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On Earth Day, we are edging ever closer to a global food crisis, one that paints a grim picture and with agriculture at the heart of it.

 

Global population explosion 

With more than 80% of all farmable land already in use and a fast-rising world population which is projected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050, we’re no longer dealing with a mere challenge. As we remain dangerously on course to wipe out earth’s finite resources over the coming years, the urgent need to make our food systems more sustainable is imperative, and farming technology must address how to keep up with our population growth.

Agriculture’s high emissions

Today, a third of EU Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions come from the food system, and according to new comprehensive research published in Nature Food, food-system emissions amounted to 18 Gt CO2 equivalent per year globally, representing 34% of total GHG emissions. At 71%, the largest contribution in GHG emissions comes from agriculture and land use/land-use change activities; half of the GHG emissions are CO2 (linked to land use change and energy) and one third is methane due to livestock, rice production and waste management, with most of the rest emitted as N2O from nitrogen fertilisers.

These figures show just how much the global food system is becoming more energy intensive as it requires materials and energy for processing, packaging, transporting and storage, with almost a third of food system emissions coming directly from energy-consumption. Even in comparison to industrial activities, which are heavily criticised for their impacts on the atmosphere and biosphere, “agricultural processes have an inherently low efficiency of resource use, which renders food, fibres and fuels from agriculture among the more polluting resources”.

So where do decision makers begin and what will trigger the shift in not just thinking, but effective action?

Investment in sustainability

Investments in the food system must focus on energy efficiency and decarbonisation technologies as well as land-based mitigation technologies, both inside and outside the farm gate. While the industry’s awareness of the wider sustainability agenda and its growing importance in the future of farming is slowly fostering, new technology investment must be the priority to create more sustainable and regenerative practices. And so, the industry’s attention is turning to AgTech innovation.

Using less space

Available land is diminishing at a concerning rate; around a third of arable land has been lost over the last 45 years. While farmers and geneticists have been searching for a while for ways to increase food production on the same plot of land, indoor farming is becoming more widely used in response to the burgeoning issues concerning global food production, with vertical farming offering one viable solution in transforming food systems towards sustainability. For instance, vertical farms need far less land than open field farms. According to one estimate, a 30-story building covering just five acres could potentially produce the same amount as a typical farm covering 2,400 acres.

Vertical farming benefits

Vertical farming’s grow rack systems harness a factory style precision agriculture, using less water and more clean, renewable energy and are designed to reduce the environmental impact, growing ‘up’ rather than ‘out’, at the same time producing better food. A single acre of indoor vertical farming has the potential to yield the equivalent of between x10 and x20 acres of produce grown traditionally; clearly, one of the biggest advantages of building a successful vertical farm is the ability to produce more in a smaller space. By creating the optimum growing conditions, it’s a proven method of taking a crop from seed to harvest in less time, while obtaining a higher yield. In practical terms, that translates to 20 times more lettuce compared to agriculture fields with limited land area. And we may well see the types of crops that are grown in a vertical farm increase.

Investing in the future

With the right investment and engagement, vertical farming could not only become an alternative food production method of choice for future generations but be the necessary solution to help prevent climate change, something that should give real food for thought on Earth Day.