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Five Ways to Accelerate Sustainable Agriculture

Regenerative Agriculture

Agriculture | Jun, 2023

Traditional agriculture methods contribute to one quarter of global greenhouse emissions, primarily from deforestation and emissions from livestock, soil, and nutrient management. In addition, the agriculture sector account for approx. 70% of all freshwater withdrawals. Converting biodiverse landscapes into forests reduces the amount of carbon in soil by up to 75% and prevents the recycling and replenishing of organic materials. Rapid expansion of global population and expansion of agriculture at the expense of forests will continue to intensify competition over natural resources. Hence, a growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are gradually shifting towards more sustainable-environmentally, economically, and socially.

Here are a few methods which can help to enhance sustainability in agriculture

Regenerative Agriculture

Healthy soil forms the foundation of food systems. Farmers that are concerned about long-term sustainability frequently place a high priority on maintaining soil integrity because they understand how healthy soil supports healthy crops and livestock. Soil organic matter plays important roles such as serving as a critical source and sink for nutrients, a substrate for microbial activity, and a buffer against changes in acidity, water content, pollutants, etc. Additionally, the accumulation of soil organic matter reduces the impact of a rising CO2 concentration and subsequent climate change. Hence, regenerative agriculture is being considered as a potential solution for restoring degraded soil, improving biodiversity among pollinators, and increasing carbon capture in soil to create lasting environmental benefits. Currently, only 15% of the global farmland is used for regenerative agriculture practices, according to a report by Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI). To keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the number needs to scale up to 40% by 2030.

This kind of agriculture practice can help businesses in achieving goals related to climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water quantity and quality, and farmer livelihoods when done properly. In addition, regenerative agriculture aims to replace industrial production methods, synthetic fertilizers, and monoculture crops with practices that use less chemicals Witnessing the changing buying habits of customers with environment in mind, corporates are committing towards to advancing the practice of regenerative culture practices.

Recently, FMCG giant, PepsiCo announced an investment of USD216 million to drive the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices and lower carbon emissions. The company has formed strategic partnerships with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Soil and Water Outcomes Fund (SWOF), and the IL Corn Growers Association (ICGA) to support to establish and scale financial, agronomic, and social programs for enabling the transition to regenerative agricultural practices. PepsiCo has plans to adopt regenerative farming practices across its 7 million acres of farmland by 2030, which would reduce eliminate at least 3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Another brand, Cargill has declared the same intent on 10 million acres by 2030 while Walmart has committed to advance the practice on 50 million acres. Danone, Unilever, Hormel, Target, General Mills, are among others taking initiatives to promote regenerative agriculture. Microsoft has also made investments in sustainable farming. This business has two primary objectives. The first is buying carbon credits related to healthy soil and sustainable farming methods. The second is the creation of fresh technologies for use by farmers. For instance, Microsoft is partnering with Land O'Lakes to create a set of technological tools that will assist farmers in increasing their profitability and making the switch to more environmentally friendly farming methods like no-till, precise fertilizer management, and cover crop planting.

Regenerative agriculture has mostly attracted B2C (business to consumer) businesses up to this point. However, 2022 will be the year when more B2B (business to business) firms enter the fray, assisting in the discovery and implementation of regenerative agriculture solutions as well as in the assistance of farmers in the adoption of regenerative agricultural practises and concepts. 

Making the shift to regenerative agriculture easier by using digital technologies

A growing market for digital tools in agriculture offers a chance to expand the use of regenerative techniques. In 2020, IDH and GSMA profiled more than 700 digital service providers from the Global South who provide a variety of services, such as market connections, access to financing, and tools to increase the productivity and commercial viability of smallholder farming as well as lessen the environmental impact of agriculture. Digital technologies can be applied in a variety of ways to help smallholders embrace regenerative practices more easily and with less disruption.

Here are four use-cases of digital tools in regenerative farming practices.

  • Standardizing production practices through communication channels

The switch from conventional to regenerative agriculture calls for greater awareness at the start of supply chains, then a change in production practises like no-till cultivation, mulching, on-farm composting, or cover cropping. Following these concepts at a landscape level is also necessary, necessitating some standardisation based on regional settings. Digital technologies can be used in these situations to standardise and deliver extension services via SMS, USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), IVR (Interactive Voice Response), or bulk-messaging networks like WhatsApp. Digital tools are more cost-effective, allow wider outreach, and restrict deviation from the core message when compared to in-person training.

