Six scalable technologies for sustainable agriculture
Sustainability is easily imagined as a uniquely industrial problem, but zoom out and you’ll see it’s farms, not factories, that can be seen from space. Covering 38% of the Earth’s land area, agriculture accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Conversely, zoom in to one of the planet’s 600 million plus farms, 84% of which are smaller than two hectares, and you’ll see that achieving agricultural sustainability is not just a massive challenge, but also a complex one.
Should a farmer prioritise feeding their children today or ensuring the farm is viable for when they grow up? Where do greenhouse gas emissions or deforestation feature in their decision-making? How are their decisions affected by the actions of well-meaning multinationals buying up food staples for plastic-free packaging, or using scarce water flows for green hydrogen production or the silicon chips that power digitisation?
Few sectors embody the interconnectedness of meeting the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) as neatly as agriculture, where solving one problem can easily exacerbate another. If there were easy fixes that cut carbon, improved health and livelihoods, developed communities, saved water and conserved biodiversity, then they’d have been fixed already.
This is why end-to-end innovation is so vital. Sustainable agriculture technologies need to meet complexity with ingenuity, solving for multiple SDGs at once, both locally and holistically.
There are many emergent technologies engaging with this opportunity. In this article, we’ll explore some that are at or approaching maturity, which we believe can be scaled to make a meaningful difference to agricultural sustainability in the next decade.
Plant and soil microbiome
Leaves, roots and soil contain sophisticated communities of bacteria and fungi. Innovations targeting these microbes can have profound effects on plant and ecosystem health.
Some commercial applications already exist. Biofertilisers like mycorrhizal fungi for example can enhance soil quality and moisture absorption, simultaneously improving nutrition and yields, water conservation and carbon sequestration (soil holds 80% of the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems).
Others are in trials. Researchers in the US are using bees as a vector for delivering beneficial microorganisms to plants, in order to increase pest resistance and therefore reduce chemical pesticide use. Bioremediation experiments meanwhile use microbiome transplants to restore degraded lands by metabolising harmful chemicals, thereby helping to prevent deforestation.
Although these are promising nature-based applications, microbiomes remain complex, adaptive - and invisible - ecosystems. End consumers are unlikely to know about them, it can take years to see benefits, and because each microbiome is unique, there is no prospect of a one-size-fits-all, mass produced solution.
More patient investment, collaboration between stakeholders, and government incentives are required to scale these efforts.
Unmanned aerial systems
Drones are ideally suited to environments where people cannot physically see problems. Using images, videos and other sensor data, drones are already producing 3D maps of farms, helping farmers know the optimal time to harvest and enabling the transition to precision agriculture. This can improve yields, food security and profits.
A more detailed view of irrigation patterns, soil moisture and drainage allows more efficient use of water, while multispectral analysis can improve nitrogen management by showing which areas need more or less fertiliser. That in turn can reduce environmental damage and GHG emissions associated with fertiliser use.
Drones can also deliver precise chemical payloads to remote locations, and there are trials where they capture insects and microbes for analysis, enabling better prediction of pest and disease risks.
However, while UAS are mature in some sectors, such as for inspection of remote oil and gas facilities, they have yet to be validated at scale in agriculture, not least because they are too expensive for many farmers, and there remain challenges around battery life and charging infrastructure.
Greater regulatory clarity, alongside rules allowing drones to be flown beyond human line of sight, would also be necessary for larger scale investment and use.
Gene editing involves making precise changes to crop DNA using technologies such as CRISPR- Cas9, making them more nutritious and more resistant to pests, drought, disease and weeds. They can also be cheaper - if the crop is adapted to produce more seeds - and faster to introduce than using traditional backcrossing methods alone.
Taken together, gene-edited crops have immense potential to reduce hunger and enhance food security, health and livelihoods, while reducing the need for environmentally damaging fertilisers.
While the technology has rapidly moved from the lab to commercial applications over the past two decades, consumer education and regulation both need to improve to accelerate adoption. Farmers also need more support when switching to gene-edited crops in combination with reducing fertiliser use, as yields can temporarily drop before soil quality increases.
Qubits and carrots may not instinctively pair in word association games, but quantum computing has as much potential to revolutionise farming as any other sector.
By exploiting quantum superposition, where a particle can simultaneously exist in more than one state, these machines have massively more processing power than classical, binary computers, enabling them to solve more complex problems, more quickly.
When paired with AI, quantum computing has immense potential as an enabler of agricultural innovations. Long term, it could generate more accurate and granular weather predictions, helping farmers make better planting and harvesting decisions, leading to higher yields and protecting against climate risks such as droughts and floods.
Macromolecule modelling could improve nitrogen fixing in fertilisers, again improving yields. Through catalyst simulation analysis, it could also unlock next generation water treatment technologies, reducing water waste.
Perhaps the most promising work so far has been to improve modelling of plant genomics, which when combined with gene editing could lead to hardier and higher yielding crops. Applications using quantum computing are further out than the others on this list, but it is more established as a technology than many assume, and with substantial investment already committed, it is likely that its technology readiness level will increase notably during the next decade.
Water management systems
Agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, but water systems are increasingly under stress from rising demand and climate change impacts.
Some innovations aim to improve water efficiency on farms themselves, for example micro-irrigation systems that reduce waste, or units that recover water from slurry or rainfall. There are also technologies that allow treatment of brackish or otherwise unsafe water, or even extract water directly from the atmosphere, increasing local supply.
Others could cut the cost of decentralised water treatment systems, reducing water leakage and emissions from long-distance pumping, and making water treatment, recovery and sanitation available to communities without centralised systems.
Improved water management will be increasingly necessary over the next decade, as demands on water systems increase. Indeed, it too can be seen as an enabler of other innovations, as many other sustainable technologies, like green hydrogen, require fresh water.
Technology has a central role in improving water management, and there is major investment underway. However, further development is needed to bring costs down, and behaviours still need to change through education if we’re to become better stewards of this precious resource.
Biochar is a charcoal-like substance produced when organic matter is heated in the absence of oxygen. This process, called pyrolysis, captures a higher proportion of carbon as solids than burning, and the product is more stable.
When agricultural waste is converted to biochar and applied to soil - instead of being burned or allowed to rot - it therefore acts as a carbon sink, simultaneously improving soil quality and creating financial value out of the waste itself.
Biochar has been commercially produced in the agricultural sector for many years, with a market worth €1.8bn in 2018, due to increase to €3.75bn by 2025, and investor interest is increasing.
More affordable equipment for local application would be necessary for scale-up in the developing world, with market maturity for biochar requiring supply chain development and improved large- scale production technologies, where remaining gaseous CO2 is more easily captured.