15 Apr 21 | Podcast
Food producers have always had many challenges, but can the precision and regenerative techniques emerging provide real long-term solutions?
At the top of many lists of the big challenges are quality and health of soils. Soil improvers, fertilisers and farm machinery have been used for hundreds of years. But modern large, industrialised farms are, in particular, taking their toll on soil quality, as it is compacted, tilled and washed away.
According to the Soil Health Institute (SHI), in the US in the past century, soils have lost 40-60% of the basic building block that makes them productive: organic matter. Byron Rath, SHI’s sustainability specialist, says that this “degradation comes at a profound cost to future generations”. What’s most concerning, he argues, is that this “has become normalised in our culture, businesses, advertisements and policies”.
There was a widely cited contention, originally published in Scientific American, that there were as few as 60 viable harvests remaining unless soil degradation was halted. While this has since been challenged as being overly simplistic, soils are clearly under threat.
For example, a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that topsoil has been eroded from one-third of the US mid-west corn belt, reducing crop yields by around 6% and resulting in economic losses estimated at $2.8bn.
Alongside soil health, access to freshwater, for farmers and their neighbours, is a major challenge – modern agriculture puts significant stress on local watersheds. The decline in pollinator populations, accelerated by the loss of local wildflowers, increased urbanisation, and more pollution and pesticide use is another big problem. Balancing economic growth while retaining good farmland for food production remains a struggle. Increased volatility in weather patterns also means many farmers face potential disasters without warning. All these challenges, and more, mean the future remains far from certain for the agriculture sector.
Alun James is chief technology officer with Sagentia, a scientific research and product development business that works with big food companies. He says that there’s ever-increasing pressure on farmers to bring costs down and increase productivity across the board. “Labour costs are rising across the globe, and many farmers, particularly in developed economies, are struggling to stay afloat as profit margins are eroded.”
This then impacts abilities to implement innovations that inevitably come with upfront costs. James points out: “If we require farmers to adopt more sustainable practices, we must also recognise that this will have a substantial impact on capital and operational expenditure, and potentially drive more farmers out of business.”
The need to solve these complex challenges is well acknowledged. The UK’s new £12m Farming Innovation Pathways funding competition is a good example of how governments have so far intervened, encouraging investment in feasibility studies or industrial research aiming to unlock innovations that work. The fund, a collaboration between UK Research and Innovation and the Department for Food and Rural Affairs, targets novel technologies, such as vision-guided robotic weeding systems.
While automation is nothing new in the agricultural world, significant investment is necessary for intelligent systems that help with sowing seed, monitoring growth, making strategic decisions and harvesting crops. And James believes that a rise in such precision-agriculture technologies can lead to more sustainable and economical farming practises.
Precision agriculture involves delivering the right solutions to the crops that need it the most. Lowering water use, for example, by irrigating only the part of the field that needs it, when it needs it. Or, reducing environmental herbicide exposure by spraying only weeds, not the crop itself. This can lower overall resource use, saving energy costs in the supply chain and reducing raw materials use.
When it comes to precision agriculture technologies, there are some core technical hurdles to overcome, including accuracy, speed and the reality of operating in a muddy field. But the real challenge is in developing the right business model. James points out that a farm on its own is unlikely to have the money to invest in a new, expensive piece of machinery with high-maintenance requirements, “even if the cost-benefit analysis shows the system can pay for itself”, so smart finance solutions are necessary.
Lower cost solutions can include use of app technology that help farmers work out where interventions are necessary. SHI’s Rath highlights a mobile app, SLAKES, which targets and prioritises improvements to soil health. It allows anyone, anywhere in the world with an iPhone or Android device, to measure soil aggregate stability, the most widely used soil health indicator.
SHI is developing in-field technology that can decrease the cost of sampling for soil carbon dramatically. Rath says that there are plans to develop phone applications that will allow for soil health self-assessment to understand how increases in soil organic carbon increase the water available to plants.
Adapting to climate change through crop innovation is another key trend. Parts of Africa experienced their second hottest year on record in 2020, and prolonged droughts and explosive floods directly threatened the livelihoods of millions.
