A growing revolution

Chris Seekings investigates the many ways that agritech is transforming farming and food production

Agriculture is going through a technological revolution. A vast amount of untapped data is now available to farmers, while new space-age growing methods are disrupting the way food has been produced for millennia. With the UN warning that food production will need to rise by 70% by 2050 as the world’s population surpasses nine billion, this could not come at a better time.

A handful of ‘agritech’ start-ups are leading the charge, boosting energy efficiency and slashing food, water and CO2 waste using artificial intelligence and robotics. These innovative techniques could herald a new era for crop farming, and offer solutions to the pressing environmental challenges we face.
 

Data disruption

Sustainability is a significant challenge for agriculture and horticulture – poor farming practices, unstable weather patterns, pests, disease and food prices all contribute to waste, and scientists expect crop losses to rise by up to 25% for every degree of global warming. 

Part of the problem is that farmers have traditionally found it hard to extract meaningful insights from the data they gather. However, wireless smart sensing technologies now allow growers to monitor climate, soil moisture, energy use, carbon emissions and crop levels in real-time.

Amsterdam-based company 30MHz is at the forefront, taking advantage of a data-rich sector that is primed for disruption. “Agriculture is responsible for 70% of global freshwater usage, and is the world’s second-largest CO2 emitter after the energy sector,” says the company’s marketing vice president Niels Lauwers. “With technology and data, organisations of any size can innovate to become more efficient.”  

Farmers can monitor and manage their crops through 30MHz’s ZENZIE dashboard, which provides updates through graphs, heat maps and custom alerts on phones or tablets. “At the centre of this is the grower, who will be empowered to grow more using less resources,” Lauwers explains. “Our customers are able to use less water, energy and fertiliser while optimising output.”

One customer is agricultural production company Wengfong Nurseries, a large propagator in Malaysia. After switching from handheld sensors to 30MHz’s wireless technology, the firm cut its fertiliser use through humidity and sunlight monitoring, achieving a return on investment in less than a calendar year. 

“Crop strategies will one day be fully based upon data insights,” Lauwers says. “Combined with a vast increase in measurement options, artificial intelligence and machine learning, it will become an autonomous operation.”
 

Rise of the robots 

It is not just wireless sensors and dashboards assisting farmers with data collection and cultivation. The Small Robot Company has been deploying miniature robots for precision agriculture, replacing the traditional role of tractors and farmers. These can monitor hectares of land with minimal pressure on soil, collecting data on every single plant or blade of wheat and surrounding biodiversity. They then suggest and carry out remedial action, only feeding and caring for the plants that need it. This reduces waste, pesticide use and soil degradation.

“This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming,” says Small Robot Company co-founder Sam Watson Jones. “When we can not only understand a farmer’s field on a plant-by-plant basis, but also take action at that level, a completely different farming system becomes possible. Farming will be able to produce an abundance of food with minimal negative environmental impacts.”

These autonomous robots use up to 95% fewer chemicals and 90% less energy than traditional tractors, can work 24 hours a day, and avoid crushing worms or destroying hedgerows and other biodiversity. Increased yield and minimal chemical use can boost revenues by up to 40% and cut costs by 60%.

Meanwhile, drone specialists have been able to collect valuable data through aerial surveys, identifying poor drainage areas, crop health and weed pressure. Although used mainly by agronomists rather than farmers, these assessments have also allowed for significant productivity and sustainability gains.

“Drones and swarm robots – small, simple and inexpensive – are poised to reverse the trend in agriculture towards ever bigger machines,” Agri-Tech East’s Dr Belinda Clarke says. “These little workers behave autonomously, interacting with each other and the environment to achieve the desired outcome. 

“Many of these technologies are being pioneered or supported by farmers themselves. The benefits include less damage to soil structure, and novel insights before issues can be seen with a naked eye and at greater scale and speed.”

 

Growing through change

Another development involves advancements in hydroponic and aeroponic indoor growing. Hydroponic methods do away with soil and grow plants in a reusable solution, using up to 20 times less water than soil-based gardening and negating the need for pesticides. 

Aeroponic methods take this one step further. Developed by NASA scientists in the 1980s to grow plants in space, aeroponic methods remove soil and water, instead suspending plants in a nutrient-dense mist. This addresses many of the issues that have held back indoor farming for years. 

“A common misconception about plants is that they only ‘breathe’ through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots,” says India Langley, communications lead at agricultural engineering firm LettUS Grow. “By suspending our plants’ roots in mist rather than water, plants can respire optimally during their whole lifecycle because they are not submerged. Using this system, we’ve seen up to a 70% increase in crop yields over hydroponics.” 

