AgTech and the Future of Food Security
According to current estimates by the UN, 690 million people—8.9% of the population—are hungry today. If this trend continues, that number will surpass 840 million by 2030.
By 2050, the population is expected to grow by an additional 2 billion people. The global agriculture sector produces around 5.5 billion tons of food, but with population growth, in the next three to four decades, farmers will need to produce more food than was produced in the last 8,000 years combined.
Food security is further complicated by complex global issues like climate change and political instability. According to the World Food Program, 135 million people suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, global warming and economic downturns. The COVID-19 pandemic is already increasing that number, as is displacement from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as refugees and migrants generally face poorer health outcomes than their host communities.
When it comes to solving for global challenges like UN Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger, collaboration between the public and private sectors is critical. Valmont Industries is developing technology at the intersection of sustainability and hunger: helping farmers produce more while using less.
In order to feed the growing population, the world—particularly the agriculture industry—will need to adapt to a number of challenges, including climate change, the digital divide among farmers, and managing the supply chain disruptions that lead to the rising cost of food.
Addressing the Supply Chain
When considering the challenge of higher food prices, many may think of the rising costs of transportation and packaging. But the problem exists throughout the agricultural process: inefficient supply chains and supply chain disruptions impact the cost of food.
Fuel is more expensive almost everywhere, and in some areas, the price of fuel has increased as much as 47%. In 2021, the average gallon of gas was $2.86. In April 2022, the average gallon cost $4.11, according to the USDSA National Agricultural Statistics Service 2021 Farm Labor Report. This makes everything, from tractor operation to transporting crops, more expensive.
In addition, situations like the conflict in Ukraine remain turbulent. Market fluctuations and inflation will drive up the cost of many goods necessary for growers, like fertilizer, equipment or energy costs. For example, Ukraine and Russia produce 15% of the world’s wheat and one-third of total wheat exports. The cost of wheat in February 2021 was $6.51 a bushel, but after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a bushel cost $12.09. These challenges mean it is all the more important to increase global production in order to protect against unanticipated disruptions.
Agriculture’s Environmental Impact
While every industry has an effect on—and is affected by—climate change, agriculture has a significant environmental impact, especially when it comes to water. On average, agriculture currently accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally. In addition, climate change contributes to extreme weather events like draughts that slow food production, further complicating the issue.
Water is the number-one determining factor in crop yields, meaning irrigation can create an opportunity for improvement. According to Valmont Industries, overall, just 20% of available agricultural land is irrigated, but that land accounts for 40% of production. This is the “multiplier effect”: Irrigation boosts productivity and return on investment to growers, meaning that to produce more, efficiently, more agricultural land should be irrigated.
“Since pioneering the center pivot irrigation industry in 1954, we’ve enabled growers around the world to conserve water while increasing crop quality and yields,” says Darren Siekman, Vice President & General Manager, International Irrigation for Valley. “We are dedicated to helping achieve global food security through our decades of thought leadership and technological innovation.”
Feeding the world’s growing population will rely on technology-driven agricultural practices. Valmont is working to provide farmers with digital farm management solutions in order to maximize both efficiency and sustainability. Valley Irrigation, a Valmont company, utilizes technology like precision irrigation to maximize land use while using less water.
With traditional flood irrigation, large amounts of water are used on an area of land, and the soil cannot absorb the water quickly enough, wasting water while also saturating the soil and stunting root activity. In this practice, also known as surface irrigation, only about half the water is absorbed, while the other half is lost to evaporation, runoff, transpiration or other factors. With pivot irrigation, where equipment rotates around a pivot to water crops with sprinklers, water absorption rates improve to 85-90%, which prevents the loss of fertilizers and other crop protectants.
“Center pivots provide the best long-term investment for growers,” says Siekman. “Additionally, growers can also provide targeted, precise fertilizer application through the pivot to provide maximum return and reduce water contamination from runoff.”
There are, of course, a few challenges here, both with the initial costs of acquiring this equipment and in the ongoing use of the technology. While technology like field sensors, data collection and drones gives farmers the ability to increase production, small holder farmers need to be included in the industry’s digital transformation. Investments in digital literacy, user-friendly applications and the private sector can help address barriers to the adoption of these technologies.
To learn more about BCIU’s agriculture programming, visit our Events page.