Modern agriculture has always been shaped by a myriad of factors. Consumer preference, supply chain logistics, even the cost of replacing a tractor tyre are all part of a dynamic, complex mix. More recently, runaway exponential population growth, indiscriminate resource exploitation and extreme weather patterns most likely brought on by global warming have complicated matters to unprecedented levels.
In the face of such adversity, the efforts made to feed the world leave much to be desired. Limitations on food accessibility in developing regions and poor dietary habits in wealthy countries have created an incongruous global food imbalance; at least 821 million people are undernourished, while as many as 2.1 billion suffer from obesity.
As we head for a global population of as many as 10 billion in 2050, it is nothing short of a travesty that one third of global food production is entirely wasted. Approximately 1.3 billion tons of edible food is lost or thrown away due to production and supply chain inefficiencies, cosmetic selection, expiry, wasteful food preparation and storage or simple flippancy. More disturbing still is that the wastage equates to more than four times the amount of food required to feed the undernourished people in the world.
The alarming upshot of present practices is that we currently consume the resources of 1.7 planets, yet still totally fail to provide food security for hundreds of millions. The extrapolation is that the resources of 3 planets will be required in 2050, unless we make radical, sweeping changes to agriculture and food production.What is being done?
Fortunately, this untenable situation has been recognized by global accords. Set out in 2015 by the United Nations, there are seventeen SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) mandated to promote a broad spectrum of sustainability by 2030. The second goal in the list is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Also set out in 2015, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change recognizes “the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change.” As such, it addresses a requirement to cap global temperature increase to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
The blatant requirement to implement these objectives is changing the culture of food producers everywhere. Many are tailoring their operations to help meet the dichotomous needs of more food, but less environmental impact. Considerable efforts are being made to reduce water consumption and carbon footprints, while greater efficiencies and the creation of more environmentally responsible supply chains are being sought.Can sustainability be achieved?
A raft of laws already ensure certain environmental protections which aid sustainability. However, the motivations driving sustainability need to be self-perpetuating in order to ensure permanent change. As food producers strive to increase operational efficiencies, reduce waste and mitigate fiscal and environmental costs, such streamlining encourages competitiveness. This is because it forces rival producers to also vie for ever-more efficient ways of getting food from producer to consumer, if they are to survive.What role can technology play?
Agriculture and technology have always been inextricably interwoven. Just like the scythe once made harvesting less back-breaking, modern technological tools ameliorate agricultural operations. Improved decision-making in the field, information dissemination and consolidation along supply chains, even tractor fleet management all now fall under the electronic realm.
If sustainability is to be achieved in agricultural practices the world over, it will be through the application of advanced precision technology. Based on AI and machine learning techniques, advanced precision technology offers the unparalleled levels of sophistication required to manage the countless variables involved in agriculture and food production.
Take VR (Variable Rate) fertilizer application as an excellent case in point. Not long ago, the only real option available to a farmer was to apply a blanket coverage of an agronomist's recommended dose of fertilizer across an entire field. This is no longer true. Aerial analytics (drones and satellites) can collect data from which a prescription map of crop health is created. This data is later used to control an actuated VR spreader or sprayer which applies fertilizer accordingly.
More immediate still is the Augmenta System (aka the Augmenta Field Analyser). Retrofitted to any standard tractor, it eliminates the need for aerial analytics altogether by using machine vision to scan the fields ahead. Its algorithm creates its own prescription map in real-time and uses the data to control the actuated VR spreader/sprayer as the farmer drives along. The entire process is fully automatic and done in one pass.
Such systems both work on the principle of supplying crop with fertilizer only when or if it is needed. This promotes crop uniformity, boosts yield while reducing waste and environmental impact. The Augmenta System also has the distinct advantage of being multifunctional. It can deal with foliar fertilizer, harvest-aid defoliant and plant growth regulator VR applications, and additional services are in the pipe-line. As all services significantly increase efficiency, they represent a substantial leap towards sustainability.What are the obstacles?
Local cultural barriers seriously impede the widespread adoption of sustainable practices. Resistance to innovation in favor of the 'tried and trusted' status quo is one reason, so too is a limited awareness of the potential benefits of change. So, suppliers are generally slow to restructure and adopt new practices which are actually aligned with the needs of the companies they supply. Moreover, in many countries, farm holdings tend to be small and fragmented. This makes it more difficult for them to invest and adopt technologies which promote sustainability.
The successful use of precision technologies is greatly dependent on internet connectivity. However, many rural areas are not serviced well by broadband so as to ensure interconnection with supply chains. Moreover, companies are often reluctant to invest time, money and effort in new technologies for their suppliers, especially if farm holdings are small and/or remote. Another issue concerns the know-how required to use new technologies wherever they are deployed in the supply chain. Suppliers in particular may require training as specialized farming equipment becomes available. Fundamental to all these concerns is a mandatory awareness of the precision tools available and the tangible benefits they can deliver.How can the obstacles be overcome?
In order to make advanced precision agriculture deliverable and sustainability eventually obtainable, awareness must be heightened. Stakeholders must have a better understanding of the threats to food security we all face. They must also be made to realize the tangible benefits advanced precision agricultural solutions can already offer. Additionally, engagement with agriculturalists, universities, non-profit organizations, trade associations and so on is pivotal to the understanding of emerging risks and identification agricultural opportunities.
Above all, a common sense of purpose – a collective desire to commit all possible effort – is required, if we are to attain that holiest of all agricultural grails, sustainability. A sizable challenge, no doubt. However, failure would be catastrophic, as our very survival may depend on it.