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Natural Environment

Agricultural transformation: Can agritech solve our sustainable food problem?

Are we entering the golden era of crop science? Can agritech solve our sustainable food problem, increase productivity and help farming withstand hostile and extreme weather? Here are five things we learned from our recent webinar.

Steven Matz, Content Specialist
25 May 2022

Challenges facing farming and food security

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture today, impacting yields at the farm level, altering centuries old farming practices and changing pest and disease patterns,” says Kunal Prasad, Co-founder & Chief Operating Officer at CropIn Technology Solutions. This has also resulted in increasing the levels of financing and insurance required, he adds.

Waste is another huge issue, comments Kunal. In most developing parts of the world, it is estimated that between 30 to 40 per cent of food produced is lost before it reaches the market due to inefficiencies in the supply chain, he says. At the consumer level, the challenge is producing sustainable, healthy, and traceable food, adding another challenge for farming, he comments.

Food security and nutritional security are also among the biggest challenges, and have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and price increases and logistical problems caused by the war in Ukraine”, adds Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Applied Economics, Harper Adams University. In addition, in many places in the world, adds James, changes in foreign policy have created uncertainty for farmers. For example, following Brexit in the UK, there has been a move from subsidy-based agriculture to public money for public goods.

“If food production and sustainability issues can be solved in countries with harsh climates such as the UAE, we are answering the food security questions for the future for most of the parts of the world,” believes Dr Shamal Mohammed, AgriTech Director at Silal.  He adds that the cost of production and margins are another major difficulty facing farmers and their survival, particularly when markets are volatile.

Ewan McFarlane, Director at Acuman Limited, sees hybrid seeds as an answer to food security in developing regions, providing greater yields, as well as better tolerance to climate and pests. This frees-up land to grow high-value vegetables, helping farmers move from subsistence to surplus, he says. One challenge, however, is financing hybrid seeds, which are nearly always more expensive than non-hybrid varieties, he adds.

“If food production and sustainability issues can be solved in countries with harsh climates such as the UAE, we are answering the food security questions for the future for most of the parts of the world”

Dr Shamal Mohammed
AgriTech Director at Silal

Pasture management

“Over the past 70 years we have produced an abundance of food at the expense of every other ecosystem service; we have destroyed biodiversity, polluted the water and degraded our soils,” says Ewan. However, he is optimistic that by focusing agritech solutions on problems where the most impact can be made, farming can become much more sustainable.

Globally, emissions from farming are broadly evenly split between crop production and livestock. Ewan points out that many herds are fed on cereals and plant proteins, which humans can eat with little processing. Increasingly, cereals are also being processed into plant-based meat substitutes to satisfy growing global demand for “meat”. Grass, on the other hand, can grow on land unsuitable for growing cereals and vegetables. Humans can’t consume grass, but ruminants can convert grass into animal protein. Agritech in the form of grass management technologies are increasingly being deployed. These include virtual fences, which use GPS cattle collars for pasture control and computer models to determine grass feeding requirements, based on grass growth, grazing patterns and area size. Growing grass more efficiently also frees-up land and facilitates change of use, such a planting trees, which can help prevent soil erosion, he adds.

Nitrogen is one of the main nutrients used in farming. The production of synthetic nitrogen-based fertiliser contributes to greenhouse gases and causes additional environment damage to soil and to waterways through leakage. More environmentally conscious methods of production and more efficient application through agritech can improve the sustainability of farming.

The golden age of crop science

Precision agriculture is about using the exact amount of input required in the right place at the right time. A good example is weed control. Instead of spraying herbicides over everything, precision agriculture with machine vision makes it possible to target herbicide on specific weeds. In the long run, it will make it possible to control weeds by other means, such as by hoeing them mechanically or by using lasers, explains James.  “This is really the golden age of crop science in the sense that we now have control over many things that we didn’t have in the past,” extols James.

Demonstrating value is key to the adoption of agritech. Ease of use is also important, and well-thought-out precision agriculture shouldn't be more complicated than using a smartphone, says James. Addressing the issue of cost, one of the reasons why precision agriculture is so common in the US, compared with other countries is availability of precision agriculture as a service, states James.

“Over the past 70 years we have produced an abundance of food at the expense of every other ecosystem service”

Ewan McFarlane
Director at Acuman Limited

Overcoming the lack of water

The harsh weather in climates such as the UAE makes it difficult for seeds to thrive. Seed and variety development is one of Silal’s priorities. Innovative solutions such as gene editing to make seeds more resistant to heat and saline are another, explains Shamal. “The biggest challenge in this part of the world is water; the lack of fresh water is hugely problematic for any sustainable food production system”, says Shamal. Another project Shamal is involved in uses saline water for cooling greenhouses. Typically, cooling greenhouses uses two to three times more water than irrigation. Other types of technology in use include vertical farming, which is attracting a lot of attention in the region, though a downside is that it is energy intensive, he adds.

An early warning system and the value of data

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that globally pests and plant diseases are responsible for annual crop losses of between 20 to 40 per cent. Data can help farmers reduce loses and improve pest control by providing an early warning system, says Kunal. He explains that previous pest patterns can be layered with weather data and then satellite data to provide predictive data on crops at risk, allowing farmers to take preventative action. Data also provides valuable information on crop and variety suitability for different soil and weather conditions, helping farmers plan better and become more productive, he adds. In addition, Kunal says, data can help farms build ecosystems with stakeholders such as finance and insurance companies, who can leverage the data to provide improved support.

“This is really the golden age of crop science in the sense that we now have control over many things that we didn’t have in the past”

Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer
Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Applied Economics