outbreaks.