Future Farms: Agritech innovations to feed a changing planet

The future of agriculture will be directly impacted by two of humanity’s biggest menaces on the horizon: population growth and climate change. With more mouths to feed and less planet to feed them on, and increasingly alarming predictions of environmental shifts, innovators working in crop agriculture have to figure out how to grow more food, faster, with fewer resources, by developing new technologies to scale up the planet’s food production mechanisms sustainably.

Key Stats:

  • 815 million: the number of people on the planet who suffer from hunger, 1 in 3 from malnourishment
  • 70%: the amount global food production must increase to meet population growth demands by 2050
  • 2/3: the fraction of the world population estimated to live in water-stressed countries by 2025

With 815 million people on the planet suffering from hunger and 1 in 3 malnourished already, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have set sustainable development goals to eliminate world hunger by 2030. Adding at least 2 billion more people to feed by 2050, the FAO has estimated food production will have to increase by 70%.

To achieve these goals, agritech must overcome food production plateaus in areas that are being farmed to their maximum capacity, and ensure that these areas will continue to yield more food year over year without endangering future generations’ access to non-renewable resources. Balancing the need for technological innovation to increase food production at all costs to stop hunger in the next 12 years, while managing the conservation of the natural resources essential to modern agriculture is no small task: sustainable agriculture is already at odds with the status quo. New technologies must address the ways industrial agriculture currently uses land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, and energy resources.On top of this challenge, the future is not yet evenly distributed. As high-tech innovations sweep Europe and North America, projects in China, India, and Africa are supporting the 500 million family farms that feed 80% of the planet. If all 570 million farms on the planet are able to operate at the efficiency levels demonstrated by these technological trends, agriculture in 2050 will look very different from today.

Growing trend: precision farming

Precision farming combines information science with agricultural engineering, harvesting massive amounts of data from the farming process. Utilizing technological advances like advanced sensors, machine learning, and artificial intelligence for data processing, precision farming helps monitor big picture environmental factors like weather patterns, water distribution, and soil chemistry, as well as tiny measurements like nutrient deficiencies in individual plants. Called the next “digital revolution” for agriculture, precision farming has already been shown to increase crop yields while reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, which decreases the pollution of groundwater and depletion of non-renewable resources like phosphorus.

GPS may not seem like a radical new technology, but its integration into John Deere tractors in 2001 allowed data to be collected on their location with precision down to a few centimeters. This innovation alone reduced fuel costs for tractors by as much as 40% in some cases by keeping them from covering redundant areas or missing a spot.

Using precision farming tech like driverless tractors tilling only specific land areas and quadcopters collecting data on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, Dutch farmers, the world’s top exporters of potatoes and onions, and the second largest exporter of vegetables in overall value, are able to more than double the amount of potato yield per acre compared to the global average and reduce dependence on water by 90%.

For this trend to sweep the globe and be available to the 144 million farmers in Asia, basic digital literacy is the first step. While many of these populations now have access to smartphones, very few are using them for farming. Once these farmers are connected to digital infrastructures and can use these technologies to enable data-driven decision making, they too will be able to join the digital green revolution.

Precision farming agritech startups to watch:

Taranis, an aerial imaging company that provides farms in Argentina, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and the United States with data to identify potential crop issues.
Tule Technologies, who focus on irrigation and water use data.
Pynco, an agricultural data analytics platform available for over 160 countries that sends alerts directly to the farmers’ smartphones.

Hacking biology to feed the planet

Biotechnology that modifies the genetic code of crops to make them more nutritious, grow more quickly, and resist diseases and pests are the backbone of modern multinational industrial agriculture. Many anti-GMO lobbyists and farmers believe that tampering with the genetic code of food products is too risky to try at scale, but to grow food under the conditions that global warming will bring, scientists are hastening on mutations that will help make crops more resistant to drought, heat, cold, and salt.

CRISPR, the gene editing bacteria that has been making headlines for its potential use in the human genome, is one of the biotechnologies that scientists are using to make crops grow more plentifully by allowing more efficient photosynthesis, as in the C4 Rice Project, or to encourage nitrogen fixing in crops that don’t naturally pull nitrogen from the air, which would mean less fertilizer used, and less fertilizer runoff polluting groundwater.

