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29 Mar 2022

How is Technological Innovation Transforming Agriculture?

Pippy Stephenson

The world's population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050. This will push our already overburdened ecosystem and agricultural industry to the brink unless we do something to revolutionise how we farm. 

Agriculture is the source of approximately 23% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and uses up to 92% of our freshwater. According to a report by the WWF and Tesco, around 40% or 1.3 billion tonnes of food grown goes to waste each year. With this in mind, we need to look to new technologies that will raise efficiency and sustainability. 

What are some innovations that are tackling these problems? 

Agroforestry 

This is a system where trees and/or shrubs are grown amongst crops or pasture. This diversity creates a system similar to natural ecosystems, with healthier soil and higher yields. It is functional, sustainable and creates habitats for wildlife. 

There are two main types of agroforestry: silvo-pastoral and silvo-arable. Silvo-pastoral forestry is when animals are grazed among trees, they enrich the soil and the trees offer shelter and sustenance. Silvo-arable forestry means that crops are grown along with trees. Growing trees in an agricultural environment is beneficial as they can offer habitats to pests that would otherwise damage the crops, this also reduces the need for so many pesticides. Crops grown on the trees also offer insurance to farmers in case their main crop fails, as they can grow fruit on the trees. 

Agroforestry is not very popular at the moment, largely because it is an overwhelming task to begin it from scratch and trees take a long time to reach maturity. However, there are many people experimenting with it and seeing great potential in the method to create a healthier, more resilient and sustainable food source. 

Pasture cropping 

Pasture cropping is to alternate between grazing and growing crops on a given piece of land. This promotes a healthier soil which will produce a better yield in the long term. Using the method there is less use for pesticides, reduced upfront risk, increased profit and healthier, more fertile soil. 

Like agroforestry, pasture cropping is moving away from the traditional view of farming that there is land for agriculture and land for nature. Now it is becoming clear that we need to integrate nature and agriculture to create a more reliable and sustainable food source as well as a healthier planet overall. Despite this, some new methods of food production remove themselves from nature entirely, like Aquaponics, Hydroponics and Aeroponics. 

Vertical farming 

Growing plants that are stacked on shelves or trays under LED lights in a controlled environment is called vertical farming. It is often associated with Aquaponics, Hydroponics or Aeroponics. 

Aquaponics is where vegetables and fish are produced in a system of constantly moving water. The waste produced by the fish is used to feed the plants. This method is gaining popularity due to how the controlled environment allows all sorts of plants to be grown reliably and out of season. Also due to the absence of soil, there are no pests or soil-borne diseases. Aquaponics are a highly-productive, efficient way of producing food however they rely on high amounts of energy. Although attempts are being made to move towards renewable energy and using energy saving materials. 

Hydroponics is growing food without soil, often controlled by a computer. It’s space efficient and can be housed in various urban locations, even underground. Because of the growing populations of cities, hydroponics has been touted as a solution to the problem of big cities relying on the rural areas that make up the rest of the country for their food supply. This also reduces pollution from transporting produce. Growing as much food locally as possible is one of the primary ways of having a sustainable food supply. 

Aeroponics is similar to the two previous methods except plants are grown with air or mist! 

Despite the benefits of these methods such as using fewer pesticides and less water than traditional farming, they have major opposition among organic farmers. This is largely due to how these methods, by removing themselves from the natural environment, neglect the health of soil, which when properly cultivated can absorb large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. These methods do not contribute to the wider ecosystem. Although efficient ways of growing food, that perhaps will be a lifeline as cities grow, they won’t help us maintain a healthy and diverse natural world. 

Machine learning and AI 

As in many other industries, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) is being hailed as a major part of the future of agriculture. There are now algorithms for yield prediction based on weather and historical data. Visual recognition algorithms to detect pests and diseases. And robots specifically designed to harvest certain crops. There are also AI control systems for irrigation that can track and alter the moisture levels throughout a given field. All these things perhaps seem like they will solve all the problems of a farmer but AI should be used among a portfolio of other methods and never solely relied upon. 

We spoke to Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council, who said, “There can be an important role for technological innovation in agriculture, particularly that which better connects farmers and people as food citizens. We shouldn’t forget though that the best solutions can sometimes be low-tech and no-tech options and sharing knowledge amongst the farming community. Innovation in agriculture is vital, but not innovation for innovation’s sake. It has to be taking us towards agriculture and food systems that are fair for people, planet and animals.” 

If you’d like to hear more from Dan Crossley, he’ll be speaking at our event in June, so book a ticket. Reset Connect London, 28-29 June, will bring together sustainability innovators, start-ups, investors and industry leaders to share knowledge and collaborate to find our way to a sustainable future. 

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