Nature and technology can combine to help farms of the future nourish the earth and its inhabitants. SimplyDay/Shutterstock
But we’re not powerless to change the future of food. Nature and technological innovation are tackling these problems head on – and if the solutions they’re offering are incorporated on a large scale and used together, a new agricultural revolution could be on its way. Here are three of the most exciting developments that can help farms not just feed the planet, but heal it too.
The approach uses a wide variety of practices. For example, instead of artificial fertilisers, it improves soil quality by planting nutrient-fixing "cover crops" in-between harvest crops, rotating crops across fields each season and composting organic waste. It supports wildlife, stores carbon, and conserves water through the planting of trees and wildflower banks.
Grassland captures carbon dioxide. Animals eat the grass and then return that carbon to the soil as excrement. The nutrients in the excrement and the continuous grazing of grass both help new grassroots to grow, increasing the capacity of the land to capture carbon.
Keep too many grazing animals in one place for too long and they eat too much grass and produce too much excrement for the soil to take on, meaning carbon is lost to the atmosphere. But if small numbers are constantly rotated into different fields, the soil can store enough extra carbon to counterbalance the extra methane emitted by livestock’s digestive rumblings.
While this doesn’t make them a carbon sink, livestock brings other benefits to the land. They keep soil naturally fertilised, and can also improve biodiversity by eating more aggressive plants, allowing others to grow. And if local breeds are adopted, they generally don’t require expensive feed and veterinary care, as they’re adapted to local conditions.
Many commonly used herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are now also under pressure to be banned because of their negative effects on the health of humans and wildlife. Even if they’re not, growing resistance to their action is making controlling weeds, pests and diseases increasingly challenging.
Nature is again providing answers here. Farmers are starting to use pesticides derived from plants, which tend to be much less toxic to the surrounding environment.
They’re also using natural enemies to keep threats at bay. Some may act as repellents, “pushing” pests away. For example, peppermint disgusts the flea beetle, a scourge to oilseed rape farmers. Others are “pulls”, attracting pests away from valuable crops. Plants that are attractive for egg-laying but that don’t support the survival of insect larvae are commonly used for this purpose.
Technology is also offering solutions on this front. Some farmers are already using apps to monitor, warn and predict when pest and diseases will attack crops. Driverless tractors and intelligent sprayers that can target specific weeds or nutritional needs have recently entered the market. Agritech companies are now also developing robots that can scan fields, identify specific plants, and decide whether to use pesticide or to remove a plant mechanically.
In combination, these methods can dramatically reduce agriculture’s reliance on herbicides and pesticides without lowering crop yields. This is important, since the world’s population is set to rise by a quarter in the next three decades.
Small tech, big difference
Soon, technology at an almost impossibly small scale could make a big difference to the way we grow our food. Companies have designed nanoparticles 100,000 times smaller then the width of a human hair that release fertiliser and pesticides slowly but steadily, to minimise their use and maximise crop yields.
Nanotechnologies aren’t cheap yet and researchers have yet to conduct rigorous tests of how toxic nanomaterials are to humans and plants, and how durable they are. But should they pass these tests, agriculture will surely follow the path of other industries in adopting the technology on a large scale.
Save for nanotechnology and advanced robots, the above solutions are already in use in many small-scale and commercial farms – just not in combination. Imagine them working in synchrony and suddenly a vision of sustainable agriculture doesn’t seem so far away anymore.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Karen Rial-Lovera is Senior Lecturer in Agriculture, Nottingham Trent University.
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