It may seem self-evident that farming is an industry that faces profound challenges in the very near future. But just how urgent those challenges are, and the scale of them, only really becomes clear in some alarming numbers.
The world’s farmers must somehow increase production by 70% if they’re to meet the global population’s needs by 2050. By that time there are projected to be 9.7 billion mouths to feed. An industry that already provides an income for some 1 billion people cannot simply keep growing to naturally meet that need.
Current practices are unsustainable, not only in the amount of space and water used, but also in the production of greenhouse gases and the sheer volume of food that’s wasted. Sustainable farming is not simply a desirable fad. It’s the absolutely essential answer to a problem that is not going to go away.
What is sustainable farming?
Sustainable farming is not just a label to be stuck onto packaging to satisfy eco-conscious consumers. It’s a methodology based on technology and environmental protection, designed to be productive without being destructive. Done correctly, it can preserve or even enhance the environment, ensure a high quality of life for livestock, and, at the same time, meet the increasing demands of the food and textile industries.
As things stand
The current system of food production is huge. Vast arable farms cover thousands of acres and huge numbers of animals are crowded into cramped spaces in an industrialised system far removed from the rural idyll. Traditional farming has become unwieldy, inflexible and increasingly inhumane.
And the problems don’t stop at the farms themselves. The fragility and lack of agility in our food supply chain have become all too evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Any industry is only as secure as its supply chain, and a long, multi-agent, often international chain can take time to adjust to sudden changes.
This plays a role in another symptom of the unsuitability of the status quo: waste. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to end hunger and achieve food security by 2030. They certainly have their work cut out for them – a staggering 690 million people worldwide are currently undernourished. The food is available; it’s just not getting to them. In the United States alone, waste is estimated at around 30–40% of the total food supply, most of it lost between farm and table.
This isn’t just a problem in the US. In developing countries, problems with cooling and storage facilities lead to $310 billion worth of losses per year.
Consumer trends have already changed
While the picture looks bleak, the combination of changing attitudes and tech innovation mean it doesn’t have to. The simplest solution of all is for consumers to buy and eat local produce, and that is certainly happening. More environmental awareness in customers meant that demand for locally produced food doubled between 2014 and 2019.
On the other hand, using fewer animals requires less space and emits less methane into the atmosphere, and consumer demand means meat-free products are a fast-growing sector. We’ve already seen stem cell tech being used to produce crustacean meat. Now, innovative products based on soya or pea protein are becoming indistinguishable from red meat for almost everybody who tries them, and they already have a significant presence on supermarket shelves.
Increased consumer awareness of the issues creates the demand, and technology is stepping up to meet it by changing the face of production of food itself.
Increased automation, increased use of cutting-edge tech
Modern farmers are automating processes by leveraging AI and data analysis to get the most out of their crops. This is part of a growing trend toward precision farming, where as many useful data points as possible are collected and used to get the most out of soil, seeds, water, fertiliser, weather, storage and supply chains to maximise yield.
In addition to the rise of robotics, every aspect of the process of food production is being innovated to address what is a mammoth task of feeding a growing global population efficiently:
- New crop varieties are being tested and developed for altered climate conditions.
- Ground cover is being left year-round to reduce erosion.
- New ‘agtech’ microbes are being developed to both reduce our dependence on man-made fertiliser and to enable staple crops like wheat to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere.
- Special financing is increasingly available for innovation and sustainability in farming from institutions like the European Commission, the EU and governments.
- Innovations in grain storage are reducing spoilage and preventing contamination.
- Water is being used more intelligently, from small-scale tech solutions like hydroponics to buffering lakes and rivers to protect its quality at source.
- Smart productivity tech is being used to determine optimum planting dates for particular crops around the world.
- In northern Africa, farmers are using satellite data to boost yield from smaller plots, lowering operational costs.
Tech shows the way forward
It is clear that the space and resources we allocate to farming cannot simply continue to be increased to keep up with demand. We must produce more, in less space, using fewer consumables and reducing pollution. That’s the simple but difficult equation our farmers have to solve if they’re to feed our growing numbers.
As with so many of our modern problems, innovation and technology offer the clearest way forward and our best chance of overcoming these challenges.
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