How technology can help tackle climate change in agriculture

In the recent COP 26 talks, governments and enterprises teamed up with the agriculture industry to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and protect the food supply against ecological challenges. Agriculture is a complex issue for countries that are looking to balance interests and net-zero objectives, but it is one where technology can play an important role.

Announcements included the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, signed by more than 130 countries, which confirmed they will work together “to halt forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” In addition, more than 100 countries agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% of 2020 levels by 2030. These are all positive moves, but there is still a long way to go.

Every step of food making releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to the European Environment Agency. Methane, for example, is produced as part of livestock’s digestive processes due to enteric fermentation. It can also be emitted from organic waste in landfills, manure management and rice cultivation. Furthermore, nitrous oxide emissions are an indirect product of organic and mineral nitrogen fertilizers, and transport and logistics release carbon monoxide and other air pollutants.

In fact, agriculture, forestry and land use directly account for approximately 18.4% of greenhouse gas emissions. The entire food chain, including refrigeration, food processing, packaging and transport logistics, accounts for a staggering 25% of emissions in total.

Agriculture must change direction

In the past decades, agriculture has become more reliant on fossil inputs, from fossil fuels to drive large machinery to synthetic nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and agrochemicals designed to improve crop fertility.

Somehow agriculture must become greener while feeding a growing population up from around 7.9 billion today to an estimated 9 billion in 2037. It will require a huge industry-wide effort to sustainably feed everyone, cut greenhouse gases and stop deforestation for cattle ranching.

Agritech is the way forward

As McKinsey points out, agriculture has complex objectives alongside reaching climate targets and is not as consolidated globally as other industries. Other concerns include biodiversity, nutrition, food security and the ongoing livelihoods of farmers and agricultural communities. The big reality is that agriculture has to change how it operates while improving efficiency and productivity.

Climate change is also adversely impacting agriculture. According to a study by the Applied School of Economics at Cornell University, global warming has caused as 21% fall in global farming productivity since the 1960s.

Cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), IoT and analytics can help optimize agricultural processes, capture carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere, adopt a circular economy and make the whole industry more sustainable. Drones and robots can assist with soil and field analysis, crop spraying and harvesting.

Agricultural technology (agritech) has enormous potential, both in capabilities and as a market. A recent study forecasts that the total value of the agritech market will hit $22.5 billion by 2025, up from just $9 billion in 2020. This represents a stratospheric growth rate of 150% over the next five years, as agriculture looks to improve sustainability while increasing yields and decreasing costs.

Developing countries will play a significant role in this fast-expanding market. For example, recent research commissioned by Microsoft found that Africa, with a projected value of $1 trillion by 2030, is set to become a global center for agritech solutions.

Developing agritech that will allow African farmers to adopt data-driven, precise farming will help boost the agricultural industry in the region and optimize yields. Microsoft is working to ensure that the country’s farming communities have access to the latest technology, including AI and IoT.

Start-ups are already working on innovative projects. Nigeria’s Releaf is using technology to improve food processing. It found that 90% of factories were running 50% below their installed capacity in the vegetable oil industry due to inefficient running issues. The company is developing hardware and software solutions to make them more efficient and sustainable, including predictive maintenance, production projections and supply chain inventory management.

Changing agro-environmental practices

Many programs are already underway around the globe to help agriculture become more sustainable and resilient to climate change. For example, Orange Business Services is working with data-driven platform specialist Agdatahub and environmental services group Suez to help European farmers accelerate digital transformation and improve the management of ecological resources. Together they plan to bring to market innovative digital and IoT offerings for the agricultural sector in carbon capture, water quality and gas emissions in livestock farming.

In addition, Orange has delivered a scalable communications infrastructure and managed machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity services that develop and supply IoT solutions to help Dacom optimize crop yields. Using a dedicated SIM card management portal, farmers can access data via mobile devices to monitor crops continuously. It also offers growers practical solutions for profitable, sustainable and smart agriculture.

Earth observation data improves agri-environmental monitoring

At the same time, earth observation (EO) data is becoming invaluable in enabling agriculture to become more efficient without damaging biodiversity. Airbus, Orange Business Services and Capgemini have worked together on sobloo, a collaborative platform designed to provide easy access to Copernicus data and additional EO and non-EO data collections. Copernicus is one of the most ambitious Earth observation programs today, providing accurate and timely data to better understand and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Earth observation data is enabling agriculture to improve its practices, better manage at field level for precision farming and improve agri-environmental monitoring, mitigating inadequate irrigation and soil erosion.

Cultivating resilience and sustainability

Rapid technological innovation is transforming every step of food production from field to fork. The future of agriculture will be dependent on precision farming, automated practices, robotics, AI and big data. These technologies can create new economic relationships with the land. Still, they must work directly with nature if we are going to tackle climate change and environmental degradation in any meaningful way, while feeding a growing population.

For more information read about precision farming and data analytics and the partnership between Agdatahub, Orange and SUEZ, which will help reward farmers for sustainable practices.