Six years ago, not many people knew agtech. But in those six years, the agricultural technology sector has exploded and it’s making waves in investor circles.
Agtech is not like most of the other technological advancement we have experienced till now. It touches on what has been one of our biggest pain points for a long time – food insecurity.
The reality is that conventional food systems and farming methods are failing to support our growing population. Not only that, but they are also unsustainable. If we are to have a chance at achieving food security, bringing farming from the industrial age into the digital one is a must.
The role of Agtech in Agriculture
Agriculture poses a lot of environmental challenges:
- It’s among the biggest contributors to global warming. For example, agricultural practices such as livestock farming and the clearing of forests for crop production result in the emission of greenhouse gases.
- It accelerates the loss of biodiversity. Clearing grasslands and forests for farming often leads to the loss of animal habitats.
- It uses lots of water. In most parts of the world, over 70% of freshwater is used in agriculture. Of this 70%, 40% is wasted due to poor water management.
- It’s a major polluter. Many of the fertilizers, pesticides and manure used in farming end up contaminating our water systems and already fragile ecosystems.
These problems will only become more pressing as both climate change and population growth become bigger issues.
Enter agtech, the technology that’s changing the narrative.
On a basic level, agtech is about using technology, especially software, data analysis and advanced monitoring, to increase the efficiency, yield and profitability of agricultural systems.
Agtech aims to find solutions that increase output and profitability without burdening the already strained natural and economic resources. From farm drones, biotech and sensors to big data, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the technology is changing agriculture in many ways.
Feeding a growing global population
An extra 1.4 billion mouths are expected to have joined the current world population by 2050. Things would not be so bad if food security was not a big issue right now, but as it is:
- Around 9 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases each year. Of these people, over 3 million are children.
- Over 800 million people are undernourished and about 690 million go to bed hungry every day.
To worsen the situation:
- Climate change is making conventional farming harder. Water is becoming more scarce, land quality is decreasing and so is the overall yield of some top crops.
- An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food (about a third of all the food produced in the world) are wasted globally each year due to poor practices in the agricultural industry.
Figuring out how to feed a much larger population needs to happen fast. With some studies suggesting that we need to grow twice as much food as is grown today if we are to avoid large-scale social disruption and further food security issues, agtech may be the secret to keeping everyone fed.
Making food production sustainable
It’s becoming clearer that our current agricultural methods, which rely heavily on industrial-era concepts, don’t work so well anymore. Whether it’s resource use or land management, supply chain management and more, the viability of most old and outdated farming models is questionable.
Many old concepts emphasise massive output while ignoring things such as environmental impact and social and financial repercussions. For instance, most traditional commercial farming is not sustainable for the planet.
It may have gotten us to where we are today, but we can’t ignore the poor large-scale cultivation techniques, poor harvesting practices, extensive use of water and the long-distance food transportation practices that produce emissions.
The worst part is that this list is not exhaustive.
Conventional farming is also hardly worthwhile for farmers and an unpredictable form of livelihood thanks to its tight margins. Corn and soybeans, for example, are considered two of the higher-profit crops but they tend to bring in little profit. In some instances, like in 2018, farmers were expected to make as little as $9 of profit per acre, allowing them to barely break even.
With little profitability across the board, most farming is only viable because people have to be fed and so governments subsidize a lot of commercial agriculture.
Agtech is making farming feasible for both present and future food producers. It’s disrupting conventional farming, ushering in what may become the era of sustainable food production. For example, Accenture has combined several digital technologies to create a service that helps farmers increase their productivity and profitability while lowering the overall environmental impact of farming.
Beyond food production
Agriculture is one of the few industries that align with many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most of the 17 goals are relevant to agriculture, whether the link is direct or indirect.
- SDG 1 (No Poverty): The rural population makes up over 70% of the world’s extreme poor. More efficient agricultural practices can contribute to the reduction of poverty more than any other sector.
- SDG 2 (Zero Hunger): This goal is all about ending hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture. The link is pretty obvious here.
- SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing): Sustainable agriculture can ensure that people’s nutritional needs are met and farmers are protected from toxic chemicals during food production.
- SDG 4 (Quality Education): Higher returns from more productive farming allow farmers to invest in education. Additionally, agricultural extension services increase farmers’ knowledge and equip them with the skills and tools they need to be more productive.
- SDG 5 (Gender Equality): Nearly 50% of all farmers are women, however, these women produce up to 30% less than their male counterparts due to differences in resource use. Bridging this production gap can address equality and help reduce global hunger by a measurable margin.
- SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation): Agriculture is highly dependent on water and increasingly subject to water risk. Sustainable farming can promote efficient water management and ensure that water sources are not contaminated.
- SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy): Agriculture requires energy for many functions including operating machinery, lighting, and heating of buildings. Promoting sustainability will help ensure the use of affordable, reliable and renewable energy sources that are carbon-free or carbon-neutral.
- SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth): In many parts of the world, agriculture can provide employment opportunities which will, in turn, boost economic growth.
- SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure): Advances in agricultural techniques and technology are the basis of new global agricultural infrastructure that will create a resilient and innovative industry.
- SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities): Robust agriculture can help raise local income levels and spur socio-economic growth, thereby helping to reduce the inequalities between developed and developing nations.
- SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities): More efficient and better-paying farming can create more resilient and sustainable communities with reduced dependence on donor funding.
- SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production): Moving towards healthier and more sustainable agriculture will promote more efficient consumption patterns that eliminate, or at least minimize, waste.
- SDG 13 (Climate Action): Since agriculture is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating its carbon emissions will go a long way in achieving goal 13.
- SDG 14 (Life Below Water): Eliminating toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural processes can contribute to cleaner water for life below water.
- SDG 15 (Life on Land): Sustainable agriculture can protect biodiversity and ecosystems.
- SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals): Sustainable agricultural systems foster local markets while promoting equitable international trade and partnerships that benefit all those involved.
With many people questioning if the SDGs are achievable and agriculture remaining a highly relevant industry for achieving the goals, agtech is not just a buzzword. It’s a concept that can make a difference when it comes to achieving the seemingly elusive #agenda 2030.
Adapting to evolving consumer tastes
Aside from food security and sustainable food production, agtech is addressing another important issue – improved health. A growing number of consumers want clean or organic food, and for good reason. People have health concerns ranging from the link between cancer and pesticides to disease outbreaks resulting from contaminated irrigation water.
Agtech has a role to play in ensuring food safety and meeting the demand for clean food. For example, Terramera has developed a natural “plant-intelligence” pest control that allows farmers to get rid of chemical pesticides without sacrificing higher yields.
With the ability to combine food security with nutrition and health, agtech is the face of the future.
Agtech “the necessary technology”
Unlike many of today’s tech disruptions – agtech is actually essential. We may not all need fintech, social media, specific software or the latest gadgets, but we all need to eat. Agtech is not about consumer convenience or compelling experiences, it’s about survival.
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