A food system fit for the 21st century
It has been over 200 years since Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would outstrip food supply. His theory has not yet come true. Yet as the global population soars, and consumption increases among a growing middle class, our capacity to feed the world is being thrown into question.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a UN agency, estimates that production must rise by almost 50 per cent by 2050 to sustain our appetite. Most land available for farming is already under cultivation, so the extra must predominantly come from higher crop yields. Since rural populations are rapidly urbanising, it must be produced by fewer hands. And as the impacts of climate change increase, the demand must be met without placing irreparable strain on the planet.
“Increasing agricultural productivity in a more efficient way is critical to meet the long-term needs of our planet,” says Dan Burdett, global head of digital agriculture at Syngenta, a global agribusiness. At present, agriculture is the source of over 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly three-quarters of freshwater withdrawal from sources such as lakes or groundwater.
"The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that if 275-350 million more growers had access to mobile services by 2030, up to 500 million tonnes of additional food could be produced."
“The priority must be in applying techniques that are sustainable, and allow us to produce more with less,” agrees Lorenzo Giovanni Bellù, leader of the FAO’s Global Perspectives Studies Team. “We have to adopt production processes that contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
Digital and bio-engineering innovations offer potential solutions. As disruptive technologies ranging from green energy solutions to the Internet of Things make farms more efficient, a genetic revolution is producing improved seed varieties that promise to reinvigorate plateauing yields.
“These two innovations, when combined, have the potential to transform agriculture: digital technologies allow farmers to operate closer to the biological yield boundary of the plant, and biotech solutions could allow the biological boundaries to be pushed even further,” explains Fernando Martins, a partner at Bain & Company, a consultancy.
In the short-term, farmers will be able to harvest more, using inputs more efficiently. Over the long-run, Syngenta’s Burdett believes the entire agricultural value chain will benefit from improved transparency and traceability.
Digital progress is one broad area for breakthroughs. Firstly, mobile connectivity is helping the 1.5 billion smallholder farmers who produce the lion’s share of food in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa gain access to financial services, subsidised inputs and pricing information. Over the past decade, mobile phones have transformed agriculture in these regions. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that if 275-350 million more growers had access to mobile services by 2030, up to 500 million tonnes of additional food could be produced.
Farming has been relatively slow to harness the power of the next-generation digital tools that are disrupting other industries. But that is now changing, as a flurry of investment and patents registered for agricultural technologies attest to.
"Precision farming improves efficiency and effectiveness, and increases the probability of a return on investment."
Digital technologies such as satellite imagery and the Internet of Things have been available for some time. “What is new is that their cost is falling,” says Martins at Bain.
Large- and mid-scale farms increasingly practice “precision agriculture”, which uses sensors, cameras, drones and other data-capture mechanisms to monitor, in real time, crop variables such as soils, humidity, temperature and light. Software suites analyse the information and smart equipment drips out just the right amount of fertiliser or water. By tightly controlling variables and inputs, farms become more like factories, reducing costs while raising productivity. “Precision farming improves efficiency and effectiveness, and increases the probability of a return on investment,” explains Burdett at Syngenta.
"Technology is going to contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture."
As technologies improve, so will outcomes. Self-driving tractors and advanced robotics that zap weeds, apply fertiliser or pick fruit are already tools in the precision farming box. The systems needed to operate this kit are advancing so quickly that some experts think that farms in rich regions could soon be operated from offices. That would offset, at least in part, the reduced agricultural workforce caused by urbanisation. By 2030, the WEF estimates, precision farming might add perhaps 300 million tonnes of crops through yield enhancements, and save growers up to USD100 billion in costs. “There is enormous potential for these emerging technologies to have a material impact on productivity and food security,” Dean says.
Farmers might be attracted by cost-savings, but the environment would benefit too. The WEF calculates that by 2030 precision farming could conserve up to 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent and reduce water use by up to 180 billion cubic metres. “If you know where to intervene specifically, you save a lot of resources,” the FAO’s Bellù explains.
Another secondary gain from all this data harvesting is more sophisticated risk modelling, which in turn births improved insurance offerings. Studies show that the uptake of insurance products promotes investment, efficiency, nutrition and income, as well as mitigating risk. The WEF estimates that by 2030, 200-300 million more farmers may be protected by insurance. That would help to generate up to 150 million tonnes of additional food, and as much as USD70 billion in extra income for farmers.
The genetic revolution
"Every time we add a new technique, it enables us to keep yields increasing continuously."
Improved seed varieties were instrumental in the “Green Revolution” that began in the 1940s and led to a remarkable doubling in the production of cereals, pulses and oil crops. Yet yields of some important crops have now stopped rising in intensively farmed parts of the world. A series of bioengineering breakthroughs promise to push through that plateau. “Breeding has gone from an art to a very high-tech science,” explains Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of Syngenta’s seeds research. “Every time we add a new technique, it enables us to keep yields increasing continuously.”
Across the world, scientists are developing genetically modified (GM) crops that are higher-yielding, tolerant to climate extremes, and resistant to pests or disease. One important example is a global attempt, co-ordinated by the International Rice Research Institute, to create C4 rice: a kind that photosynthesises more efficiently. By introducing a new biochemical pathway for photosynthesis, yields of the world’s second-most important crop could rise by 50 per cent.
There are still obstacles to the new agricultural revolution. So far, these technologies are concentrated in the mature agricultural markets of North and South America and Europe. Adopting them can be challenging. “The systems in place tend to be rather complex…and that discourages some farmers,” Martinez explains. “We have yet to see the development of an application that consolidates the many pieces of technology into an integrated and easy-to-deploy interface for farmers.”
Poorer countries, where yield-increases are most needed, require better governance, roads and schools—not to mention improved fertiliser production, storage and wholesale markets—before a technological revolution can take hold. The costs of precision farming technologies will have to fall before they can be scaled in low-income regions. Yet cheap solutions are beginning to spring up, even in these spots, and more will follow as the costs of data-collecting hardware fall. Across the world, growers have more tools than ever to feed the rising number of mouths. “Technology is going to contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture,” Dr van Lookeren Campagne argues. “That will have a great impact on the welfare both of farmers and the population at large.”