Food Security: A Global Crisis tackled by Agriculture Technology Interventions
Agriculture is fundamental to global well-being. The vision of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is a ‘world free from hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to improving the living standards of all, especially the poorest, in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable manner’.
Much progress has been made over the past few decades in reducing hunger and poverty and improving food security and nutrition. However, major concerns persist, between 720 and 811 million people still suffer from hunger, and more than two billion from micronutrient deficiencies or forms of over-nourishment in 2020 as per FAO. In addition, global food security could be in jeopardy, due to mounting pressures on natural resources and climate change, both of which threaten the sustainability of food systems at large.
According to the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP), the number of people facing acute food insecurity has more than doubled since 2019 due to COVID-19. The war in Ukraine has further contributed to the crisis as it disrupted a third of the world's food market. This will make more than a billion people acutely food insecure.
Agriculture is Facing Unprecedented Challenges
The challenges faced today for ensuring food security in the world today include the uneven demographic expansion that will take place in the coming decades, the threats posed by climate change, the intensification of natural disasters and upsurges in trans-boundary pests and diseases, and the need to adjust to major changes taking place in global food systems. The key to addressing these challenges lies in a holistic approach to creating a technology-enabled demand-driven farming ecosystem.
Agriculture Economics has Evolved
The decline in the share of agriculture in total production and employment is taking place across the globe at different speeds and poses different challenges across regions. Although agricultural investments and technological innovations are boosting productivity, the growth of yields has slowed to rates that are too low for sustaining the exploding global demand. While the food losses and waste claim a significant proportion of agricultural output and reducing them would lessen the need for production increases.
The need is to push for shifting crop patterns along with mapping crops with the geographies they are most suitable to cultivate. If developing countries including those in South Asia and Africa can be made production hubs based on technology prowess made by the AgTech innovators we can produce sufficient food for all.
Environmental Sustainability is a Necessity
The increase in the impact of climate change is visible to one and all. Access to water is becoming one of the biggest challenges faced by mankind ever. Agriculture relies on freshwater, 70% of (7571 Trillion Liters) of the global freshwater is used in agriculture. While 60% of agriculture is done using rainfall, 40% of agriculture is dependent on rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Of all the water used by agriculture more than 40% is lost due to poor irrigation and water management techniques deployed in farming. Today, 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high or very high water shortages or scarcity, of whom 1.2 billion people live in areas with very high water constraints. Without immediate action, these people and many more will be affected.
The need of the hour is to shift from high-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcity, soil depletion, and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, to sustainable food and agricultural production. Needed are implementation at a scale of successful models from across the globe of innovative systems that protect and enhance the natural resource base while increasing productivity.
Technologies for Present and Future of Agriculture
Technology-centric intervention by global research institutions, the public sector, the private sector, innovators, and AgTech startups are helping and can further help the world solve some of the chronic problems faced by agriculture for decades. These technological advances have contributed to increased productivity, more efficient resource use, and improved food safety however much more is required. The new focus needs to be to ensure physical and digital infrastructure to make these advances reach the grass route level.
The global AgTech ecosystem is working extensively in three key areas that are pivotal in solving long-standing challenges of agriculture, Informatics (including Data Science, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning), Plant Science (including Bio-Technology and Nano Technology), and Farm Automation (including Internet of Things and Precision Agriculture using Autonomous Arial and Ground Vehicles).
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning-based platforms are vastly helping the farmers to make better decisions about the activities being done by them during cultivation. Collected ground-level real-time data is getting used with technology algorithms to provide farmers with data insights about what to do when to do and how to do it in the form of recommendations.
Geo-informatics is enabling traceability as well as easy-to-understand data visualization for all stakeholders like agriculture input/output companies, Government/NGOs, and Extension service providers. Such GPS-based techniques are also enabling precision agriculture at scales where low land holding farmers can also get benefited from technology. Geo-informatics and Blockchain are also playing a key role in enabling Farm to Fork mapping.
Further modern informatics technologies like deep learning, image processing, and artificial neural networks are being used to detect pests’ infestation, crop stress, and nutritional deficiency for real-time intervention. Transparent enabling technologies like Blockchain, cloud computing, and cryptography are being used to ensure both the agriculture input value chain as well agriculture output value chain can be made efficient, corruption-free, and easy to regulate.
AgTech companies like CropIn, Cibo Technologies, Farmer’s Business Network, Indigo Agriculture, Satsure, Hartau, Orbital Insight, SeeTree, Semios, Solinftec, Dehaat, Apollo Agriculture, FieldIn, Gro Intelligence, Stable, and Stellapps are at the forefront of global leadership in the segment.
Plant science techniques like Plant Breeding, Genetic Editing, Tissue Culture, Aquaponics & Hydroponics, and Bio-Technology (Bio Fertilizers, Bio Pesticides, etc.) not only increase the yield & productivity of the crops but also ensure farming is done in a sustainable manner reducing residue of harmful chemicals in the harvested output. These practices are reducing dependence on harmful chemicals on one hand and reducing the use of water on the other.
Soil-less plant science like Aquaponics and Hydroponics is very effective in ensuring crops be grown in a controlled environment close to their demand reducing cost and time of transportation. This leads to better economics as well as safer chemical-free food using less land, less water, fewer chemicals, and lower loss during transportation.
Nanotechnology is being applied to study plants’ hormone levels and their regulations. Nano barcodes and Nano processing is being used to monitor the quality of agriculture products as well as traceability. Carbon nanotubes are useful to detect and kill pathogens and viruses in crops. Nanoparticles mediated plant transformation has the potential for genetic modification of plants for further improvement. Specifically, the application of Nanoparticle technology in plant pathology targets specific agricultural problems in plant-pathogen interactions and provides new ways for crop protection.
Innovators including 80 Acres Farms, AeroFarms, Bowery, InFarm, Plenty, Absolute Foods, Front Range Biosciences, Inari, AgBiome, Greenlight Biosciences, Invaio Sciences, NewLeaf Symbiotics, Provivi, Terramera, Vestaron, Pairwise, Trace Genomics, VoloAgri, and UPL are at forefront of this segment.
Farm Automation with the latest equipment is very effective in reducing human efforts and precise ways of doing various activities like land preparation, sowing, weeding, harvesting, spraying, etc.
Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing to the table many advantages, its ability to innovate the landscape of current farming methods is absolutely groundbreaking. IoT sensors capable of providing farmers with information about crop yields, rainfall, pest infestation, and soil nutrition are invaluable to production and offer precise data which is used to improve farming techniques.
Unmanned Arial (Drones) and Ground Vehicles (Bots) are changing the way farming is being done as they are helping farmers to use minimal labor to execute tasks as well as see the activities being done on the ground by them for counting plants, spraying fertilizers or pesticides, taking real-time plant growth images, etc. Further, the data they collect is useful for analysis and to pass on real-time information to the farmers from the farm level without going to the farm.
Many upcoming players are making a mark on the global stage in this sector including but not limited to Advanced Farm Technologies, Monarch Tractors, Fasal, FJ Dynamics, Aarav Unmanned Systems, Blue White Robotics, Intello Labs, and TartanSense.
Today's world needs the adoption of technology faster than ever, not just to feed the inhabitants of this planet but to save the planet itself and AgTech innovators are showing the path for the world to follow.