From Diet to Technology: Opportunities for Sustainable Agriculture

First part. On the way to reduce the toxic effects of production methods that affect the planet.


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Business as usual does not fit the global agricultural and food systems. Indeed, an academic study suggests an 87% increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a 67% increase in demand for arable land to meet the projected increase in food demand between 2010 and 2050. The use of innovative technologies such as precision and digital farming, biological solutions and seed technology are key to increasing agricultural productivity while reducing environmental impact. Protein production must become more sustainable through improved feed productivity and animal health. It is also necessary to modify the diet of the population, moving from a diet of animal origin to a more plant-based diet. One third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted along supply chains, with loss and waste occurring at every stage of the food system.

There is a growing need to transform the global food system to provide a growing population with healthy food while ensuring environmental sustainability.

In assessing the implications of increasing global food demand, the impact on biodiversity is one of the main areas of concern. In fact, over 75% of the world’s food crop species depend on animal pollination. Therefore, in order to increase food production, we must reduce the amount of land devoted to food production in order to preserve the biodiversity that provides pollination. This reduction in agricultural area is clearly at odds with the significant increase in food demand until 2050. There is a growing need to transform the global food system to provide a growing population with healthy foods while ensuring environmental sustainability. These changes will come through many specific decisions, and all these marginal benefits will change the way we work and consume.

Extensive agriculture

At the heart of arable farming, sustainable agricultural solutions will include both precision and digital farming technologies that transform the sector and increase yields by optimizing crop resources, in bio-solutions that offer a more environmentally friendly solution to protect and grow crops, thereby protecting biodiversity. And also in seed-growing technology, which structurally increases productivity.

Precision Technology and Digital Agriculture

Precision and digital farming technologies have undergone structural growth since their first introduction to the market. These technologies have increased yields, reduced waste, and improved profitability for farmers, fundamentally enabling agriculture to do more in terms of production with less crop protection products, fertilizers and seeds. These breakthroughs involve the use of “big data”, which draws on historical information to provide predictive analyzes of soil quality and composition, as well as the most ideal weather conditions, often using satellite or aerial imagery.

AGCO and its innovations promise farmers a 20% increase in profitability over five years, increasing yields and reducing costs.

With this data, farmers can make more informed decisions about what to grow (seeds, fertilizers and plant protection products), when to plant, and ultimately harvest. This data can then be programmed into the equipment so that the machine will independently sow seeds at the desired density, with plant protection products and fertilizers in the most productive parts of the field.

AGCO, one of the industry’s leading manufacturers, estimates that by leveraging a comprehensive portfolio of precision farming technologies, a farmer can improve profitability by 20% over five years, increasing yields and reducing costs. In addition, AGCO’s Precision Planting division aims to enable farmers to pay for their equipment in one to two years, which is a strong argument for encouraging change. This is all the more true when you consider that AGCO’s technology can also be adapted to old landing equipment, transforming it in a way that makes it smart, and that at an affordable price.

Similarly, American farm equipment manufacturer John Deere has calculated that a Midwestern farmer who today grows corn and soybeans on a 6,500-acre farm using the latest technology, from planting to harvest, can save on major crop costs of fertilizer, seeds and herbicides, as well as almost 6,000 liters of fuel. This represents a tangible economic benefit of $40 per acre (approximately 4,000 m²).2), or more than $260,000 for its entire operation.

When it comes to herbicides, John Deere currently offers technologies that can reduce herbicide use by up to 77%. Typically, when a farmer applies herbicides, he tends to spray the entire field, while Deere See & Spray technology uses chambers to spray only identified weeds, which helps reduce the use of significant amounts of herbicides. While this technology was first used in small agricultural areas, it has now been extended to more industrial crops, which increases the speed of spraying, providing significant time savings and therefore economic and environmental benefits.

In addition, precision and digital agriculture also offers sustainable solutions for soil carbon management. This could pave the way for a system where farmers generate carbon credits and are rewarded for reducing emissions and sequestering carbon. North American fertilizer and agricultural retailer Nutrien and fertilizer maker Yara International have already begun building a carbon trading system for farmers. This carbon market clearly has huge potential. Nutrien suggests that agriculture could become a major source of carbon credits and potentially account for almost 30% of the entire carbon market by 2050.

Biosolutions

Bio-solutions are another way for farmers to reduce their use of chemical pesticides and replace them with alternative methods such as enzymes and microbes. Biosolutions can protect plants from pests and diseases (replacing herbicides, pesticides and insecticides). In addition, novel biological inoculants can be introduced into soil or plants to improve crop productivity and health, for example by increasing the efficiency of fertilizer uptake by plants. In both of these categories, microbes still make up a low to medium-high percentage of the total market size, but they have great potential for future growth.

Technology can improve seed selection, thereby increasing germplasm quality and yield potential.

Novozymes, a world leader in bio-based solutions, estimates that if every corn field and poultry farm in the United States applied bio-based solutions, this would result in an additional production of 520 million liters of biodiesel, 40 billion liters of bioethanol, 1.1 billion additional kilograms of protein-rich animal feed and 21 TWh of bioelectricity. This productivity increase will be achieved while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 90 million metric tons, the equivalent of taking 18 million light vehicles off the road.

seed technology

Seed technology is another principle that needs to be improved to ensure higher yields and hardiness, especially if the land suitable for agriculture shrinks in the long term. Over the past 30 years, most of the yield gains have come from breakthroughs in high-yielding seeds. These advances were achieved by improving the germplasm, the main genetic material of the seed. Based on this understanding, the technology can improve seed selection, thereby increasing germplasm quality and yield potential. Genetically modified (GMO) crops complement traditional crop breeding by adding certain traits to seeds, whether it be pest control, herbicide tolerance, or drought tolerance.

Genetically modified seeds sometimes raise concerns about their impact on biodiversity. However, the benefits of higher yields, less use of chemical pesticides and the changes needed to protect crops from the effects of climate change clearly outweigh these concerns. Major seed companies such as Corteva and Bayer are at the forefront of germplasm development and GM seed properties. Both companies are expected to continue to capitalize on this structural demand, while the European Green Deal’s farm-to-table strategy highlights growing government support for access to seed varieties adapted to the pressures of climate change.

The first part of six parts.