  • Utilizing Predictive and Prescriptive Guidance Based on Data to Reduce Production Risk

The collection of localised data, including information on soil composition, weather, biodiversity, and other topics can be supported by technologies like remote sensing and the Internet of Things (IoT). This localized data can provide smallholder farmers with individualized, prescriptive advice. Data-backed advice may boost output while lowering the cost of pests, water, and nutrition management. In addition to prescriptive help, machine learning and the data gathered over the course of agricultural seasons may be utilized to give predictive guidance for the management of pest and disease, enabling farmers to take preventative action to reduce production risks. It is crucial to keep in mind that successful modelling requires a significant amount of structured data, which might take years to collect.

  • Using Remote Monitoring for Learning and Course Correction

Farmers may make quick course corrections using this data, which also enables them to determine whether their practices are yielding the intended outcomes. Digital technologies can also make it inexpensive to account for manufacturing expenses at genuine prices, which can be used to justify price increases. Without digitization, gathering and analysing this data is costly and frequently time-consuming.

  • Introducing Market Links and Digital Aggregation to Boost the Sourcing's Economics

Producers must offer consistent supply in adequate numbers to build a viable economic case for regenerative agricultural production. Without aggregation, smallholders find it challenging to reach the required volumes. It is feasible to forecast output levels, offer quality evaluations, and alert potential purchasers ahead of harvest by digitizing farm data to optimise logistics. Digital tools may be used to connect regenerative agricultural programmes with other stakeholders, including funding organisations, donors, and civil society, based on these promises.

However, a number of obstacles can make the switch to regenerative agriculture difficult. Most notably, the possibility of transitory yield losses brought on by a change in practices can lead to decreased farm-level revenue during the initial years. It may also result in longer-term harm to productivity and revenue if the transition is not aided with good technological know-how and risk-mitigation techniques. Moreover, small farmers in low- and middle-income countries sometimes lack the finances or capacity to make the necessary investments and manage cash flow shortfalls that may arise from productivity losses, which increases the risks.

According to TechSci Research report on “Regenerative Agriculture Market- Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Competition, Opportunities and Forecast, 2017-2027, Segmented By Practice (Holistic Planned Grazing, Agroforestry, Pasture Cropping, Silvopasture, Agroecology, Aquaculture, Others), By Application (Biodiversity, Nutrient Cycling, Carbon Sequestration, Others), By Region”, the regenerative agriculture is projected to grow at a formidable rate. The market growth can be attributed to the rising awareness of the importance of soil health management and increasing demand for organic foods.

Precision Fermentation

Animal agriculture takes up a lot of resources such as land, water, and crops, causing significant global emissions. Livestock industry accounts for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to statistics from the United Nations. For the benefit of planet, it is essential to change the way we produce and consume food. New research and innovation have led to the development of precision fermentation technologies, which uses an advanced kind of metabolic fermentation to create a particular end product. In conventional farming methods, farmers used to have less control over the manufacturing process, and there used to be a high risk of animal- and pathogen-borne illness, and pathogenic transmission. Precision fermentation does not totally replace conventional techniques, but it does help address these problems because it consumes 99% less water, 97% fewer greenhouse emissions, and up to 60% less energy than an equivalent animal-based process. In precision fermentation methods, a significant amount of biomass is created with the aid of certain enzymes, and the microorganisms are reproduced and raised in tiny factories. Once a critical mass has been attained, the target product is recovered and processed to create a usable product. The procedure depends on cooperation between teams from fermentation, downstream processing, purification, and strain engineering.

 

Precision fermentation includes converting microbes into tiny factories that produce specific enzymes or protein components, as opposed to ordinary microbial fermentation, which involves bacteria converting food into beer, yoghurt, and other well-known products. We may be able to make the transition to a circular, low-waste bioeconomy by using greenhouse gases in the air as the raw materials required to power precise fermentation. For instance, Perfect Day utilizes precision fermentation to produce animal-free dairy proteins. The precision fermentation process requires microflora who have been given a specific DNA for milk protein. Precision fermentation is employed not just in the food business but also in biopharma.

With advances in precise fermentation technologies, several businesses are currently paving their way to the market. Impossible Burger, which incorporates components generated with genetically engineered yeast, as well as ClearEgg and EggWhite, egg protein additives made from microorganisms by The EVERY Company, have already hit the stores in the United States. For instance, the Israeli company ImaginDairy just secured USD28 million to support the research and development of dairy proteins made by precise fermentation. Other businesses, including Solar Foods, Air Protein, and LanzaTech, are competing to use microorganisms to convert waste gases, such as carbon dioxide, into food that can be consumed by people.

