Technology Will Fertilize Farming

Technology will fertilize farming

With more and more people to feed in a less reliable world, the farming industry is the key to change. For years, the food production system has been one of the largest producers of emissions and a main reason behind reduced biodiversity. But new technologies to produce more food in a smart way are already here. Now it’s about scaling and putting things in order for sustainable food production.

In 1973, when I was born, there were 3.9 billion people in the world. Today there are 7.8 billion. Twice as many. Consider that for a minute. In 47 years humanity has doubled. And it keeps on growing.

The UN estimates that there will be 9.7 billion people on Earth in 2050, and that we will reach peak population of eleven billion in the year 2100. As if that wasn’t enough, the population growth will not be evenly spread. For example, it is expected that the population of Africa, south of Sahara, will double before 2050.

Furthermore, things are going the wrong way in many areas. Rising temperatures mean less land for growing wheat, one of the most important sources of calories in the world. More extreme weather destroys cultivation, while flooding and intense farming leads to soil erosion. The use of pesticides is ruining bio-diversity both on the surface and underneath the soil.

The timing couldn’t be worse. It will be difficult to keep pace with food production with 200,000 more mouths to feed every day, year round. The irony is that those who are producing the food are, to a large extent, the same people who are destroying the possibility to produce food. Globally, 23 percent of the man-made climate emissions come from farming, forestry and other land use, according to the UN. But the destruction caused by farming is not limited to emissions.

In September 2020, when the WWF published the report Living Planet, many people spilled their morning coffee in surprise (coffee, by the way, might be in short supply in the future). In the stock studied by WWF, there are on average 68 percent fewer animals than 50 years ago.

The main reason, the report says, is a change in area farming. The natural habitats are gone. Species are made extinct. Biodiversity is reduced. Pollinators are gone. The seas are warming and containing less oxygen, and they are being destroyed by over-fishing, pollution and contamination.

The food system is a large part of the problem, which means that it is also a large part of the solution

With today’s food system, the world is moving towards catastrophe and everything that entails, from suffering and political uproar, to conflicts, wars and migration. But the report is giving a bit of hope as well. It is possible to turn the trend around and increase the biodiversity on the ground, in the soil and in the water.

”We know that it will take a global, collective effort; increased conservation efforts are key, along with changes in how we produce and consume our food and energy”, the report says.

In other words; the food system is a large part of the problem, which means that it is also a large part of the solution. How do you produce more food in a smarter way? How can you reduce the energy consumption, throw away less food and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions? How can we use less water and fewer pesticides that destroy the microbiology of the soil? How do you use fewer fertilizers to block drainage and problems with the groundwater? And what about acreage? Is it possible to produce much more food in a much smaller place?

All around the globe, researchers and innovative centers are asking these questions. They find answers too. There are so many things going on within agricultural technology right now that there is reason for optimism. Here are three of the most important ones:

1. Biotechnology

Possibly the most revolutionary development in agriculture is occurring right now in genetic research. Earlier, genetic research has been somewhat primitive, mostly about moving DNA between various species to give plants or animals the characteristics one wanted. But changing the gene pool can be risky and that is why the opposition to so called GMO has been strong.

But developments have been rolling on and today I can hardly think of a field where the distance between researchers and the general public is wider. The agricultural sector is no stranger to genetic modification. The food plants of today and production animals are a result of generations of cross-breeding in order to have plants with the desired characteristics, which in many cases are completely different from their ancestors in nature.

The idea that modern gene modifications is ”fiddling with nature” is therefore rather confusing, because people have been ”fiddling with nature” ever since they went from being only hunters to being only gatherers who selected and grew plants with specific characteristics, about 12,000 or so years ago.

Technology Will Fertilize Farming
Technology Will Fertilize Farming

The really big breakthrough came with Crispr, the technology that makes it possible to enter DNA sequences and make changes in absolutely every living organism, whether bacteria, virus, insects, fish, human beings or other mammals. Actually, this technique has been developed by nature itself. The researchers have merely copied it. Already, seed has been developed that is resistant to fungus infection, potatoes containing less acrylic (a substance that can induce cancer), mushrooms that don’t go brown, corn that can survive a drought and pigs that are resistant to common virus infections, to mention a few.

