Why 2022 is strengthening the case for AgTech
Far from being an isolated event, the pandemic has simply served as a taster to what has since prevailed, triggering a chain of events which has caused more damage on an already weakened global economy and further threatened a fragile food system. Can AgTech provide an all-encompassing solution to these current problems we face?
- Climate change
Last year’s COP26 laid bare the severity of the burgeoning climate crisis and the real consequences faced if urgent action wasn’t carried out. A third of EU Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions come from the food system, and according to recent comprehensive research published, 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.
At present, the UK imports 45% of our food. This has a huge impact in terms of CO2 emissions as food needs to be transported by land, air or sea. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) allows for crops to be grown locally, reducing the need for food to be flown or shipped in from abroad and reducing CO2 emissions in the process.
- Diminishing land and an exploding population
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 on course to wipe out earth’s finite resources over the coming years. We are simply running out of land. Millions of hectares of rainforest are destroyed every year to make way for new plantations. And due to the growing global population, farmers will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 compared to 2010. With traditional farming, this could require an extra 593 million hectares of agricultural land. That’s around twice the size of India.
Here in the UK, land is at a premium. As our own population increases, we will need more land for houses, schools, shops and other buildings. It’s crucial therefore, that the land we use to grow our food is fully maximised. That’s why sustainable food systems harnessing AgTech can solve the problem of how to keep up with our population growth. Vertical farms also have a far smaller footprint than traditional farms as they can easily grow 50 times the amount per square metre of land mass.
All crops need water. Crops grown using CEA need up to 95% less water than traditional crops because none is wasted. Some vertical farms are now looking into using rainwater, but the majority will require mains water. Smart solutions can also ensure that the crops only get as much water as they need.
Amid the ‘worst drought ever seen’ by farmers, experts have warned that the extreme conditions seen in July are likely to become more frequent, which will in turn lead to small harvests across the country, further pushing up prices in shops and supermarkets. 2022 has seen the driest July since 1935, leaving the soil too dry to drill and with drought conditions set to last until October, this could have dire consequences for farming, food production and crop harvesting.
The record-breaking hot temperatures look set to become an annual occurrence, causing more drought and wreaking havoc on crops. Droughts pose one of the biggest threats to sustainable development. Since 2000, the number and duration of droughts has risen 29%, with an estimated 55 million people globally directly affected by droughts each year.
According to the United Nations, no country is immune to drought – as the UK is seeing. By 2050, droughts have the potential to affect over three-quarters of the world’s population. In fact, the UN has warned that drought is a hidden global crisis that risks becoming “the next pandemic”.
The impact of drought has immense power to not just create major disruption to the global food supply chain but accelerate world hunger.
The beauty of CEA is that it doesn’t rely on the weather or require soil, enabling crops to be grown in the UK that couldn’t normally survive in our climate. Previously, this has mostly been wet or cold conditions, but now, with the added threat of drought, this also means dry, scorching conditions. With vertical farming, there’s no such thing as ‘seasonal produce’, unless the farmer decides to focus on different crops at different times of the year.
Another benefit is that indoor farming provides a profitable opportunity for growers and has the potential to work particularly well in extreme climates. In environments with historically high temperatures and year-round sun, such as Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, renewable energy such as solar power can be harnessed to power LEDs, to not only become more energy efficient but reduce operating costs.
- Labour shortage – Brexit?
Empty supermarket shelves we have started to see last year signalled major disruption to the food supply chain, already under pressure due to COVID. Much of this was blamed on Brexit, as traditional farms often rely on seasonal workers where a big number came from Europe. According to Fruit Logista’s annual 2022 report, this meant crops could not be harvested on time which led to large losses in the fields, as much of the seasonal labour force had migrated elsewhere. Labour shortages in the UK have resulted in crops valued at more than £36m being destroyed with the number of applicants for seasonal workers dropping dramatically.
Farms using CEA tend to require much less hands-on time as a lot of the work is automated, easing farm operations, while minimising losses. As a result, they require fewer staff. Customised, agricultural robots are assisting farmers with repetitive tasks such as fruit-picking, harvesting, planting, transplanting, spraying, seeding, and weeding, revolutionising agriculture through new levels of efficiency. We’re seeing more deployment by farmers of smart agricultural machines, such as GPS-enabled autonomous and semi-autonomous tractors for harvesting. Robots offer improved overall productivity, prevent human-induced errors and reduce dependence on manual labour while providing convenience.
- The wheat crisis
As war continues to ravage Ukraine, we’re seeing longer-term, damaging impact across the world, causing economic pain, with the wheat shortage worsening the global food supply and driving up prices.
While indoor vertical farming is predominantly used to grow increasing varieties of leafy greens, salad and fruit crops, we still may have a little further to go until indoor wheat farming becomes the norm, but the recent troubles may well have accelerated this journey. A recent studymodelled wheat growth in a 10-layer, indoor vertical farm. The study predicted that an indoor vertical farm could potentially produce an enormous annual hay yield of 1,940 tonnes – up to 600 times greater per hectare than current farming methods. And that’s not all – the study further predicted in a 100-layer farm there is the opportunity to produce a staggering 19,400 tonnes of hay per year.
More advanced research carried out at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan has also revealed the potential for wheat crops to be grown in desert regions, presenting a golden opportunity to not just establish a greater foothold in sustainable food production and food security for the long-term, but move towards a decentralised, localised food system through harnessing innovation in AgTech.
- Rising energy costs
Arguably the biggest problem is Russia minimising its gas distribution, which has seen record energy and fuel costs across Europe, triggering a cost-of-living crisis with the potential for winter blackouts.
In the coming weeks and months, consumers can expect to see less UK grown vegetables in supermarkets, as many farmers reduce supplies to help deal with rising energy costs.
Lincolnshire growers are cutting production by 30% after seeing eyewatering price rises, according to a report commissioned by the National Farmers’ Union. Growers in the area are reported to be cutting the amount of food they are producing due to sky rocketing costs of fuel, fertiliser, energy, labour and packaging.
While indoor farming negates the need for fertiliser and labour, it also offers an energy efficient solution and can help keep costs down for growers thanks to its use of LED grow lights. They are designed to be as energy efficient as possible while still delivering the required light output at scale. If they are laid out efficiently, meeting very tightly managed design standards, they can maximise plant growth and health with minimal demands on power.
LED lighting not only cut costs without cutting out quality, but it also lasts for longer. The diodes have a longer lifespan than other lighting solutions which means the cost of replacement bulbs doesn’t hit the bottom line as often as with competitor solutions.
In fact, when looking at more traditional high pressure sodium (HPS) grow lighting, a typical 600W product will deliver around 1185umol/s. With LED lighting achieving up to 3.3umol/j (subject to emission spectrum), the equivalent energy requirement could be as low as 360W, effectively offering up to a 40% energy saving when compared to the standard HPS lamps. And ongoing maintenance is almost halved too when you compare the life of an LED product versus a typical HPS product.
LED grow lights consume less power, deliver a better return on investment and cost less to maintain than HPS grow lights. The costs can be measurably managed and reduced over the long term, making it a cost-effective option – and with energy prices showing no sign of abating, now is perhaps the time for growers to focus on key areas where they can control expense through reduced CAPEX and OPEX costs, by making the switch to indoor farming.
Ensuring future food security
Since Covid, a myriad of factors is severely testing the UK’s food security, laying bare the vulnerabilities in our food supply chain and our growing dependency on suppliers around the world. It’s becoming more and more apparent that indoor farming can not only become an alternative food production method of choice for future generations but be the vital solution we’re urgently looking for.
This article is a contribution from Light Science Technologies.