Smarter Farming for an Unpredictable Future

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  • Climate uncertainty is putting pressure on agricultural systems around the world.. 
  • In the US, we see a crisis evolving at both ends of the spectrum – massive farms in the dry Southwest losing a steady, predictable supply of water from the dwindling Colorado River, and millions of agricultural acres in California’s Central Valley threatened by flooding from the state’s wild winter of precipitation.
  • Adaptation to this uncertainty will require a new revolution in agriculture, growing more food with less water, less land, fewer chemicals, and far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Technological investment to enable this new Green Revolution is lagging and represents just a fraction of what goes to clean energy and transportation. The opportunity is huge – a reimagined food system that can feed 10 billion people is estimated to cost $6-7 trillion over the next two decades.

For decades, anyone who’s enjoyed a salad in the United States between the months of November and April has likely had the Colorado River to thank. In an area of southwest Arizona and southeastern California, the river irrigates millions of acres of farms, turning a parched desert into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. During the winter season, this region known as America’s salad bowl produces 90 percent of the vegetables Americans consume – from lettuce and leafy greens to broccoli and tomatoes. It also grows large amounts of the thirsty alfalfa and other grass crops that feed cows in California’s enormous dairy industry.

Whether this can continue amid climate uncertainty and a 23-year megadrought in the Colorado River Basin is now a wide open question. As you’ve probably heard, water levels in the Colorado River, a principal source of water for 40 million Americans and more than 4 million acres of farmland, are running dangerously low. Heavy snow in the Rockies this winter will funnel more water than usual into the Colorado, but whatever reprieve it provides is expected to be temporary. For the first time, the federal government is getting ready to impose reductions in water supplies to states. With agriculture consuming 70 percent of the river’s outflows, farmers stand to suffer some of the biggest losses.

At the other end of the spectrum is California’s Central Valley, the agricultural backbone that produces a fourth of the nation’s food. A wild season of atmospheric river storms and bomb cyclones has submerged some farms in water, with more flooding expected when the “Big Melt” from historic levels of snowpack makes its way down the Sierra Nevada.

Increased uncertainty threatens the food supply

Across the globe, agriculture is in turmoil. Last year, an extreme heat wave in the Midwest caused corn yields to shrink, and cotton farmers in Texas to lose nearly three-quarters of their crop from drought. Grappling with their worst drought in 70 years, farmers in Italy’s breadbasket region, in and around the northern Italian city of Pavia, have seen their water allotments from the Po River cut by 20 percent. In Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of processed soy products, the worst drought in 60 years is expected to result in a harvest that’s less than half of what it was just 4 years ago.

These issues, some of them years in the making, highlight the fragility of our agricultural systems, which require large quantities of the planet’s resources to thrive. A few sobering statistics: Farming uses at least 70 percent of all global freshwater withdrawals, drives more than 80 percent of biodiversity loss, occupies (or has altered) over half of all habitable land on Earth, and is the second largest source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, after the production of electricity and heat. People are sometimes surprised to hear that agriculture accounts for a bigger slice of emissions than the transportation sector – 23 percent versus 15. These come from the methane produced by animal digestion, excess nitrogen fertilizer turning into the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, the clearing of forests to grow crops, and fossil fuels used to power farm equipment. In fact, global GHG emissions from just beef cattle and dairy production are greater than those from any single country, except China.

Treading More Lightly, Staring Now

In a hotter, drier, more unpredictable, and resource-constrained world, our existing approach to growing food is clearly unsustainable. We have to do things differently. Many farms, large and small ones alike, were not designed to withstand the current levels of uncertainty and irregularity climate change is causing – nevermind what’s coming in a few years or a few decades. Scientists predict that declines in staple crops like corn could be apparent by as early as 2030, with a 24 percent decrease in output by the end of the century. By 2050, temperatures will get too high in some areas to grow these crops at all. Droughts will become so severe that even the strongest water conservation efforts won’t be able to compensate. And yet, with the planet’s population expected to hit nearly 10 billion in 2050, our farms will have to feed billions more people.

Growing food has never been easy, as any farmer will tell you. But today’s challenges are unprecedented and signal the need for a new Green Revolution. Much like the first one in the 1970s, which boosted yields by introducing hybridized crops, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, this new shift will spur a quantum leap in efficiency. This time around, however, we will have to prioritize sustainability. We will have to tread far more lightly on the planet, consuming fewer resources, and generating a fraction of the greenhouse gasses. This revolution will also be far more technological, utilizing new tools for automation, digital monitoring, artificial intelligence, cell-culturing, and gene editing.

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The time to act is now. Although investment in the so-called ag-tech sector has increased by 20 to 100 percent annually over the last four years, the resources and brainpower devoted to building the farm of the future pale in comparison to the money flowing into clean energy, especially when you factor in agriculture’s outsized carbon emissions.