The adoption of precision fermentation technology is increasing at a rapid rate in the alternative protein market, adding 1.5 tons of capacity per year or 4,000 tons per day, according to the Pitchbook AgTech report 2022. Precision fermentation start-ups are multiplying internationally, from China to India to the Middle East, showing the expanding popularity and investment in this technology across many countries and sectors.

Precision fermentation technology is believed to be the most important green technology every. It has the potential to produce new staple foods and end reliance on farming. Many multinational corporations are exploring the benefits of innovative technology and expanding their alt-protein product portfolio. For instance, Unilever has planned to reinvent ice creams using the use of precision fermentation and Nestlé has recently announced to collaborate with precision fermentation company Perfect Day to introduce new dairy milk alternatives.

Role of Precision Technology in Strengthening Sustainability

The need for more effective, sustainable, and agro-free food production is evident given the rising global population that has to be fed, the severity of climatic changes, and the shrinking amount of land that is productive enough to grow our food. Precision fermentation is one of the most promising techniques for future food manufacture thanks to recent advancements in bioinformatics, biotechnology, and AI tools, as well as the capacity to build complex large-scale fermenters. That is, if the process uses clean energy and has access to alternative feedstock, such as industry byproducts that don't necessitate the extensive usage of arable lands (as opposed to the refined feedstock now in use). Besides, precision fermentation makes it possible to produce high-quality, useful items with high yields and purity and a remarkably small environmental impact. Precision fermentation specifically outperforms plant-based techniques in terms of flavor and texture. It also offers the ability to move beyond problems of cost-parity associated with current cell-based techniques.


AI Enhances Precision Fermentation

Precision Fermentation techniques require producing a very high yield of yeast strain to make it commercially viable, which includes a high risk of trial and error. Hence, businesses are now leveraging artificial intelligence to reduce the margin of error and create customized molecules of all sorts. Precision fermentation using AI requires both bioinformatics and lab effort. AI suggests an array of genetic engineering modifications to the microorganism genome. Then, the machine tests around a thousand different edit combinations at its present capability. The computer receives the findings and feeds them back to propose more testing and modifications. The machine gathers additional data when the procedure is repeated. The information is used as a guide to continue raising yield until the finished product is made available. Currently, researchers are focusing on using yeast as a substrate, but they plan to cover lipids and other biological products. For instance, UK-based biotech company, Eden Bio aims to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning with precision fermentation technologies for making strains commercially viable.

According to TechSci Research report on “Precision Fermentation Market - Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity, and Forecast, 2017-2027 Segmented By Ingredient Produced (Whey & Casein Protein, Egg White, Collagen Protein, Heme Protein, Others), By Microbes (Yeast, Algae, Bacteria, Others), By End User Industry (Food & Beverage, Pharmaceutical, Cosmetic, Others), and By Region”, the global precision fermentation market is expected to grow at a formidable rate. The market growth can be attributed to the rising inclination of population towards vegan and rising investments in the new precision fermentation technologies.

Cellular Agriculture

Biotechnology has the power to make everyone's future healthier and more sustainable. Similar to medicine, the tiniest components of life, cells, hold the secret to nourishment. Proteins, lipids, and other elements necessary for life are built into cells, but they also produce these substances on their own. Cellular agriculture is a method of instructing cells to productively generate precisely what we want. Natural sources of protein, such those found in plants and animals, are fixed, which means the protein is inherent to the source. These fixed protein sources can be easily replicated to contain all the nutrients and perhaps even all the harmful elements. Cellular agriculture enables growing meat from animal cells without having the need to raise or slaughter them, which reduces carbon footprint of animal husbandry while providing clean meat options to consumers.

Startups are using advanced genetic engineering technologies to introduce new cells lines and antibiotic-free cell cultures for replicating animal meat. Lab-grown meat is devoid of hormones, and safe to produce and eat. Since meat produced through cellular agriculture is contaminant free, people living in regions from unsustainable animal agriculture practices can switch to lab-grown meat for fulfilling their nutritional needs. Thus, cellular agriculture has the ability to change several industries and the lives of millions of people. Products made from plant- and cell-based protein sources can now be produced with the necessary proteins and nutrients, owing to the advancements in cellular agriculture technology. This makes it possible for researchers to create healthier substitutes for products in various industries, notably those related to food, drink, cosmetics, and drugs.

