Over the next 35 years, an additional 2bn humans will be jockeying for a seat at the communal table, requiring an increase in food supply of at least 60%, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Achieving this growth will require the deployment of technology. Big Ag is already leveraging big data in the form of “precision farming” and “prescription planting”. Large soya and maize farms, for example, are now using a combination of sensors, drones, crop-yield data, satellite images and microclimate forecasting to determine the right number of seeds per acre. Big data solutions also exist to help them optimise water use.
Improving the quality of fertilisers and reducing their environmental impact will be another way to address the food supply challenge. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, as much as 25% of the nitrogen applied to corn is not absorbed; the runoff makes its way to rivers, groundwater and oceans, causing algae blooms and hypoxia zones where marine life cannot survive. In an effort to address the problem, a company called California Safe Soil (CSS) converts organic waste from supermarkets into a liquid fertiliser that CSS claims is both cleaner and makes plants more efficient at absorption.
Another option, being explored in the pesticide sector by Israeli start-up Catalyst Agtech, is to disintegrate the pollutant before it reaches the groundwater reservoir in the first place. Its patented product, which the company says is compatible with 40% of existing agrochemicals used in the industry, breaks down pesticides’ compounds once they reach the deeper, anaerobic layers of the soil—thus limiting the flow of pollutants into groundwater.
Genetic engineering will also be an important area for research. The C4 Rice project, for example, aims to create a rice species with a photosynthesis process similar to those of maize or sorghum, both of which are more efficient at fixing carbon. Named one of the “10 breakthrough technologies for 2015” by MIT, the methods followed by the project could deliver a rice species equipped with C4 photosynthesis, which could help increase yield per hectare by up to 50%, according to the researchers involved in the project.
Meanwhile, urbanisation will require the development of new ways to farm. The USA Pavilion at the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan showcases a vertical farm, for example. Aquaponic, a synergistic method of raising fish and vegetables together, is another promising option: Fish waste fertilises the plants; the plants, in turn, filter the water back through in a closed loop. No soil or chemicals are involved. Already, a London warehouse is being converted into the UK’s first commercial aquaponic farm, and another just opened in the Schoneberg district of Berlin.
The first is expected to produce 20t worth of vegetables and 4 tons of fish per year vs. some 100t of vegetables and 30t for the “farm” in Berlin. Teach a man to fish, and he might just feed 9bn souls at that ever-expanding table.