Consider that for every gigaton of CO2 that’s generated annually by the combined global energy and transportation sectors, $51 billion was invested in the low-carbon energy transition in 2022. Over the same period, the transition to cleaner, more efficient agriculture got a mere $2.5 billion of investment per gigaton of CO2 emitted. That’s a difference of 20X.

A Massive Opportunity

There’s good news too. I am convinced that transitioning to farms that are both low emissions and climate resilient is entirely achievable. It also represents a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs, investors, and farmers. Those who seize it are poised to do well while doing good.

A recent Tesla-produced “master plan” concluded that converting the world to clean energy would require an investment of $10 trillion over the next 20 years. The cost of a climate-smart food system that can feed 10 billion people? Similarly eye-popping – between $6 trillion to 7 trillion, according to the World Bank.

Solving this problem will take a wide range of actions and solutions, from the adoption of well-established, low-tech practices like planting cover crops and no-till farming to high-tech approaches no one has even thought of yet. In recent years, a number of emerging areas of ag-tech have attracted growing interest and investment, although their funding levels and adoption rates still range from early stage to not yet commercialized. A few great examples of the innovation ahead include:

For an inspiring glimpse into the near-term possibilities for climate-smart farming, take a look at the Netherlands. Two decades ago, the country set out to produce twice as much food using half as many resources, largely by moving farms indoors and near urban centers. Its 24,000 acres of greenhouses, vertical farms, and other controlled environments now can grow in a single acre what would take 10 acres of traditional farming to achieve, all while using less fertilizer and water. Dutch farms use only a half-gallon of water to grow about a pound of tomatoes, while the global average is more than 28 gallons. And lest you think this represents a nifty experiment by a small country: The Netherlands has become the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products by value behind the United States.

These efforts have afforded the Netherlands a valuable measure of resilience. When the inevitable climate-driven catastrophes come – whether drought, flooding, or storms – the country’s food production is likely to experience less disruption. Indoor farms aren’t the only solution, however. They still have work to do lowering their GHG emissions, for example, by utilizing more nuclear energy. Globally, we will need many things at once.

Positive action and new investments have started. Now, the pace of change needs to accelerate. The problems of the Colorado and Po Rivers, the flooding of the Central Valley, the drought in Argentina, and all the rest are early warnings of the troubles ahead for agriculture. At stake are not only global efforts to stem the worst effects of climate change, but the availability of food itself. By changing the way we farm, we can create a more resilient industry that’s able to feed our planet’s ever growing population – even with fresh winter salads.

More on new technologies…

  • Precision agriculture. Companies are already developing systems that enable farmers to do more with less. By utilizing drones, specialized cameras, and remote sensors, these solutions let farmers “see” their crops from both the soil and the air. When paired with data analytics and artificial intelligence, they can identify pests and disease the moment they take root and determine what exactly plants need and when they need it. Among other things, this can eliminate every ounce of wasted water, improve yields, and lower a farm’s use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thus helping farmers save money and lower their environmental impact. Adoption of these technologies has accelerated in recent years, but is still at an early stage. According to McKinsey, just 15 percent of farms across the globe now use some form of precision agriculture hardware. Adoption of robotics and automation, and technologies for optimizing irrigation, lag even further, at 5 percent.

  • Indoor agriculture. Bringing crops indoors, such as in greenhouses or in our case, vertical farms, represents an even greater potential for farm efficiency and climate resilience. By creating controlled environments, food is shielded from unpredictable weather events and can be grown using fewer acres and inputs. The indoor farming we do here at Bowery, which stacks crops in vertical layers, produces up to 100+ times more food per square foot than traditional farms and allows the cultivation of crops much closer to the point of consumption, creating a new fresh food supply chain that is shorter, simpler, more sustainable, and provides much more surety of supply. It also yields produce that’s fresher, more nutritious, and less susceptible to waste given the short time from harvest to shelf. All of this is made possible by advances in robotics and automation, artificial intelligence, sensors, controls, and other technologies. While greenhouses have been around for a hundred years or more, vertical farming remains something of a novelty. The practice has been growing rapidly but only accounts for a tiny sliver of agricultural production in the US.

  • Molecular technologies. Although they might seem futuristic now, innovations like cell-cultured meat will be necessary if we want to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact, while also supplying meat and dairy for billions of people. Produced by growing animal cells in a laboratory, cell-cultured meat is nearly identical in taste and texture to the traditional variety, but will use significantly less land and water, emit fewer greenhouse gasses, and reduce agriculture-related pollution. Similarly, precision fermentation combines gene splicing with fermentation to create molecularly identical milk proteins from corn or soy. 

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