Chinese startup Cellx develops hybrid structured meat utilizing 3D printing technology for efficient mass production. Another Chilean food tech startup Luyef has developed a proprietary animal-free product-TAMEE-to change the sensory profile of alternative meats, altering the structure, feel, and taste of plant-cell cultured meat to resemble that of animal-derived meat.

Plant-based Cell Development

Development of plant-based cell lines enables the manufacture of plant-based meat, a sustainable substitute for conventional agriculture. Consumers are increasingly choosing cell cultures because they provide better nutritional profiles with low fat and high fiber content. Additionally, the entry of allergens is greatly reduced during plant-based cell growth, making it safe for people who have food allergies or intolerances. Similar to animal cells, plant cells are genetically altered to create products tailored to specific needs, such as those that are soy- or gluten-free. Recombinant proteins, which are proteins produced using plant cells, are another type of protein that is utilized as a raw material to create plant-based flour and fat. Lastly, companies employ plant-based cell lines to lessen the manufacturing of food by using less water and land while maintaining the necessary levels of protein.

The US-based business Tiamat Sciences offers plant molecular farming (PMF) for the production of farmed meat through its platform and plant bioreactors. The company offers a data-driven manufacturing platform for the creation of recombinant proteins and biomolecules without the use of animals, using vertical farming and transient gene expression. Additionally, Tiamat offers manufacturing facilities in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors development of plant-based growth factors, cytokines, and enzymes.

Appetite Growing for Cell-based Seafood

Increasing temperature of oceans and overfishing practices are putting strain on marine species and the world is on track for a shortage of seafood. According to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, more than one-third of the world's fisheries are being harvested at unsustainable levels. Hence, the cell-based seafoods have been gaining a lot of traction in recent years. Cell-based seafoods, also known as cultured seafood or lab-grown seafoods offer a promising alternative to traditional fishing and aquaculture methods as one does not have to rely on depleting fish populations or contribute to the negative environment impact.

Cell-based seafoods can lessen the hazards related with climate change, pollution, and other variables that harm wild fish populations by separating seafood production from conventional marine habitats. Cell-based seafood can be produced all year round, independent of the weather outside, in controlled settings like bioreactors. This supply consistency can lessen reliance on erratic harvests from rivers and oceans and help fulfil the rising demand for seafood.

Additionally, seafood made from cells has the potential to increase food safety. Traditional methods of producing seafood come with a number of health and safety issues, including the buildup of pollutants and poisons in wild fish and the use of antibiotics and pesticides in aquaculture techniques. By beginning with a managed and sterile cell culture and guaranteeing that the end product is devoid of dangerous compounds or impurities, cell-based seafood all but removes these worries. Customers who are becoming more concerned about the quality and safety of the food they consume will find this feature particularly intriguing.

Many startups in the cultivated seafood market are emerging to fulfill the evolving demands of the consumers and fulfill their nutritional needs without negatively affecting the environment. For instance, Umami Meats, an alt-seafood company in Singapore provides alt-seafood products such as fish balls, sashimi, filets, and sushi by extracting stem cells from fish and moving the cells to large bioreactors that turn them into muscle and fat. The finished products have zero antibiotics, mercury, plastic, or other contaminants.

According to TechSci Research report on “Cellular Agriculture Market – Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity, and Forecast, 2017-2027, Segmented By Technology (Cell Lines, Growth Media, Scaffold Materials, 3D Tissue Systems, Others), By Application (Dairy Products, Gelatin, Fish, Insects, Others), By End User Industry (Food & Beverages, Textile, Pharmaceuticals, Others), and Region”, the global cellular agriculture market is projected to grow at a formidable rate. The market growth can be attributed to the increasing dependence of several industries such as food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, textiles, etc. on animal products and increasing awareness among population regarding the ill-treatment of animals for meat consumption.

Can Desert Farming Solutions Strengthen Food Security in Arid Regions?

Deserts cover one-third of the world's surface and are characterized by little to no rainfall, poor and sandy soil, and extreme temperatures. Hence, farming in dry and arid regions have proven to be challenging since traditional agriculture practices rely on irrigation and water supplies, fertile land, and favorable weather conditions. Drought and desertification, or the deterioration of the land in dry regions, are global issues. They encompass both developed and developing nations. No nation is safe from these universal phenomena, according to the UN. According to projections from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought, more than 75 percent of the world's population might be affected by droughts by 2050. By 2040, one in four children, according to UNICEF, would reside in regions with severe water shortages.

