- The innovation that the agriculture industry needs to meet growing challenges has dried up.
- Rather than idealistic moonshots, there is a need for practical innovation that builds on existing technology.
- The healthcare sector provides a leading example of rapid and targeted innovation.
We are resolutely entering a new era of humanitarian and environmental crisis centered on food and agriculture. Without sustainable systems that make global production more efficient, the gap between those with enough food and those without will continue to widen. Farmers bear the most direct burden of preventing this. Yet all over the world, they are plagued by emerging threats to the health of their crops and the health of their businesses.
The agriculture industry is trying to tackle these complex issues, but its innovation channels have stagnated. For example, it takes 13 to 15 years for companies to discover a new crop protection product and bring it to market, despite the pressing pest resistance issues farmers face. This forces producers to continue using old tools even if new problems appear and worsen.
Extreme weather conditions that threaten crop yields – including droughts, heat waves and heavy rains – will become more severe. frequent and severe over the next few years. Meanwhile, food production must increase 60-70% over the next decades to keep up with population growth and an impending labor shortage in some areas threatens producers’ businesses.
These issues are too important and urgent for agribusinesses to tackle traditional industry approaches or enlightening solutions that may or may not pay off. Instead, like agtech investment balloons In response to these threats, the industry must quickly bring new technology to market that helps farmers respond and build resilience against them. This includes building on technologies that farmers are already using and leveraging proven innovations in other industries.
Farmers need practical innovations that meet their immediate needs: keeping crops healthy and making their businesses sustainable.
Keep crops healthy
Above all, producers must keep their crops alive and thriving. It will become more difficult as climate change worsens. This year alone, droughts are threatening maize in Brazil, cocoa in the Ivory Coast and many cultures in the American West. This exacerbates other challenges in maintaining healthy crops. Drought weakens the defenses of crops against pests, and if crops also compete with weeds for soil nutrients and water, those defenses become even weaker. As a result, crop yields may drop.
To adapt, growers need tools that help them predict, respond to and mitigate the impacts of climate change on their acres. Tools that provide immediate insight into how farming practices affect crop health are part of the puzzle. For example, Indicator developed a portable device to help farmers quickly map and measure soil carbon levels in their fields. In addition to climatic benefits of soil carbon sequestration, soil carbon is important because it provides soil structure, stores water and nutrients that plants need, and nourishes vital organisms. Making information about this accessible helps farmers understand changing soil conditions and make more informed decisions to keep their crops healthy.
In contrast, dynamic approaches like vertical farming – which promises to keep crops healthy by keeping them completely away from inclement weather – remain out of reach for most growers and are still far from the scale required to produce enough food. food over the next few decades.
How tech-savvy producers keep their businesses going
In addition to maintaining healthy crops, the main concern of farmers is to maintain a healthy business.
Labor shortages and time-consuming manual tasks can make this more difficult amid shrinking margins, but technology can help. Farming has always been a STEM profession, and today’s growers are tech-savvy. But the technology needs to adapt to their existing cropping operations and systems – not the other way around – and build on what farmers are already using.
For example, practical applications of automation can help farmers struggling with slow pace growth in agricultural employment. Deere & Company recently acquired Bear Flag Robotics, which develops autonomous driving technology that can be retrofitted to existing machines. Farmers are using automation in one form or another since the 1990s, but this level of autonomy opens up considerable productivity opportunities while keeping heavy machinery such as tractors in service longer.
Technologies that give growers more in-depth information about their crops can also make a difference by providing them with data to change their practices in powerful ways. Based in Bangalore Crop has developed AI tools to provide farmers with data that helps them maximize yield and adopt more sustainable practices. These types of solutions provide a replicable model for empowering producers around the world.
The health playbook
The power of cross-sector innovation to solve pressing problems is clear. The rapid creation of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines over the past year is just one example. Looking ahead, the agriculture industry can build on innovations proven in other industries to rapidly develop new practical tools for farmers – reinvigorating stagnant pipelines with less risk and faster results.
The health sector is one example. Advances in human medicine can have a direct impact on plant health. Over the past decades, pharma has taken a leap forward in the drug discovery process using a toolbox of emerging technologies. This has improved the treatment of the disease by making it very targeted. For example, where cancer drugs once destroyed everything in their path – the harmful and the useful – they now target specific cells and let the rest do their work.
Technologies from the pharmaceutical industry, such as targeted protein degradation, already have promising applications in agriculture, from weed control to resistance control. CRISPR, which could revolutionize human health, is also expected to play a key role in crop health. Scientists are already using gene modification develop stronger seeds and plants that can sequester more carbon. The agriculture industry can continue to leverage innovation from the pharmaceutical industry and other industries to create new tools for farmers more efficiently than it could from scratch.
Two billion people in the world are currently suffering from malnutrition and by some estimates it would take 60% more food to feed the world’s population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of global water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has lagged behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.
Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.
With research, increased investment in new agricultural technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at improving food security, the platform works with more than 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.
Learn more on Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.
The threats producers face are becoming increasingly urgent and threatening us all. The worst-case scenario for the global food system, such as a plant pandemic, could push more people into poverty and cause enormous social unrest. Farmers don’t have the luxury of time to experiment with moonshot ideas. To adapt to climate change, population growth and labor shortages, they need practical solutions that create immediate and tangible impacts for their cultures and businesses.