Agritech is also turning to nature to find solutions to problems that are currently being solved synthetically with fertilizers and pesticides. As one example, Seattle’s Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies have created non-toxic and non-pathogenic microbes that grow alongside plants and help them be more nutrient efficient, tolerate environmental stress, and yield more produce. In high stress growing seasons field tested across the globe, these microbes have increased crop yields by 10-50%. Koppert Biological Systems, founded in the Netherlands, also use solutions found in nature by providing the natural predators and micro-organisms that can eliminate pests and diseases. Farmers using Koppert’s bees instead of artificial pollination have reported a 20-30% increase in yields and fruit weight, another reason that saving the world’s bee populations is essential to sustainable agriculture.

Biotechnologies have reached the developing world in the form of innovations like Golden Rice, a genetically modified strain of rice that contains vitamin A. According to a paper by Dr. R. B. Singh, the Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in the Asia-Pacific region, 180 million children in developing countries suffer from deficiency in vitamin A, resulting in 2 million deaths annually. With the FAO behind the development and distribution of Golden Rice and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supporting similar biotechnology projects like breeding bananas that provide higher levels of iron in sub-Saharan Africa, genetically modified crops will be a major technological trend in ending world hunger and providing for the population of 2050.

Three biotech startups to watch:

Trace Genomics, called the “23andMe for farms,” who do rapid microbiome testing for pathogens.
Symbiota, an open-source content management system for biodiversity data.
Clear Labs, a genetic sequencing startup built to look out for food borne illnesses and pathogens on the molecular level.

Farms in the city

The CEO of Iron Ox, a hydroponic farm that is managed by precision farming techniques and automation, argues that “If farms are to survive, we need to think about them as tech companies.” What makes Iron Ox unique from other hydroponic operations is the amount of automation they use, having developed a 1,000-lb robot arm that is finely tuned to harvest the 26,000 leafy green plants and herbs in their California facility. The robot, nicknamed Angus, also has an array of Lidar sensors that allow it to identify diseases, pests, and abnormalities plant by plant, and picks them up by grasping specially designed pots that don’t damage the veg. Through all of these innovations, Iron Ox has managed to boast production of 30% more produce than traditional farms.

Hydroponic and vertical farming systems have long been touted as a solution to the problem of land use by agriculture, since much of the arable land is already taken and  31% of total global rice, wheat, and maize production in eastern Asia and northwest Europe has already plateaued. While these extant farms are nudged by other technologies to increase yield and use less resources, indoor farms in urban areas are expanding the potential area that can be used to grow crops.

Since hydroponic systems are soil-less, isolated from environmental stress, pests, and diseases, and commonly use drip irrigation techniques, they avoid a lot of the problems faced by outdoor farms in conserving resources, but their many obstacle is energy. Running LED lights for indoor farms 24 hours per day is not sustainable, even for Iron Ox: they plan to expand into traditional greenhouses supplemented by LEDs. Some indoor and vertical farmers are already looking to solve the energy and light problem: Growing Underground, a UK operation set up in World War II bomb shelters, use LED lights that only emit at spectrum ranges optimal for photosynthesis, and there are several companies including Valoya, Heliospectra, and even Philips, that are specifically developing longer-lasting and more energy-efficient LEDs for indoor agriculture.  Another solution, pioneered by the Sky Greens vertical farming system in Singapore, uses a hydraulic system that consumes the equivalent of one lightbulb’s energy to rotate troughs of produce up and down 9-meter tall towers to take turns basking in sunlight.

Today, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and this number is predicted to rise to 66% by 2050. With the potential effects that global warming will have on the efforts of traditional agriculture, it’s a safe bet for vertical farms to develop in urban areas alongside advances in agritech for outdoor farms. Vertical farms can integrate many of technological innovations developed for traditional farms to produce as much food as possible, while isolating crops from pests and diseases, conserving non-renewable resources by closely controlling inputs and outputs, and minimizing transportation costs to put food on the table for booming urban populations.

Urban farming startups could be coming to a city near you:

Freight Farms, creators of the Leafy Green Machine™, a complete hydroponic system built into a 40-ft. shipping container.
AeroFarms, who have converted a 69,000-foot former steel mill into a facility to breed 1.5 million pounds of produce annually.
Edenworks, who have developed an aquaponic ecosystem for New York City’s rooftops.

If the predictions of experts on the climate and population for the next 10-25 years are correct, technological innovators in industrial agriculture have their work cut out for them. These future trends of farms moving into cities, biotechnology making food more nutritious and faster-growing, and precision farming incorporating big data with agricultural science will help tackle one of humanity’s greatest challenges yet, eliminating hunger while conserving the natural resources of the planet for future generations.