The sharp increase in the global population over the last 50 years has driven the need for increased intensity in agricultural production. According to OECD, between 1960 and today, food production witnessed a threefold increase globally, while agricultural land use grew by less than 15%. With growth came innovative food systems and technologies, however, the increased agricultural production inevitably put increased pressure on the world's natural resources.
However, the increase in technology and innovation did not reach the majority of food producers, as small farmers often do not have access to the latest technologies, know-how, or the resources to implement a change that could potentially risk their livelihoods. So it is not surprising that small farms make up 84% of farms globally, but their production accounts for one-third of global crop production.
The overall increase in food production also didn’t seem to solve the problem it set out to tackle, the challenge of food and nutrition insecurity - a reality for 820 million people worldwide. And in the next 30 years, the UN predicts that the world’s population will increase by 2 billion people. With 9.7 billion mouths to feed, the primary question is not whether we will have enough food, but whether we will adjust our food systems to be sustainable and fair to all.
Food systems: a holistic approach to sustainability
The food system is a complex network of interrelated and interdependent activities relating to the production and consumption, along with the aggregation, processing, distribution, and disposal of food products. Developing a food system that is sustainable necessitates a comprehensive approach to ensure that positive value is simultaneously generated across the economic, social, and environmental dimensions.
The FAO has defined a sustainable food system as a food system that generates food security and nutrition for future generations while not compromising the economic, social, and environmental bases, as well as an economic base that benefits all stakeholders. In order to be truly sustainable, the system needs to hit three requirements of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
To be economically sustainable and profitable throughout means that the activities performed by each participant of the system are commercially or fiscally viable. Social sustainability refers to the equitable distribution of the economic benefits across all actors, taking into account cultural traditions, nutrition and health, workers’ rights and safety, animal welfare, and institutions.
While environmental sustainability encompasses the neutral or positive impacts on the environment. It considers biodiversity, water, soil, animal and plant health, carbon footprint, water footprint, food loss and waste, and toxicity.
Food systems have changed as a response to rapid population growth, accumulated wealth, urbanization, climate change, and globalization. These developments have changed how and where food is grown and consumed and have brought about positive changes; however, the existing systems have failed to address important challenges in terms of nutritional value, food security, economic fairness, food waste, and environmental footprint.
By focusing on increased production as a solution to food insecurity, traditional food security programs ignore the complexity of the increasingly globalized food systems and their relation to other sectors of society. Food insecurity is not always directly connected to insufficient food production but poor quality or nutritional value.
For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the main cause of food and nutrition insecurity is inadequate food production. Additionally, the OECD notes that poverty is at the core of the hunger and malnutrition problem.
The FAO proposes a food systems approach that addresses food security challenges by holistic thinking and collaboration between all stakeholders. It takes into account all relevant causal factors of a problem and all impacts across the social, environmental, and economic dimensions to drive systemic changes.
By taking a comprehensive look at all factors at play, a holistic approach reveals potential synergies as well as trade-offs between the three dimensions. This ensures that the overall impact on the system will be positive.
Farm to fork the path to a sustainable food system
The European farm sector accounts for about 8.72% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although it is the only major farm sector worldwide that has reduced greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, globally the farming sector’s emissions have remained relatively stagnant in the past decade and are on track to stagnate in the next decade if the current measures stay in place.
Another important setback on the journey to sustainable food production is food waste. The European Commission reports that around 88 million tonnes of food waste are generated annually, amounting to 20% of the total food produced, costing the EU an estimated 143 billion euros.
To address this problem, the EU aims to halve per capita food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030, and the Commission will propose legally binding targets to reduce food waste across the EU by 2023.
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On its path towards climate neutrality, the European Union is developing strategies and plans that will accelerate its transition to a sustainable food system. At the core of the European Green Deal is the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy that has three clear goals: to make food systems fair, healthy, and environmentally friendly.
It emphasizes the need to adjust food production to be resilient, mitigate climate change, have a neutral or positive environmental impact, and preserve biodiversity. Another part of the strategy relates to ensuring that everyone has access to safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced food. Additionally, it aims to keep food affordable while generating fairer economic returns.
The EU’s F2F strategy is focused on four areas: food loss and waste prevention, sustainable food production, sustainable food processing and distribution, and sustainable food consumption. Additionally, there are four clear defined 2030 targets related to the use of pesticides in agriculture, the excess of nutrients as a major source of pollution, and antimicrobial resistance as a threat to human health:
The EU will invest €10 billion under Horizon Europe towards research and innovation related to food, bioeconomy, agriculture, natural resources, fisheries, aquaculture, and environment. However, the EU cannot do it alone and unless there’s global action towards the same goal, Europe’s pursuit of sustainability won’t leave a mark on the global state of climate change. To this end, the EU will work with the international community to build a common strategy for a sustainable food system.
The strategy has been a target of some criticism. The European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC) has expressed concerns regarding some policy targets that it views as conflicting that may undermine the EU’s food production capacity and its role in developing sustainable food production systems, such as Food to Fork.
Since the European Commission has not provided an impact assessment of the strategy, the FEFAC emphasized the need for a comprehensive impact assessment before any specific legislative measures are enacted.
Additionally, the USDA has provided a fairly negative impact assessment report, projecting that the total value of the EU’s agricultural output would shrink by 12%, domestic prices would rise by 17%, and food insecurity globally would rise.
