2022 has been a year of additional challenges for the sector, most notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulting in soaring energy costs and sky-high inflation, not to mention post-pandemic fallout and climate change exposing further weakness in the global food system. Light Science Technologies looks back at another unprecedented year, and what this means for AgTech’s 2023 prospects.
Why Russia’s invasion supports the need for AgTech
Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine signalled the start of things to come for the world’s economy, impacting the food supply chain, creating shortages and pushing up prices of food, fuel and energy. This triggered soaring inflation rates, ramping up pressure on the cost of living.
As grain supplies were impacted, as well as disruption to natural gas and fertiliser markets, soaring prices and a lack of bread loaves were just part of the story – increased hunger, disrupted markets, changed land and water use, and potentially more release of carbon into the atmosphere posed much bigger, longer-term threats.
With the escalating situation in Eastern Europe sparking growing concerns over food security, businesses and policymakers focused on stepping up efforts to identify alternative sources of food that could prove less exposed to geopolitical and climate-related supply chain disruption. This opens another opportunity for indoor vertical farming and AgTech to become the saviour of the food supply chain.
Blair’s report champions indoor farming
In April, a proposed policy was realised which aimed to boost food resilience in cities by The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. How Cities Can Feed Themselves is a ten-point plan on how cities should aim to produce at least 30 per cent of their own fruit and vegetables by 2030 through tech-enabled food production. The report goes some way in laying out a detailed, practical roadmap to increased food resilience in urban food systems, arguing that a range of high and low-tech solutions are already available that could support cities in achieving this, with more tech innovations in the pipeline, but few places are utilising them as part of their resilience planning.
Specifically, it highlights how indoor vertical farms and greenhouses are now proven to deliver large qualities of produce while having a fraction of the environmental impacts and requiring much lower levels of water, pesticides, and fertilisers than traditional agricultural methods.
What the report does is show that the UK can learn from initiatives such as Singapore’s “30 by 30” drive, as well as similar strategies being adopted by Paris and Brussels, which have all demonstrated serious commitment to ramping up their own food security.
The plan also reinforces why things must change now and how game-changing resilient urban food systems would be for the UK and the planet at large, thanks to the pioneering wonders of Agtech, leveraged by “a clear vision and focused political leadership”.
Why drought doesn’t affect CEA farming
A 70% drop in river levels, farmers pumping more than 30% water and an unprecedented 40C heatwave reducing houses to smouldering ash. It perhaps paints a more apocalyptic scenario but in fact, this was summer 2022 in the UK. This isn’t promising to be a one-off event either, with record-breaking hot temperatures set to become an annual occurrence, causing more drought and wreaking havoc on crops.
Across the planet, prolonged droughts are proving destructive for many traditional farmers where outdoor crops are grown in fields, even in regions where this has not previously been an issue. The biggest advantage of indoor farming is that it allows growers to optimise the growing process for higher yields. Droughts, storms, insect infestations and all the other hazards of growing outdoors are eliminated.
This is because indoor farming technology has the ability to control the environment, by monitoring and measuring key criteria. These key areas include light, water, air, temperature, humidity, oxygen and soil to ensure optimal plant productivity and yield. Another reason why Agtech is anticipated to be the hero of future farming.
Has COP27 failed farming and food systems?
For the first time at a COP, somewhat belatedly, food and farming appeared to be the focus. A dedicated food and agriculture pavilion was hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), along with the Food Systems pavilion, hosted by an international coalition of food, agricultural and environmental NGOs, with backing from the EU, showcasing actions aimed at creating healthier, more resilient and more equitable food systems.
There were also the encouraging outcomes, including advances in technology, falling prices for renewable energy and countries committing to cut methane emissions. However, this was all tempered by the general disappointment felt at the end of the two-week summit, with sources declaring it “Scapegoating and empty agreements in the face of rising emissions”. It seemed that top delegates from around the world failed to show any real progress in aligning with the world’s goal of capping global warming at 1.5C.
As some 400 private jets landed in Egypt during the conference and 636 delegates with ties to the fossil fuel industry participated this year, it all appeared a greenwashed farce. Perhaps it is best summed up by Greta Thunberg, who, refusing to attend, stated clearly what is objectively necessary: to overthrow the “whole capitalist system.”
Nevertheless, there are still reasons to be optimistic. Despite the setbacks, the conference also saw new champions of environmental change emerging; leaders who have the ability to influence a more accelerated shift towards a better future. Could there still be signs of life in avoiding a climate catastrophe?
2022’s impact on indoor farming
Despite its prospects, in the midst of this global economic downturn, the CEA sector is certainly not unscathed. In fact, indoor growers are having to scale down operations as crippling energy costs tighten their grip, and those wanting to invest are pausing plans as they opt to ride out the storm, for now at least.
There was already reticence from traditional growers who have been slower to embrace new innovations. But as we head into 2023, the key focus for the CEA industry must switch from growth to long-term profitability.
While the prospect of adopting such technologies as autonomy, robotics, AI and smart systems might be a daunting one for some, as well as the considerable initial investment required for indoor farming, the multiple benefits and ROI potential of CEA as a long-term investment are there for the taking. So with the challenges faced in 2022 and the growing case for AgTech as a viable solution to address these problems, perhaps 2023 will change things, as we continue our journey to become more sustainable and resilient.