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Tomorrow’s farms: What will they look like?

Article-Tomorrow’s farms: What will they look like?

© iStock/Wirestock vertical farming, indoor agriculture, agtech, copyright Wirestock, iStock-1441848918.jpg
Agtech is yielding solutions with transformative potential for the food industry, such as vertical farming, molecular agriculture, and data-driven precision agriculture. But there are still cost and perception barriers to overcome.

Pastoral landscapes may become a thing of the past with the emergence of tech-led solutions that have the potential to reshape the agricultural eco-system - transforming it into a future-proof food production system that is better equipped than conventional farming to meet the demands of a growing global population and changing climate.

Vertical farming and molecular agriculture are two of the approaches that will most likely figure in the agricultural landscape of tomorrow. In a panel discussion at Fi Global’s Future of Nutrition Summit 2023, four experts came together to discuss how these - and other tech-backed farming solutions - can revolutionise agriculture, and what challenges need to be overcome to expedite their scale-up and adoption.

Big data for precision agriculture

Kicking off the discussion, Claudia Roessler, director of agriculture at Microsoft Azure Global Engineering, outlined the promise of digital innovation for harnessing on-farm data to inform decision making and a precision approach to agriculture.

“Technology enables the use of data from farms to understand in real time what is happening on farms. This is going to enable better, more granular, more timely decision making. It’s going to help with predicting disease and pest risks ahead of time. Plus, we can build a learning system today in agriculture.”

She added: “Only by collecting data on a consistent basis can you understand the whole relationship between the genomic composition of a plant, the environment and how it is treated.”

Molecular agriculture: egg protein from potatoes

Molecular agriculture - combining plant science with precision fermentation techniques to produce metabolites in plants - is another technology tipped as having transformative potential.

Israeli startup PoLoPo is a player in this space, leveraging molecular farming technology to produce animal-identical proteins, starting with growing egg protein in potatoes.

Dr Maya Sapir-Mir, CEO and co-founder of PoLoPo, said: “Plants are just amazing in that sense. They can produce almost any kind of protein we need and want - the possibilities are almost endless.”

She said the implications of this are huge, as it allows the production of animal-identical proteins inside a plant.

“The proteins are functional, safe to use and without the contamination risks, waste, and emissions associated with animal proteins.”

Vertical farming: the only way is up

Vertical farming was another agtech solution that featured in the discussion, with Geraldo Maia, CEO and founder of Brazil-based Pink Farms, presenting the case for this novel farming approach.

Maia said that by “flipping farming on its head” and developing seeds for vertical farms, the company was achieving over 400 times more yield per square metre for leafy vegetables than is the norm with conventional arable farming.

But whilst land use is the obvious metric when comparing yields, other resources also come into the equation, explained Maia.

“We reduce water consumption by 95 percent and fertiliser use by 60 percent per kilo produced. We also eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides, the quality of the product is much higher, and it doesn’t need to be washed,” he said.

Pink Farms is already supplying retailers like Carrefour with leafy greens, mushrooms, and herbs grown in its 750 square metre controlled-environment vertical farm in São Paulo, and is expanding into peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes.

However, Maia admitted that the cost of producing some of these crops is a challenge.

“For me, the main question is how we can make many of the crops economically viable,” he said.

He said improvements in energy-efficient lighting would be key to meeting that challenge going forward. “LED lighting is one of the main costs in terms of CapEx, but the energy efficiency of LEDs is improving and they are getting cheaper,” he said. “We are expecting that in the near future, costs will be reduced, and that is going to optimise the cost of vertical farming, which will encourage more players into this space. This in turn will open up other possibilities through companies doing things differently. I think that will change the landscape and increase the competition, which is good in a new market.”

Resetting the record on GMOs

Cost may be the biggest barrier to the expansion of vertical farming, but for molecular agriculture, acceptance of genetically modified organism (GMO) technologies is a major obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Christine Gould, CEO and founder of Thought For Food, told delegates why she proudly sports a sticker that says ‘I love GMO’ on her computer.

“It’s time for a new conversation about GMOs. We need to move past the use case of Roundup Ready and how big corporations are controlling our food systems, to how we can use the power of biology to build better and new food systems,” she said.

Sapir-Mir agreed that it is time to change attitudes on GMOs. “I always say that there is no food security without GMO,” she said.

PoLoPo’s plant platform uses genetically modified plants but its final product - a pure protein powder - is considered non-GMO. “The production is with GMOs but not from GMOs,” explained Sapir-Mir.

Whilst the very mention of GMO has historically been a red flag for some consumers - particularly in Europe - Sapir-Mir believes that public opinion will shift towards acceptance of this approach.

“I think that consumers will understand that those are safe approaches to produce animal protein or any kind of protein in the future,” she said.

Opening minds and changing perceptions

Gould added that the ability of tech-led solutions to attract new “open minds” into the agriculture sector will be key to changing perceptions.

“Farming is seen as a sector with low economic prospects that is dominated by an older generation. Innovation is a chance to bring young people in and to get the sector to accept new technologies. In this way, molecular farming and vertical farming are a gateway for people to get involved with agriculture,” she said.

In addition, she said that getting innovators and entrepreneurs “in the mix” will help all the technologies to grow, scale, and take hold in the market.

She also emphasised the importance of “diverse inputs” to acceptance when developing tech-led solutions.

“Every innovator should be inviting a diverse group of stakeholders to be sounding boards; that can include next generation leaders, ethicists, farmers, technology experts and more - the more diverse our inputs, the stronger and the more relevant to society our solutions are going to be,” she said.

To this end, Thought For Food has developed a WTF module it uses when training entrepreneurs in this space.

“It doesn’t stand for what you think it does,” joked Gould. “It stands for ‘Where’s The Farmer?’ and it is about actively inviting farmers to solution development.”

No fear necessary

Fear can also thwart adoption of data science based technologies - particularly when they involve an AI element, according to Roessler.

“A lot of people are afraid of artificial intelligence,” she said, “but it is about taking the intelligence it offers but then using human intelligence to make final decisions. It’s more about having an assistant - at Microsoft we call it a co-pilot.”

She explained that AI could help by sifting through data and comparing “a whole bunch of variables” in a way that the human brain cannot.

“It’s actually going to be brilliant because people who are not experienced in data science or in reading difficult charts can just ask a question and receive a recommendation. I think it is important that we embrace these new technologies rather than fearing them,” she said.