A quiet science revolution is bringing us closer to feeding the world.
Scientists and entrepreneurs are changing the way we grow our food, making agriculture ripe for another green revolution. Today, U.S. farmers can learn within minutes the optimal depth and spacing for planting seeds, thanks to “precision farming” data sent from satellite– and aircraft-based sensors to computers on tractors.
Other innovations include advanced irrigation systems, drones for water and disease management, drought-tolerant and pest-resistant seeds, and skyscraper greenhouses and fish farms. Some of the most promising agricultural research and technologies are now on display in the USA Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo.
From lab to fork
Although some advanced agricultural technologies are not yet widely used, “science and tech will have a major impact on reducing hunger and malnutrition around the world,” according to Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Washington.
Agricultural innovation could boost global crop yields by up to two-thirds and help cut food prices in half by 2050, according to a 2014 report issued by his institute. This can help the world produce enough food to feed the world’s projected population of 9 billion, despite the negative effects of global warming on agriculture.
But boosting food production will require no less than a green revolution in the regions where the potential for increasing crop yields is greatest, experts say, primarily in Africa. Although more than half of the world’s unused arable land is on that continent, African farmers produce seven times less per hectare than their counterparts in developed countries.
High-tech seeds for low-tech farms
Transferring technologies from the developed world to developing nations won’t be easy. For example, precision agriculture requires costly high-tech equipment as well as advanced telecommunications infrastructure. This makes economic sense mostly on large commercial farms — and most farms in developing countries are small.
But farmers in the developing world can adopt some agricultural innovations once they’re made simpler, less costly and easier to use, according to Josette Lewis, associate director of the World Food Center at the University of California, Davis. Examples include basic sensors for measuring soil moisture and nutrient content, as well as inexpensive drip-irrigation kits. More efficient than sprinklers, drip-irrigation systems deliver water directly to crops’ roots through porous or perforated tubing installed on or below the soil surface.
The Obama administration launched Feed the Future, a partnership with 19 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, to boost productivity of smallholder farms and incomes of farmers through research and technology.
Developing countries’ governments can help disseminate new farming practices and push high-potential technologies by pursuing business-friendly regulations and foreign-investment policies, Lewis says.
In some cases, innovative low-tech approaches are likely to find broad application. For example, Tal-Ya, an Israeli firm, manufactures trays that capture dew and funnel it to plants, a simple technology well-suited to semi-arid and dry regions. It has already been adopted by farmers in the U.S., China, Chile, Georgia, Sri Lanka and Australia, according to the company’s website.
The technologies with the highest potential for use in developing countries include no-till farming (that is, growing crops without disturbing the soil through tillage or plowing), more efficient use of fertilizer, planting heat-tolerant crops, and protecting crops from weeds, insects and diseases, according to the IFPRI report.
Innovative seed varieties are likely to contribute the most to increasing crop yields and farmers’ incomes in the developing world, according to Rosegrant. That’s because they are relatively easy to transport and distribute.
Two million African farmers already use U.S.-developed drought-tolerant maize and 4 million farmers in Asia plant flood-proof rice seeds developed with help from U.S. researchers.
Researchers and tech innovators are also busy trying to find ways to reduce the amount of food lost once crops have been harvested. According to some estimates, up to 60 percent of harvested crops are lost because of inappropriate farming practices, particularly storage, and inadequate infrastructure for transporting crops to markets.
Small-scale storage and refrigeration techniques — such as improved mud silos, metal silos, metal/plastic drums and evaporative cooling — can help ensure the safety, quality and marketability of harvested crops in areas with no access to conventional storage or power. Lewis also cites on-farm drying of fruits and vegetables as another way of preserving the market value of produce.
“Such solutions are not only important to ensure the freshness and safety of produce, but also to let farmers market it when the price is right,” Lewis says.
The Internet and mobile applications can help farmers learn about best practices and appropriate new technologies, share knowledge, and connect with markets.
“You can’t grow food with cellphones, but you can help get information to farmers faster than through conventional extension systems,” Rosegrant says. The Internet could help increase agricultural productivity just in Africa by $3 billion a year, according to a 2013 McKinsey report.
Homegrown technology startups in Botswana, Kenya and other African nations already try to reach remote farmers with apps providing veterinary diagnoses, crop-planting guidance and virtual marketplaces.
But better farming technologies and practices can go only so far. To achieve significant reductions in post-harvest losses, major improvements in transportation and power infrastructure in Africa and South Asia are needed, according to Rosegrant.
Is there an app for that? Not yet.