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What is the future of farming?

Article-What is the future of farming?

From vertical farming to molecular agriculture and artificial intelligence (AI), digital innovations are revolutionising traditional farming and food production practices.

Cutting-edge agtech solutions are reshaping the global agrifood industry, boosting innovation, increasing efficiency, and helping brands to achieve their sustainability goals.

In November, several agrifood pioneers came together at the Future of Nutrition Summit, held as part of Fi Europe in Frankfurt to explore the changing nature of agriculture and unpack the transformative potential of technology in shaping the future of food production and consumption.

Tech-driven decision making is transforming farming

Leveraging data platforms and analytics, technology is becoming an indispensable tool in agriculture, enabling smarter decisions at the farm level and empowering farmers to boost crop yields and efficiency.

As well as being driven by the need to make processes more convenient and efficient, the digital revolution is responding to longstanding food system challenges like climate change, population increase, and growing consumer demands for food transparency.

“Consumers want to understand what they have on their plates; there is much more consciousness out there today,” said Claudia Roessler, director of agriculture at Microsoft.

The ability to collect large amounts of data via new technologies such as drones and AI platforms is demystifying farming processes and allowing farmers to respond to risks and opportunities in real time.

“This is going to help us make better, far more granular, and more timely decisions. It's going to help us to predict the risk of pests and disease that might come to the farm ahead of time so [farmers] can deal with those. I think that's really the promise of digital innovation,” Roessler said.

If collected systematically, this data can be used to build machine learning (ML) systems that help farmers to make informed and timely decisions, boosting the sustainability of the food supply chain. This is particularly important in reducing waste at the farm level which, amounting to around 1.2 billion tonnes per year, represents a loss of approximately 15% of all food produced globally, a joint report by WWF-UK and British retailed Tesco found. 

“Only if you start to collect data on a consistent basis can you understand the whole dynamic between the genomic composition of a plant and the environment, as well as how to treat it. That's important for the future in terms of making better decisions,” Roessler said.

Vertical farms offer increased yields with fewer resources

Vertical farming solutions could improve the security and sustainability of the food system by reducing agricultural land, pesticide, and fertiliser use. Often referred to as ‘the future of farming’, vertical farming uses environmentally controlled agricultural technology to grow crops indoors, without the need for traditional agricultural land.

“Vertical or indoor farming is trying to flip traditional agriculture on its head,” said Geraldo Maia, CEO and founder of Sao-Paolo based Pink Farms, which claims to be the largest vertical farming company in South America.

“When looking at genetic [crops], we consider what is the maximum that we can achieve in terms of yield, quality, and use of resources to have a better output.”

This farming method sees crops grown in vertical layers, rather than horizontally, requiring less water, soil, and around 10 to 20 times less land than traditional farming, according to research by Wageningen University. By controlling environmental factors like temperature, light exposure, and humidity, farmers can produce more regular, reliable, and abundant yields without the need for pesticides.

Pink Farms’ production of lettuce in Brazil for example, achieves over 400 times more growth per square metre area than conventional production, while eliminating waste and producing a clean crop that does not require treatment, according to Geraldo. This results in a product with a longer shelf life, while reducing the amount of land, water, or fertiliser needed.  

“We use 95% less water and 60% less fertilisers for the same kilo produced. We also eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides, and the quality of the produce is much better. When we look to delivering all these improvements for the customer, they really see the value,” Geraldo said.

While challenges in reducing energy costs and diversifying crops persist, the promise of vertical farming lies in its potential to provide locally sourced, high-quality produce, contributing significantly to global food sustainability.

iStock / Edwin Tanfie-2023-agtech.jpg

Molecular agriculture: shifting the protein production paradigm

A relatively new domain, molecular agriculture is coming to the fore as a solution to sustainably feed the world’s growing population. This method of farming marries plant science and food technologies such as precision fermentation to produce proteins or other metabolites in plants, without the need for bioreactors or fermenters.    

Leveraging molecular agriculture, Israeli startup PoLoPo has developed a technology to produce egg protein (ovalbumin) in potato plants. Given the versatility of molecular farming in plants, the company sees great potential in producing various animal-free proteins in its potato-based platform in future.

According to Maya Sapir-Mir, PoLoPo co-founder, “the possibilities are almost endless”.

Using its technology, the startup can produce identical animal-source proteins in controlled environments, without compromising safety or quality.

“The proteins are identical to the source, they are functional, and they're safe to use but come without many of the contamination risks that we're seeing today in the animal [agriculture] industry,” Sapir-Mir said.

Innovation can help to usher in a new generation of agricultural experts

Thought leadership and entrepreneurship are vital in fostering the adoption of new agricultural technologies. Innovation involves more than gadgets and algorithms but is also about engaging diverse stakeholders, including farmers, in solution development.

“When people have the chance to tinker with and understand new technologies, they tend to have more of an open mind towards accepting those,” said Christine Gould, CEO and co-founder at Thought for Food, an innovation engine for sustainable food and agriculture. 

According to the Census of Agriculture, over a third of farmers were aged older than 65 in 2017, with the average age rising globally. Low economic prospects, high land costs, and a dominant ageing workforce are just some of the barriers blocking young people from entering the agriculture industry.

The digitisation of agriculture offers the opportunity to transform traditional perceptions of farming and make the industry more appealing to younger generations.

“Innovation is a chance to bring people in and get them to accept new technologies,” Gould said.

“Getting innovators and entrepreneurs in the mix will help all the technologies to grow and scale and take hold in the market. It's a huge opportunity for big companies too to invite entrepreneurs in to help them futureproof their strategies.”