A future for food; the need for innovation in agriculture
Currently agriculture is facing challenges from many directions. Modern hyper-intensive farming (demanding the highest crop yield from monocultured crops with less regard for long-term fertility or ecosystem metrics) is interrelated with the great environmental threats; destabilising climate change, biodiversity, oceanic dead zones and poor global soil health. In turn these issues are impacting agriculture.
Often it is trends in our society that influence business strategy and investment. CDP has an in-house team dedicated to tracking them and based on the mega-trends we see today, we think that agriculture is heading for a revolution.
CDP’s Year in Industry Students Charles Griffith and Isaac Blanc, give us a Gen Z view of the future.
The Big Picture
Agriculture has undergone three great revolutions. The first was ten thousand years ago, which saw humans first begin to cultivate seed crops and domesticate animals. The second was three centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution, which saw human and animal muscle power replaced by machinery. The third came about in the last half of the 20th century, which saw the start of modern intensive food production, and has supported an ongoing boom in the human population. This revolution was characterised by increased agrichemical use and highly specialised and lately GMO crops.
Perhaps today we are starting to see signs of a new agricultural revolution, with the emergence of a new technology called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). As the name suggests, this involves producing crops for food or pharmaceutical products, using technology to control many or all growth parameters. Whilst typically referring to controlled indoor environments for plants, it also extends to animal agriculture. Here, factors like animal autonomy, reproduction and hormonal balance, as well as environmental conditions, may be controlled to maximise feed conversion ratios. Taking control of traditionally “natural” factors in this way is allowing CEA to offer significant gains in productivity, reliability and quality of produce. Currently, commercial CEA is chiefly producing leafy greens, while more complex crops like nuts, coffee or avocados are trickier and require the technology and market to mature further.
However, we can see four mega-trends that we think together will stimulate the innovation needed to create a fourth revolution in agriculture.
Health and Wellness
Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of how the food they eat can further their health and wellbeing. As an example, we’ve all heard that leafy greens are good for us (they are rich in many micronutrients) and so it’s resulted in an increased demand for them. However, leafy greens are highly perishable and, due to the logistical challenges in supplying these foods year-round with traditional farming methods, their prices are high for what is essentially just a leaf.
It makes sense that in its early days, most current commercial CEA crops are leafy produce as no pollination is required, the plants have a small form factor and offer fast ROI as their lifecycle is short. Consumers concerned with chemicals and pollutants in their food can seek solace in the bio-secure origins of controlled agriculture produce. Additionally, leafy greens from vertical farming or controlled greenhouse operations (like BrightFarms, which was born in New York) can boast higher mineral profiles compared to outdoor crops.
Premiumisation and Traceability
Mega-trends of ‘premiumisation’ and ‘traceability’ are also catered for by CEA. In terms of premiumisation, with affluent consumers becoming ever more interested in the quality and production of their food, some CEA warehouse operations market their produce as being more local, grown with minimal or no insecticides, herbicides or fungicides, and offering superior quality compared to outdoor plants, both in perceived freshness but also nutritionally.
In terms of traceability, there has been an increasing desire amongst consumers to buy locally, which has emerged from several factors including supporting the local economy, eating fresher food and reducing carbon emissions and pollution caused by transport. However, with an increasing proportion of the global population now living in urban areas the question is: how can you buy locally grown food when you live in a huge city?
CEA start-ups have a unique opportunity to capitalise on this dilemma, as the technology is ideal for urban agriculture. For instance, Gotham Greens, which run three high-tech greenhouses in NYC and one in Chicago, boast that their produce is “hyper-local” and even grow a type of rocket they call ‘Chicago Crisp’. Business seems strong for companies like this; BrightFarms have grown about 10x in crop capacity between 2015 and 2019.
Perhaps the trend with the widest impact is sustainability. The Earth has finite resources and it’s critical that we use these in a more efficient and circular manner. Taking water as an example, the global freshwater supply is under increasing strain and water prices are rising. Outdoor agriculture can consume an enormous amount of water whereas when using techniques like hydroponics, aeroponics, deep water culture or the nutrient film technique (NFT), CEA warehouse projects are able to make saving upwards of 90% when compared to similar crops grown outdoors.
There is also a huge strain on arable land. Industrial agriculture has led to degradation of much topsoil while deforestation and heavy tilling have rendered land unabsorbant and vulnerable to extreme weather (of course, more likely with progressing climate change). Heavy agrichemical use can decimate the soil microorganisms that play a crucial role in decomposing and upcycling nutrients (therefore more fertilisers are needed for the same growth, and the cycle continues). The reduction in agricultural capacity contrasts with the growing human population, not to mention the need to rewild and reforest in order to capture carbon and foster the recovery of our biodiversity.
Clearly, innovation is needed here and while single-story controlled agriculture can significantly boost productivity and reduce land use, there is another somewhat more hyped branch of CEA – ‘Vertical Farming’. This practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers increases the yield per square metre. However, the construction cost is high, and so is better suited to urban environments where the land use savings will counteract this. Artificial lighting, most often provided by LED lights, consumes power which may not come entirely from renewable energy sources. There is a great need for increased efficiency in vertical farming, in both building and running the systems.
Changing the demand side
Of course, while we all want to eat more greens, we can’t discuss food sustainability without mentioning the impact of animal agriculture. The most comprehensive study on agriculture to date, found meat and dairy provides 18% of global calories and 37% of protein, yet requires 83% of currently used farmland and produces 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, when all production factors are included. The UN has urged, for the sake of sustainable resource management, for humans to shift away from meat and dairy. The impact of animal agriculture is not bound to land either; for example, the fishing industry is responsible for a significant amount of plastic found in the ‘great pacific garbage patch’. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that such a shift would be better for public health too.
This has all led to our final mega-trend: the rise of flexi’s, veggies and vegans. Changing what we eat has the most potential of all to reduce the environmental impact of our food. Consumers would benefit from help to do so, one way to do this would be the introduction of environmental labelling on food. We have labelled household appliances in this way for years, and they have improved so much in response that we have had to create new energy efficiency categories. The top right image in this article’s illustration is an example of such a label, inspired by a proposal from Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford. Additionally, rapid advances in alternative meats mean this transition is looking increasingly attractive to those consumers who don’t want to change their diet.
Innovation in agriculture is not only being driven from evolving consumer preference, but also from the needs of our planet. We are living in an age of widespread intensive agriculture, for all its achievements, it has also brought about environmental challenges. Without wide reaching, transformational innovation to change our food system, there may not be enough capacity in the future to feed us all.
Fortunately, innovation is emerging, for example advances in CEA are facilitating new food systems that offer benefits on many fronts from increased freshness, locality and nutritional profiles to reduced environmental impact. However, many challenges remain to increase efficacy, reduce costs and upscale. Solving these will require inspirational engineering, new digital approaches, robotics, AI as well as biology and commercial innovation.
As young engineers at the start of our career, we are looking forward to addressing these challenges!
YINI Student Engineer
YINI Student Engineer