Global agriculture is facing an unprecedented challenge. The world’s population is expected to swell by two billion people by 2050. Food demand will double in the next three decades with a 50 percent increase in protein demand. At the same time, crops are being diverted for feed and fuel, land for agricultural expansion is scarce, and freshwater resources are dwindling. In fact, access to freshwater will be one of the greatest challenges in the next few decades.
Although farming techniques, fertilizer use, and crop protection are continuing to improve, the dramatic gains in crop yields have slowed. In a quarter to a third of today’s most important cropland areas, many of which are in the world’s top crop-producing nations, yields are flat or declining. Add environmental and sustainability issues and activists’ demands for cage-free, antibiotic-free, and non-genetically modified foods, and combine that with the continuing need to provide food security to almost a billion people who are chronically undernourished. The result is that global agriculture will be severely challenged to meet the demands of nine billion hungry people.
How Can The Tech Industry Bring About An Agricultural Revolution?
The tech industry which has forever changed the world’s relationship to media, information processing, and communications could proffer solutions through the development of digital, bio-tech and process innovative technologies.
Firstly, digital innovation capitalizes on the latest advancements in hardware and software, creating a radically new system of farming that relies on computing power and connectivity. Soil sensors measure how much moisture is in the ground. Drones collect data and imagery providing crop analytics. Cloud-based advanced analytical solutions process data for growers and manufacturers. Predictive analytics and the ability to analyze data would fundamentally change farming.
Secondly, bio-tech innovation incorporates scientific techniques to improve plants, animals, and microorganisms, including a broad array of solutions from genetically engineered plants and animals to improve tools such as microbial technologies that target bacteria and clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), a radically improved genome editing technique with vast potential in ecology and conservation.
Thirdly, process innovation introduces new farming techniques designed to address constraints on farmers productivity and environmental sustainability. Vertical farming combined with hydroponics and aquaponics allows agriculture to flourish in areas where there is no natural soil. Drip irrigation technology uses sub-surface low-pressure piping to deliver water directly to crop roots, resulting in both better yields and preserved water resources. Desalination removes salts and minerals from saline water for freshwater uses.
Managing the Headwinds
While these technological innovations have the potential to make a positive impact on agribusiness, the challenge is to find common ground between the significant social, political, and environmental concerns and the business interests surrounding these disruptive changes (see figure below)
The Path Forward
Meeting the challenge to increase agricultural productivity and feed a growing population with shrinking resources will require a concerted effort from agribusiness companies as well as the technology and venture capital community, NGOs, and governments. Going forward, solutions must address the transfer of technology to users worldwide, the transparency of scientific solutions, and the necessity of collaboration and cooperation between the private and public sectors.
Several moves can pave the way:
Global transfer of knowledge will help speed development and acceptance of new tech solutions. An open sourcing approach that makes technology available to entrepreneurs in developing countries to speed dissemination.
Transparency and the democratization of data can speed adoption. Understanding how the data is collected and then sharing that data benefits everyone.
Collaboration and cooperation between agribusiness, government, and NGOs must accelerate. Engagement is necessary to understand the opportunities and to address the issues of data ownership, data privacy, GMO food safety, and sustainability of new farming methods.