People living in desert regions have to mainly rely on imports to fulfill their food demands. However, governments across the world are emphasizing on strengthening food security leveraging advanced technologies. In UAE, the government launched 400-hectare farm using desalinated water for irrigation with concerns looming over the country’s lack of arable land. The farm uses artificial intelligence and thermal imaging to collect weather and soil data to monitor the growth of crops and regulate the irrigation rates. Abu Dhabi in partnership with Dutch company GrowGroup IFS has set an ambitious goal to produce 10,000 tonnes of food every year, integrating vertical and flat farming in high-tech facility to grow fruits and vegetables in arid regions.

Here are some of the technologies facilitating farming in desert regions.

  • Hydrogel

The use of hydrogel as one of the primary components in the plant development medium is one of the crucial advances in urban agriculture. In the soil, hydrogel works well as a water-holding reservoir and nutrient mobilizer and has been employed in agriculture for the past 50 years. Due to its functions in improving soil, enabling plants to flourish in dry places, and promoting seed germination, hydrogels made of superabsorbent polymers are being utilized extensively in the agricultural business. Hydrogels can be made from either bio-based material such as cellulose, starch, lignin, kenaf fiber, or synthetic polymers such as petroleum-based products. For instance, a multipurpose hydrogel created by Turkish firm Soyl-Gel is a super-absorbent polymer containing natural clay nanotubes that contain the essential active ingredients for crop health promotion and irrigating crops in dry desert environments. The company employs nano compounds in hydrogel to release the water efficiently over a lengthy time. This benefits the soil nutrition, conserves water, and protects the plants, among other things.

  • Liquid Nanoclay Technology

Liquid Nanoclay Technology transforms poor-quality sandy soils into high-yield agricultural land to combat desertification. LNC is applied to sandy soil using conventional irrigation methods like sprinklers or water waggons. The individual clay flakes form a Van der Waals bond with the surface of the sand particles, and the mixture percolates the soil down to root depth (often 30 to 60 cm). This greatly improves the soil's capacity to hold onto nutrients and water as well as host fungi that support plant growth, resulting in more favourable soil conditions. (Furthermore, the natural process of regeneration from dry to arable land typically takes between 7 and 15 years.) LNC application only takes 7 hours to penetrate into the land. Desert Control, a Norwegian startup, creates Liquid Nanoclay (LNC), a proprietary mixture of clay and water. Applying LNC to arid soil and desert sand improves the soil's capacity to hold onto nutrients and water, transforming deserts into productive greenery. The startup's invention enables farmers in arid areas to develop agricultural items without substantial irrigation infrastructure thanks to its strong water-retention capabilities.

  • Smart Greenhouses with Eco-friendly Tech

Smart greenhouses employ IoT and connected devices to create a self-regulating microclimate that allows crop production. This eliminates the struggles of extreme weather and other environmental factors that can affect crop growth. Besides, greenhouses deliver real-time insights to farmers for optimum efficiency. The smart greenhouse is equipped with multiple wireless sensors to control temperature, humidity, lighting intensity, carbon dioxide levels, etc. The data driven AIoT system can solve real-time inefficiencies with minimal manual involvement and thus improve crop yield and production efficiency.

According to TechSci Research report on “Middle East & Africa Desert Farming Market, By Technique (Greenhouse, Hydroponics, Nano clay, Hydrogels, Others), By Crop Type (Dates, Alfalfa, Eggplant, Peppers, Tomatoes, Melon, Others), By Country, Competition Forecast & Opportunities, 2028”, the Middle East & Africa desert farming market is expected to register growth at a formidable rate. The growth can be attributed to the rapid change in climatic conditions in the region and rising demand for the food security.

Way Ahead

With an aim to reduce the carbon footprint produced by agriculture activities, governments of different nations are switching to promote sustainable agriculture practices. In India, the Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Program (BPKP) aims to promote traditional indigenous techniques, which require fewer inputs from outside sources. Besides, as the demand for organic food produce is increasing, farmers are inclining towards the use of more natural and harmless pesticides and fertilizers to grow crops. This way, taking proactive measures is expected to contribute towards bringing sustainability in agriculture practices around the world.

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