Future agriculture or the future in agriculture?

21st Feb - Blogger's picThe world’s population will reach 8 billion by 2025 and 9 billion by 2050, according to various forecasts. That may seem quite far off from now, but these numbers have many implications. The gravest warnings indicate that if the current trend of rising food demand continues, the world population’s massive growth will lead to a global food crisis.

The food crisis is an issue for many, and several companies are taking significant steps to address the challenge of producing enough food for the world’s growing population. By nature, future agriculture will be responsible for most of the food supply, but it’s important to remember that agriculture is undergoing many changes, and will appear quite different than today. Will future agriculture be able to supply enough food for the world’s population? Is there a place for manual labor in a world that worships high-tech? How will agriculture look in another decade and beyond? And no less important, how will we reduce the environmental damage caused by unsustainable agriculture, which leads to wasted water, a greater greenhouse gas effect, and nitrate removal from groundwater?

In looking forward, it’s clear that agriculture faces significant cultural changes. The next generation of growers will not be founded on mud and boots. Photographs of hundreds of growers bending down in rice fields that have been irrigated by flooding for eternity will disappear. And the cultivation of all crops will be fully mechanized – from planting to harvesting.

Tractors will be equipped with GPS navigation systems, and will be able to generate precise performance reports. Sprayers and fertilizer systems will be able to distribute a selective amount of water and nutrients based on a camera scan of the surface area approached by tractors. In short, we’re undergoing a total revolution. In preparation for the future, Netafim is promoting partnerships with mechanization companies to create a situation whereby planting machines will take in drip irrigated water and harvesting machines will dispose of the same water – all in one step.

But that’s not all. With the help of technology, the future grower will rarely go to the field, but rather will manage things from home. On a recent visit to India, I heard an expression accurately describing the changes taking place. Future agriculture will be “white-collar” agriculture (where I’m from, the concept “weekend agriculture” was developed). The grower will receive data from the field, including photographs and SMS alerts, and will visit it only on weekends. This remains a long-term vision, even though today some tasks can already be carried out not only from home, but also by smart-phone.

Netafim recently developed uManage™, a system that remotely controls and monitors agricultural activity. uManage enables growers to collect, manage and analyze crop information, and to manage irrigation and fertilizer performance, as well as yield and vegetation status. The system even enables users to analyze other factors impacting crops (e.g. wind direction, weather forecast, temperature, radiation, ground dampness, fertilizer). This is the direction toward which the agricultural world is heading, and growers with plows will, in all likelihood, become a distant memory of the past.

Agricultural progress is one way to confront the current global trend of rising food demand, but obviously it’s not the only way. What other methods exist?

Yield increase per unit area while saving water

The rise in food demand forces us to grow more produce within our existing land area, thereby presenting a serious challenge. How do we address it? We believe in the concept of “growing more with less” (less land, less water, less energy). It’s possible to double many crops’ yields with half the amount of water. Rice is the clearest example. For years, rice was flooded with water based on traditional agricultural practices, which wasted much water on the one hand, and caused environmental damage on the other (flood irrigation increases greenhouse gas emissions). But more significantly, flooding didn’t maximize yields. Based on research and experimentation across the globe, drip irrigated rice generates larger yields and causes less environmental damage than flooding.

Genetic cultivation of new high-yield varieties

According to estimates, over one-third of the world’s population lives in areas suffering from a water shortage. Glaciers are melting, droughts are becoming more frequent, and aquifers are emptying out – all pointing to a growing global problem that will impact many areas, including of course, agriculture. The main message within this context is that new and more durable varieties that generate 10-30% more yield with the same amount of water will be developed.

Optimized fertilization adapted to the plant’s pace of growth

This is carried out with precise quantities of water so that nitrates are not removed from the groundwater, as is the case with flooding. While on the subject of flooding, it appears that due to the creation of anaerobic conditions, far larger quantities of methane gas and CO2 are released into the air compared to drip, thereby leading to a greater greenhouse gas effect.

Drip as a delivery system

Rather than spraying harmful chemicals from airplanes, which creates air pollution, we can deliver many pesticides at lower volumes directly to the root system to achieve effective pest control. Beyond that, we’ve identified many “green” materials such as mycorrhizas – symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots – and diverse bacteria, which can not only deliver drip irrigated water, but also enlarge the root system, leading to significantly greater yields.

In conclusion, the agricultural world is undergoing radical changes that are affecting us today, and will have an even greater impact in the future. At Netafim, we hope that the current challenges will spur on the development of effective solutions that will improve agriculture and the quality of food we eat.

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