According to the food research organisation CGIAR, a lack of rainfall and rising temperatures could render 40% of Africa’s maize-growing area unsuitable for growing crops by the 2030s. This is all the more serious because maize is the most popular staple food for millions of Africans.
Research by CGIAR has led to the development of improved climate-adaptive maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa. As part of its Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project, 160 new maize varieties have been released for farmers. Now, in drought-prone southern Zimbabwe, for example, farmers using new drought-tolerant varieties during dry years can harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare than those who sow conventional varieties. That’s enough for nine months for an average family of six.
While crop innovation can make a big difference, the focus has to be on regenerative agriculture, according to Kevin O’Donnell, sustainability advisor to FTW Ventures, which invests in start-ups that try to solve global food challenges. He argues that simply sustaining degraded natural resources and ecosystems isn’t enough anymore. Regenerative approaches to agriculture allow nature “to more holistically and intentionally enhance and restore ecosystems as well as farming community resilience”.
In a nutshell, he says, if you view a farm as an ecosystem and use natural systems to work better to address pests, disease, weeds and nutrient deficiency, farmers can “quickly drop money to their bottom lines by reducing their need to invest in expensive synthetic inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides”.
However, key barriers remain to scale up the types of solutions needed to have the desired effect. If more farmers were able to accelerate their adoption of best practice on reducing soil disturbance and maximising plant diversity, they would collectively “unlock exponential power and benefits” O’Donnell says. “In the end, it’s a race to develop a lock-tight business case that regenerative agriculture is simply a superior way of farming.”
For these reasons and more, unlocking the potential of food innovation demands corporate action. To drive meaningful change, businesses must be willing to elevate and incentivise sustainability and regeneration so they are viewed as equal to other factors, such as cost, quality and delivery, in terms of how value chain performance is measured, O’Donnell argues. “Ultimately, a business that wants to win in delivering next-level sustainability needs to be aligning with world-class suppliers who can be innovation partners.”
It is an approach adopted by companies including Kellogg’s, which is committed to delivering more plant-based foods in response to global food production challenges. It established an initiative called eighteen94 in 2016 to invest in companies pursuing next-generation food innovation in order to improve access to cutting-edge ideas. Nestlé’s Open Innovation project is similar, designed to bring good ideas to market more quickly.
Whether driven by demand for increased transparency of end-to-end supply chain performance from customers and investors, a lot of food manufacturers see sustainable sourcing as a way to protect their business for the long term. Travis Hopcott, owner of the Canada-based Hopcott Farms says: “Proper succession planning will be key, including meeting the food security challenge at the local level.”
Having a keen interest in how your primary products are made is becoming more useful and valuable to food manufacturers, James says. This might involve producers asking their growing partners to dedicate 10% of their space in the field to wildflowers, for example, as part of a long term, secured contract.
Other producers might go further, investing in crop breeding programmes to ensure they have a long-term supply of materials that match their size, shape and nutritional profile requirements. James predicts more supply chain monitoring technology to emerge over the next five years, with significant benefits to the retailer, including predicting shortfalls in supply, batch-to-batch verification and safety checks.
Cause for optimism?
Despite the size and scale of the challenges facing the global food system, innovation and technology advancements do seem to offer plenty of optimism for the future. “We have the know-how and innovation capability,” O’Donnell says, who also points to the benefits of sustainability “becoming headline news”.
Rath, too, is “very hopeful”, highlighting that companies are making ambitious climate, water and regenerative agriculture commitments. Legislators are also increasingly seeing the benefits of a more sustainable agricultural system, for a number of reasons. Rath says that policymakers in the US at the state and federal levels are “looking at agriculture as an immediate and cost-effective opportunity to mitigate climate change”. Soil health systems are, he says, “a farmer-facing solution central to this transformational change”.
Ultimately, a forward-looking legislative agenda is a key driver to securing long term food security. Many of the technological advances that are proposed as solutions, have barriers due to the way the current system of farming subsidies incentivise mass crop production. As James says: “The system economics need to be reconfigured to benefit farmers who adopt sustainable practices over driving towards the same efficiency incentives that have been chased for the last 50 years.”