Today, the agricultural and food industry is responsible for 30% of global emissions, occupies 50% of Earth’s habitable land, and requires 30% of the world’s energy needs. Agriculture has been a mainstay and crucial component of human civilization since it was first invented 10,000 years ago. Food systems continue to serve a vital purpose to the functioning of modernity. The agriculture sector employs one billion people, from subsistence farmers to large-scale producers in virtually every country on earth. The agricultural sector has also seen immense improvements in productivity since the industrial revolution, with mechanization displacing processes once performed by humans and animals to great effect.
Yet, the food system is under pressure in many areas along its entire value chain and faces challenges that reflect a changing world. Climate change threatens drought and a reduction in arable land. Food waste is an immense problem that alone generates 8% of global emissions. Technological advancements that improve agricultural productivity are presently experienced unequally between developed and developing countries. Moreover, as the world’s population and living standards rise, the United Nations predicts a 50% increase in food demand by 2050.
Not typically thought of to be at the forefront of technological innovation, the agricultural and food systems are currently in a state of change that can revolutionize how food is produced, distributed, and consumed. As the adoption of technologies to revolutionize agriculture becomes more widespread, farmers from around the world and from large and small-scale operations alike can benefit from improvements in production, connectivity, and market access. All these improvements will ultimately boost productivity and reduce inefficiencies like food waste.
For this to occur, however, investment is needed in modern equipment and in education to ensure adequate adoption. Moreover, there is the risk that this latest wave of innovation will be felt unequally between countries, even though the majority of the world’s food is produced in developing countries. Nevertheless, the need for change in the food system is clear, making it a clear target that, if improved, could make tangible progress in reducing emissions, raise living standards for farmers, and even return some of the earth’s surface to its natural state.
Supply Side: Improvements on the Farm
The number of people employed in agriculture has sharply declined over time, to the point where barely 2% of people in developed countries are directly employed in the sector. However, it remains an essential source of work in many parts of Africa and Asia, sometimes accounting for over 50% of total employment. In certain cases, productivity has not increased as quickly as the global average, a metric that is closely linked to a country’s level of development. It is here, in those countries most reliant on agriculture for employment and as a contribution to GDP, where emerging technologies will be best served.
GIS (geographic information system) has been used in agriculture to map areas and monitor crop conditions. More recently, a new, more connected version of this is emerging in what is known as precision agriculture. In this process, tiny sensors connected to the Internet can be installed throughout the farm or attached to machinery, which then relay data that can be analyzed and provide more accurate insights on irrigation and fertilizer needs, to name two examples. When farms apply precision agriculture technologies across entire plots, it can reduce water and other material consumption, prevent crop failure, and increase yields. Additionally, this increased optimization can reduce much of the uncertainty farmers constantly face, especially those smallholders whose lives depend on little more than an acre of land.
A second area that could dramatically improve the lives of farmers is relatively simple yet of crucial importance. Farmers in rural areas often lack good network coverage. Therefore, they lack critical knowledge about market conditions and the current prices of their goods, which may ultimately hurt them when it comes time to sell their crop. One pilot project in Kenya tried to change this with a mobile application for farmers that showed real-time prices and market conditions, which led some to change their cropping patterns, resulting in higher earnings in some instances.
Once again, there is a risk that digitization and application of new technologies will be felt more unequally than it already is. Globally, only 25% of farms smaller than one hectare receive 3G network coverage. Even in the US, only a quarter of farms use connected equipment to access data about their operations. Improving these figures should be a priority for governments and international organizations alike. Investing in technologies that will only come down in cost and that will ensure farmers have accurate knowledge of market conditions is relatively low-hanging fruit for the difference it can make in improving the lives of rural farmers.
Changing Distribution and Consumption Patterns
Food waste, changing consumer demand, and increasingly complex supply chains and distribution systems also warrant a technological shift further downstream in the food system. Food loss and waste are estimated to account for 30% of all produced food, meaning it alone is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions. While food waste generally refers to waste that occurs once it has reached the consumer, food loss happens at various stages along the food production chain, such as in inadequate storing facilities. Plus, the current system hinders the traceability of food and its entire supply chain, which can be an important tool to have at disposal should there be a disease outbreak or health issue related to a particular crop or food shipment.
One emerging technology that shows promises in reducing food loss and providing greater verification for food sources is blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Blockchain is essentially a continuous, chronological ledger of data inputs for any given set of transactions, such as food, as it moves along its value chain. Blockchains are also immutable, meaning users cannot change them once a transaction is recorded. It is easy to see why the use of blockchain would be appealing in any supply chain, as it verifies proof of transaction for every actor involved, incentivizing a greater degree of accountability and identifying mistakes with ease.
In the food system, this could help suppliers and distributors keep track of shipments with greater accuracy, thereby reducing food loss. The higher degree of accountability within blockchain systems could also benefit small farmers who might otherwise not know how much their product ultimately sold further along with the distribution system. From a consumer point of view, blockchain usage also has enormous potential. There is a growing demand for ethically and sustainably sourced food, especially among consumers in Global North countries. Implementing blockchain throughout the food system promises to provide verification for food that claims to be ethically or organically sourced, rather than food providers simply labeling it as such.
The need for innovation and adoption of emerging technologies in the food system is evident, along nearly every step of a product’s lifespan. The technologies mentioned are but a few of the many other innovations currently being discussed as potential disruptors to the agriculture and food sector, such as autonomous machinery and the use of drones for fertilizing crops. The productivity gains from these technologies will reap economic, social, and environmental benefits everywhere, given the land, water, and energy agriculture consumes. The widespread adoption of existing technologies to rural areas will help poor farmers best use their land. In urban areas, they can help determine sustainability claims and notify health authorities about the possibility of a disease outbreak.
Large investments will be needed to make a tangible difference in land use and emissions—not just on the part of farmers. Governments need to provide incentives, subsidies, and other assistance to ensure this transition is realized. Just as agriculture underwent a massive transformation some 150 years ago with the onset of the industrial revolution and mechanization, another revolution is arriving. This time, however, there is an urgent need for transformation, on which the climate and human life all over Earth depend.