Yelto Zimmer, the coordinator of the Agri benchmark Cash Crop Network at the Thünen Institute, has regarded these projections to be exaggerated but has concluded that the F2F strategy contains serious contradictions and that its targets would lead to more land use and deforestation abroad due to the reduction in output.
Another criticism is aimed at the strategy’s failure to address the production and over-consumption of meat and dairy products. Annika Hedberg, Head of Sustainable Prosperity for Europe Programme at European Policy Centre (EPC) claims that the strategy’s biggest weakness
“is its failure to spell out an inconvenient truth: the EU’s problem is its excessive livestock production and over-consumption of meat and dairy, which come at an enormous cost.”
Sustainable food and agricultural production: the crop rotation we need
There are a number of ways in which farmers can mitigate the negative environmental effects of their crop production. Sustainable farming offers several methods to minimize the damage to the farm ecosystem.
Let’s start with a popular soil based method and that's permaculture, but what is permaculture? Well, for one, it is a food production system that mimics how plants thrive in natural ecosystems. It reduces the waste of resources and increases production efficiency. In terms of lowering the chances of diseases that affect plants and vegetables, crop rotation and crop diversification contribute to healthier soil and improved pest control.
With vertical farming systems, innovative methods like aquaponics and hydroponics are integrated into everyday operations. These soil-less growing processes are more resource-efficient than other farming techniques and they use much less water.
The Hydroponic system is becoming increasingly adopted and widespread in vertical farms. According to Grand View Research, the hydroponics segment of the global vertical farming market registered a market share of 54% in 2020 and is expected to remain dominant between 2021 and 2028.
Another method is agroforestry and it is a land-use management system that combines trees, shrubs, crops and/or animals on the same land. This system increases crop yields and decreases the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, agroforestry systems can control runoff, soil erosion, reduce losses of water, organic matter, and nutrients.
Polluted agricultural soils can be recovered by land remediation practices such as bioremediation, which uses microbes to extract pollutants from soil and water. Although this eco-friendly method of recovering soil has been used for quite some time, it is still underutilized.
Nevertheless, the market size of the global bioremediation market is showing signs of growth. According to BCC Research, the global bioremediation market will reach $186.3 billion by 2023, increasing from $91 billion in 2018 at a CAGR of 15.4% in the forecast period.
There are a growing number of technological solutions that can contribute to lowering the negative environmental impact of the agriculture industry. According to the OECD, digital technologies, such as data analytics, precision agriculture equipment, artificial intelligence, and high-quality satellite imagery can increase the industry’s productivity, sustainability, and resilience.
Many players in the private sector are offering agtech solutions for farmers, growers, and producers worldwide. The global AgTech market is expected to grow from an approximate value of $10.5 billion in 2021 to $22.6 billion by 2025, with North America and Europe as the most lucrative regions.
With the rise of smart farming, actors in the agriculture industry can utilize IoT sensors, artificial intelligence, and robotics to remotely monitor metrics such as soil moisture, water level, light, humidity, pH balance, and motion.
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Various software tools provide farmers with real-time data and predictive analytics for enhanced farm management, crop optimization, and smarter irrigation. Artificial intelligence is also a big part of the portfolios of smart farming companies, along with machine learning and deep learning.
Increasing crop yields while minimizing the use of natural resources are made possible by precision agriculture. Precision agriculture enables farmers to optimize their production with the given resources. The global precision agriculture market is expected to reach $7.8 billion by 2022, registering a CAGR of 14.9% during the forecast period 2016-2022.
Vertical farming systems
Vertical farming employs technologies that enable food to be grown in a controlled environment, usually near the point of consumption, i.e., urban environments.
Vertical farming usually incorporates farming techniques that don’t use soil, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. Vertical farming systems have the potential to relieve the pressure agriculture puts on water resources, as vertical farms reduce water consumption partly by recycling water and regulating water usage through software and sensors.
IoT is a prevalent technology in vertical farming. On a broader scale, the IoT in the agriculture market is projected to reach $48.7 billion by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 14.7% from 2018 to 2025.
The agriculture industry accounts for 70% of water use worldwide. With the world facing water shortages, it is of utmost importance for farmers to adopt solutions that will optimize their water usage. Smart irrigation is based mostly on data analytics, IoT technology, sensors as well as artificial intelligence.
Smart irrigation solutions provide farmers with tools to monitor weather, soil conditions, evaporation, and plant water while providing real-time insights to optimize the irrigation process for the actual conditions of the site. The global smart irrigation market, which is expected to grow from $1 billion in 2020 to $2.1 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 15.3% during the forecast period.
From farm to fork to sustainable agriculture
When taking a broader look at how one of the oldest industries in the world is contributing to climate change, environmental degradation, and social injustice, it can be overwhelming even to try and grasp how things might take a turn for the better.
A big change necessitates a series of small actions. While major strides have been made towards solving today’s food security and environmental problems, there is still a long way to go. Therefore it is crucial not only to have a holistic view of the problem but also to tackle challenges one step at a time.
The policy must go hand in hand with innovation in a global collaborative effort. There are increasing government initiatives, more and more innovative companies offering disruptive solutions, as well as increased funding for research and innovation that will increase the agricultural industry’s sustainability and overall positive impact on the environment.
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