Technology feeds sustainable agriculture

Farming has traditionally focused on maximizing yields at the lowest possible cost. But as environmental concerns have increased and sustainability has become a critical business issue, agriculture is evolving.

Connected sensors, smart tractors, drones, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), farm management software and smartphone apps are quietly transforming a low-tech industry. These systems reduce water consumption, fuel consumption, fertilizer use and ultimately carbon emissions.

“We’re seeing tremendous progress in sustainable agriculture,” observes Vasanth Ganesan, a partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “There is increasing recognition that farmers can achieve significant returns on their investments through the technologies they employ.”

In fact, McKinsey found that farmers around the world are rapidly adopting sustainable practices. These range from low-tech solutions such as low-tilling or no-tilling practices and use of cover crops to high-tech approaches using biostimulants, genetically modified crops and IoT systems.

Smart farming changes everything

The impact of agriculture on the global carbon footprint is enormous. The industry generates approximately $2.4 trillion annually and provides jobs for more than 1.3 billion people – approximately 19% of the world’s population. However, according to the United Nations, the industry also has a massive carbon footprint. About 31% of global emissions come from the world’s agricultural and food systems.

Addressing this problem is a major challenge. “Agricultural systems around the world are very heterogeneous,” observes Miland Kandlikar, professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. “There are different economies, machines, technologies, soils, plants and other factors that come into play when you look at sustainability.”

In addition, deforestation and increasingly complex supply chains accelerate CO2 emissions. “The most important trend … since 1990 … is the increasingly important role of off-farm food-related emissions in pre- and post-production processes,” noted Maximo Torero, an economist at the UN.

Still, advances in digital technology are beginning to reshape farming. Sasha Duchnowski, a partner at consulting firm Bain & Company, says advances revolve around three main areas: productivity, precision, and prediction. The right combination of technology and processes allows farmers to apply only the water they need or fertilizer when they need it, monitor conditions more effectively, and use data to drive further profits. “Small annual improvements add up to big improvements,” he says.

According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, more than half of the world’s farms have adopted sustainable practices. Connected digital sensors monitor crop growth patterns, livestock movements, microclimate data and soil pH. As this data is fed into the systems, farmers can make adjustments as needed. Analysis software and machine learning systems automatically adjust irrigation and chemical usage. Some farms and ranches have also turned to drones, which use multispectral imaging to monitor crop health, weeds, animals, and soil conditions.

Telemetry and GPS systems also play a role in reducing carbon emissions. These technologies monitor the location of vehicles and devices – and optimize their use. These technologies also make it possible to improve fuel economy, optimize equipment maintenance, and track herds of animals. “There is a convergence of technologies that are driving profound changes in agriculture,” says Duchnowski.

A new era of sustainability is dawning

There are also growing efforts to address pre- and post-production carbon emissions from food production supply chains. As food producers delve deeper into their sourcing efforts and adopt more sophisticated ESG initiatives, there is a deeper insight into Scope 3 emissions, along with the pressure on agricultural producers to operate more efficiently.

The biggest problem right now, Ganesan said, is the lack of a holistic loop to address sustainability. While farmers are open to innovation, particularly through technology, they often struggle to embrace sustainability because their suppliers — who sell seeds, chemicals and other products — are slow to adopt low-carbon practices. “We’re seeing progress, but it’s still a little wild, wild west,” he says. “In many cases there is a lack of coordination within industry and on the part of governments.”

However, there are some encouraging signs. For example, in February 2022, the US Department of Agriculture announced it was investing $1 billion in companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and drive innovation related to climate-based technologies. Ganesan believes the agribusiness has only scratched the surface of what’s possible with precision technology and analytics. “One key is the development of technologies that not only drive improvements, but also create value for farmers. This will accelerate sustainability,” he notes.

Biotechnology could also play a key role in creating a more sustainable framework for agriculture. In recent decades, genetic engineering has made more resilient seeds and plants commonplace. But the impact of CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool, could prove revolutionary. It will likely allow scientists to develop plants that are better adapted to extreme conditions – and increase yields.

However, technology alone cannot solve the problem, argues Kandlikar. Behavioral changes are also required. “If we really want to promote sustainability, it is not enough to simply become more efficient in cultivating crops and animals and then offsetting the gains with greater demand. It is necessary to look at everything through the lens of sustainability.”

This also includes a more detailed consideration of Scope 3 emissions. There is a need to reduce food waste – which, according to the UN, accounts for 14% of all food harvested, increasing carbon footprints through wasted water, labor and energy. In addition, society must make some difficult decisions about what foods to consume and how the foods are produced. For example, beef, chocolate and coffee produce greenhouse gases at a rate 20 to 100 times higher per kilogram than most crops.

Planting a more sustainable future

It is also easy to overlook that the carbon footprint of agriculture goes far beyond food. Today it touches many industries – from aviation and textiles to product packaging and paper goods. Additionally, businesses and IT leaders need to understand their impact and play a role in driving further carbon reduction goals as companies adopt synthetic fuels, plant-based soda containers and alternative styles of clothing.

According to Ganesan, the vast majority of farmers worldwide are open to innovation and more sustainable practices. “The toolkit exists and it’s getting better all the time. We need to find ways to use technology, tax incentives and other tools to encourage sustainable practices in a more holistic way – and to incentivize farmers and the companies that produce our food.”

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