Firming up farms with science

Combining billions of data points with their own intuition, farmers will be able to produce high-quality harvests using less land, energy, water and synthetic fertilizers.

Everybody in the world depends on farmers for good food, but not everybody realises how intricately our planetary health is connected to farming. Ensuring a healthy food system will help ensure a healthy environment, and thanks to advances in science and innovation, productivity and sustainability need no longer be in conflict with one another.


Food Security and Sustainability

By most measures, the history of food production has been a success, as advances in farming practices and innovative technologies have kept up with global population growth. Yet food shortages still exist in too many places. According to the United Nations, almost one-fifth of the global population has irregular access to a sufficient amount of healthy food.


Our current food production system is overall too resource intensive, with excessive consumption of land, water and other inputs and high amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A report from the United Nations found that agriculture, forestry and other land uses account for 23 per cent of human GHG emissions. However, there's a positive side to this equation: The report also notes that these same uses have the capacity to absorb almost a third of the total carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industrial activities. By using science and our knowledge of nature responsibly, we can make agriculture part of the solution to global climate change.



The technologies of tomorrow will make farming more productive, but they also must meet strict environmental benchmarks to ensure our food supply is not only sufficient, but sustainable. I would like to highlight three themes that will help agriculture change the world:


1. Introduce Sustainable Business Models

Good soil leads to good crops. Healthy soils not only produce more food, they also retain water during droughts, filter pollutants, absorb greenhouse gases and preserve biodiversity. Learning how to improve crop production models by using soil microbes can reduce our reliance on synthetic fertilisers, while enabling new naturally-derived plant protection mechanisms to manage crop pests.


Today, farmers get paid to grow crops, not for improving the environment. If we are serious about protecting biodiversity or sequestering carbon in the soil, our goal should be to incentivise farmers through climate-smart models that recognise their contributions to the ecosystem by making sustainability a core part of their operations. Many farmers are already contributing through the use of reduced tillage and cover crops, which protects soil, preserves water and captures carbon. Such practices, along with new technologies, could lead to a more regenerative farming approach.


2. Focus on Smallholders

Because more than 500 million small farms provide 80 per cent of the food for communities in much of the world, it is impossible to address global food security without including smallholder farmers. To be effective, we must meet these farmers where they are, creating innovative business practices using tools and systems that fit their local situation. For example, nearly 70 per cent of all smallholders have cellphones, which opens up huge opportunities to conduct business transactions and deliver agronomic information directly to them. The technology underlying these opportunities is based on digital applications, which use data science. A focus on smallholders isn't about corporate altruism, but rather a purposeful business opportunity with positive implications for all parties - and for sustainable agriculture. We know that sustainable practices won't be implemented if it doesn't make commercial sense from a farmer's perspective. Bringing access to new technologies, such as advanced hybrid seeds or the use of digital applications on small farms creates new markets for agricultural growth, strengthens livelihoods and communities, and improves the quality of the environment.


3. No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

The answers to farming's future needs will be found in a variety of solutions that ensure diversity on the farm. Advances in science, especially in data sciences, will help transform the lives of farmers.


Digitally connecting farmers with relevant data sets can provide insights about field history, weather, soil conditions, seed varieties, markets, and much more. By combining billions of data points with their own intuition, farmers will be able to produce high-quality harvests using less land, energy and water. Access to "Big Data" will allow them to make prescriptive, real-time decisions. Together with advances in plant genetics, crop protection and agronomic practices, digital tools will help farmers tailor solutions to meet local needs, regardless of the size of their farms.


With increased digitalisation also comes the future opportunity for more advanced business transactions, like outcome-based pricing. This deviates from traditional linear transactions, in which a farmer must decide if purchasing a particular crop input is worth the additional investment. Outcome-based models allow farmers to manage their risks more effectively and improve their profitability, as they pay for inputs based on the outcome of using those products as opposed to just paying for seeds or crop protection products, regardless of the harvest quantity and quality.


A Better Tomorrow

Science and innovation will not only help big farmers, but will possibly have a much bigger positive effect on smallholders, who hold the key to ensuring a more resilient food system. Enabling smallholders will help make agriculture part of the solution to climate change.


This article was published on August 23, 2020 in the print edition of Business Today