“Drones and swarm robots are poised to reverse the trend towards bigger machines”

LettUs Grow claims that its aeroponic methods use up to 95% less water and fertiliser than traditional field farming, and emit 90% less CO2 than hydroponics, addressing challenges related to water security, soil degradation and biodiversity loss. Conventional farming, grazing of livestock, mining and drilling combined are estimated to account for more than half of all deforestation worldwide.

Another advantage, which applies to indoor farming in general, is that crops can be grown year-round, eliminating the risk of harvest failures caused by extreme weather. “Soil-based farming can be so weather-dependent, with many unforeseen costs to keep the operation alive,” Langley tells me. “Take the current ‘cauliflower crisis’ – farmers across Europe have lost whole harvests of brassicas because of the extreme weather.”

Growing year-round without impacting the quality of crops also reduces the need to import from other countries, cutting carbon emissions. Moreover, an estimated 900,000 tonnes of food is wasted every year in UK supply chains alone. “When bought in season in the UK, the CO2 equivalent emissions for an 80g serving of strawberries is 136g; when flown in out of season, it’s 408g,” Langley explains. “That’s a 200% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and also leads to a huge amount of food waste.”

 

Breaking down barriers

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes arable land will have to expand by around 120m hectares in developing countries to feed a growing population, but expects this to actually decline by around 50m hectares. An advantage of indoor growing is that it allows for vertical farming, with plants grown in stacks on a small footprint. This has led to suggestions that skyscrapers could be used to grow crops, reducing land use.

However, it is mainly leafy greens that are currently grown in vertical farms; the prospect of growing wheat and rice seems a long way off. “We are never going to see commodity crops being grown in this way, but for some crops in some areas of the world, it is a potential game-changer,” Dr Clarke says. “I don’t see it replacing broadacre production, but it is providing alternative options when the costs, conditions and markets are right.”

There is also the issue of energy use. LED lighting has helped address this in some ways, but supplying energy at a suitable cost for larger-scale facilities is still a major challenge. Additionally, there is often a large upfront capital investment for indoor growing and aeroponic methods – another limitation. “But the return on investment is so much greater because we can produce higher yields with much less space, using fewer resources and with significantly less waste,” Langley says. “We can also contribute to nutritional value, flavour or appearance by changing lighting, irrigation, nutrients and the environment. We can play with every single level to get more nutritious, tasty or ‘beautiful’ foods than you would typically get from soil.”

Some farmers, she says, have been put off aeroponic methods because most systems produce their mist through nozzles that clog up with salts and nutrients, in much the same way as limescale forms in kettles. “We have developed a system without any nozzles, so there is nothing to clog and break,” Langley explains. “Our farm management software is breaking down barriers-to-entry for indoor farming and aeroponics.”

 

Sustainable future

From miniature robots scurrying through fields for precision agriculture, to growing crops without soil or water, the potential impact of agritech appears limitless. There have also been significant improvements in the traceability of products through blockchain technology, with customers now able to access encrypted data on the origins of food simply by scanning a unique QR code. “Agriculture sits at the very pivot of the climate change agenda,” Dr Clarke says. “Increasing the resilience of the system is crucial for the sake of the planet, and for the future of the industry as well.”

Aside from advances in genomics, she explains that the greatest developments in agriculture arguably involve precision farming and the harnessing of technology for predictive yield models or to spot disease. The development of standards such as ISOBUS and ISO 11783 will be crucial to overcome challenges facing the sector. “We still have a long way to go. Ensuring that we have connected agritech is a critical step in farmers being able to integrate the wealth of data coming from across the farm and to convert it into actionable insights,” Dr Clarke adds.

“Increasing the resilience of the system is crucial for the sake of the planet”

The UK is among the leaders in agritech, but there are exciting technologies emerging in Israel, Silicon Valley and other EU countries, too. How will agriculture look in 20 years, or beyond? “It is so difficult to tell – just think about what has happened in the last 20 years!” Langley tells me. “But ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option. We need to think outside the box, and this is where entrepreneurship and tech are real assets to agriculture.” 

A shift towards controlled agriculture seems increasingly likely, and solutions to water and food waste, traceability, pesticide use and energy efficiency will only grow and grow. “Whatever happens, it is going to need to be driven by sustainability,” Langley says. “Luckily there are some amazing companies out there tackling these issues from all angles.”  

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