Agrisea, an unbelievably exciting British start-up, is a splendid example of how gene technology can be used to get food to a growing population. They have developed a rice plant (and heaps of other plants, of course) that can grow in salt water and make use of the nutrients in the sea. Thus the food can be growing in a floating compound in the sea without soil, without fertilizers and without having to add fresh water which, as we know, is a scarce commodity in many places. The first test installation will be run towards the end of 2020.

Crispr opens up endless possibilities for better food production and makes it more sustainable. With plants that are more robust, one can produce more food on a smaller area, with less loss and waste. Better animal health makes for better animal welfare and less wasted feed and energy. The question is how one can secure all these improvements without losing control.

The next step for gene modification is to have regulations that make it possible put it to use. There are no international regulations. So far, EU has said that Crispr should be treated with the same level of severity as GMO with imported DNA, that is with serious restrictions. In other places in the world, like the USA, a difference is made between GMO and gene modification. Plants that could have been cultivated with traditional methods, but are improved with Crispr or some other genetic tool, are not hampered by any special restrictions. American authorities treat them as they treat all food from conventional farming.

With good regulations, gene technology has the potential to make a strong contribution to a more efficient and sustainable food production.

2. Precision agriculture

People like to think of agriculture as something a bit old-fashioned, close to nature and a constant. In reality, farming has been well on its toes when it comes to technology development dating back to the industrial revolution. Today it is common to have both milking robots and self-driving agricultural machinery. But big changes are on their way. The biggest problem with the farming technology of today is that it is too coarse. A huge field is usually treated as if there were no variation in the entire field. Even if some part can have more than enough humidity and another part too little, the field is watered equally much everywhere. Pesticides are being sprayed all over the place, sometimes even from an airplane. Fertilizers are evenly spread too. Giant, heavy trucks are driving on the fields, compressing the soil so hard that it is difficult to grow anything there.

Technology Will Fertilize Farming
Technology Will Fertilize Farming

Next generation farming is much more precise and less harmful. Unmanned planes and drones can scan the cultivating areas, collecting and analyzing data to find out which places need watering, fertilizing or spraying. Down on the ground, all-electric light robots roll along between the plant rows studying plants on leaf level, sowing or spraying only on the exact spots where that is needed – and then rolling back to charge itself.

This technology makes it possible to have large plantations with a better quality on the same acreage, and at the same time reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers by almost 95 percent.

This will improve the soil quality, which in turn will mean large benefits. When the soil offers good conditions for microbes and living organisms, sufficient content of organic material and a good soil structure, it will be able to prevent erosion, produce better crops, create better conditions to store water and to drain off excessive water and, not least, ensure better conditions to store carbon.

3. Internet of things

When everything is connected to the net, that is because there have been strong, simultaneous developments in many technological fields. Mobile tech, location tech, sensors and data storage are only a few of these key technologies. If you combine them you can make rather funky things.
Connected sensors can obviously be used in the field. But it can also be used to establish a more sustainable meat production.

A long, long list of companies are now developing solutions that will ensure better animal health, animal welfare and yield in meat production. What many of these projects have in common is that they put a sensor on the animal, gauging the animal’s body temperature, movements and level of activity. The data is collected and treated in real time. When, for example, a cow has a slightly increased body temperature, is moving less and lowers her head, that could mean that she is about to fall ill. Such early warning signs can be next to impossible to detect in a herd, and the earlier the animal receives treatment, the easier it is to limit the passing of the infection in the stock and apply a treatment that stops a serious illness. Some systems even have a lamp on the sensor in the cow’s ear. It lights up when illness is suspected, to make it easier for the farmer to find the right cow among all the others.

To sum up, one might say that the constantly growing human population is facing an enormous challenge. Biodiversity must increase. The protection of natural habitats must step up. The soil health must improve. Plants and animals must become more robust. The production must be more reliable in a less reliable world.

I don’t think it will happen through innovation. The solutions are here already. It is rather the scaling that will cause a problem. To make authorities invest, regulate and put things in order for sustainable, efficient food production and protection of nature. If they do this, they are contributing to saving the world, no less.
You reap what you sow.

Joacim Lund

Joacim Lund
Technology commentator, Aftenposten
Years in Schibsted
What I’ve missed the most during the Corona crisis
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