Globally, our food system is thought to account for as much as a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, making it a huge contributor to the effects of climate change. However, there are hopes that the agriculture industry could also be a part of the solution. A paper published in Scientific Reports suggests that the planet’s farmland soil has unrealized carbon trapping potential, and could be used to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as the transport industry emits.
Conversations about how to reassess farming practices typically revolve around the argument of mitigation vs. adaptation. The former side is interested in tweaking current techniques to have less of an impact on our climate, while the latter prioritizes changing current methods to counteract the effect that extreme weather conditions can have on farmers, especially in developing countries.
Carbon sequestration, the process of capturing carbon in the soil itself, could address both sides of the bargain. Carbon trapping sucks a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, while simultaneously making the soil healthier and more fertile.
The paper suggests that new technology, including sensors and drones, could allow farmers to improve carbon sequestration by monitoring their soil health better than ever before. A reduced reliance on fossil fuel-burning heavy machinery, and the implementation of mulch to protect the soil’s surface, would also help.
However, it’s worth noting that there are still some burning questions about the impact of carbon sequestration. “Soil carbon is sort of complex at this point, as there are various types of conservation agriculture practices that often inform the amounts of carbon storage in the soil that are still not fully quantified,” said James Daniel, a spatial analyst with the World Agroforestry Center, in an email to Futurism. “At the moment the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) is working with other partners to design more plausible means of determining farmland soil carbon in situ.”
It’s thought that the US agricultural sector holds the greatest potential for soil carbon sequestration, but other regions show promise too. The 2.6 million square kilometers of cropland in Africa is one such opportunity, but the scarcity of labor could make it difficult to utilize the same methodology as that which American farmers would likely implement.
There are some alternatives, though. Introducing legume plants into pasture vegetation can increase soil carbon storage, and the practice of agroforestry – planting trees on farmland to fix nitrogen in the soil – could also contribute.
According to Daniel, legume plants improve soil quality by fixing nitrogen, while properly managed trees provide leafy foliage that can form mulch for carbon storage in the soil. “They have a huge potential in increasing food productivity, and also controlling soil compactibility, all which provide a tripartite benefits scenario,” Daniel added.
While there’s enormous potential for the greenhouse gas emissions of farmland to be offset by carbon trapping procedures, more research needs to be done. Different regions will benefit from different forms of carbon trapping, so before any kind of large-scale implementation, it’s important that we know as much as possible about what works best for different types of farmland.
The planet is growing more food than ever, and yet millions of people continue to starve worldwide. People are hungry everywhere — in the country, in the suburbs. But increasingly, one of the front lines in the war against hunger is in cities. As urban populations grow, more people find themselves in food deserts, areas with “[l]imited access to supermarkets, supercenters, grocery stores, or other sources of healthy and affordable food,” according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
New technologies are changing the equation, allowing people to grow food in places where it was previously difficult or impossible, and in quantities akin to traditional farms.
Farming at New Heights
Urban farms can be as simple as traditional small outdoor community gardens, or as complex as indoor vertical farms in which farmers think about growing space in three-dimensional terms. These complex, futuristic farms can be configured in a number of ways, but most of them contain rows of racks lined with plants rooted in soil, nutrient-enriched water, or simply air. Each tier is equipped with UV lighting to mimic the effects of the sun. Unlike the unpredictable weather of outdoor farming, growing indoors allows farmers to tailor conditions to maximize growth.
With the proper technology, farming can go anywhere. That’s what the new trend of urban farming shows — these farms go beyond simple community vegetable gardens to provide food to consumers in surrounding areas. All vertical farmers need is some space and access to electricity, no special facilities required. Farmers can buy everything they need to start and maintain their farms online as easily as shopping on Amazon.
In fact, because it’s so easy to access starting materials, officials don’t really know how many urban farms are running in the United States. A 2013 survey by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) received 315 responses from people operating facilities they describe as urban or suburban farms. However, federal grants for agriculture development show thousands of city-dwelling recipients, indicating that the number of urban farms is likely much higher.
“You have to look at these facilities in cubic feet as opposed to square feet. We can really put out a lot of produce from a facility like this,” Dave Haider, the president of Urban Organics, a company that operates urban farms based in St. Paul, Minnesota, told Futurism. Technology allows vertical farmers to control the environment in their farms, enabling them grow a lot more in the same amount of space, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Agricultural Studies.
Urban farms can grow more than just fruits and vegetables. Urban Organics grows three varieties of kale, two varieties of Swiss chard, Italian parsley, and cilantro, but uses the same water to raise Arctic char and Atlantic salmon — a closed-loop system often called aquaponics. Fish waste fertilizes the plants, which clean and filter the water before it goes back into the planters; excess drips into the fishtanks.
Urban Organics opened its first farm inside a former brewery complex in 2014. In the years since,it’s brought food where it’s needed most: to people in the food deserts of the Twin Cities. In 2014, The Guardian named the company one of the ten most innovative urban farming projects in the world.
“Trying to put a dent in the industry when it comes to food deserts is really one of the driving factors behind our first farm, which was actually located in a food desert,” Haider said. Urban Organics sells its produce to local retailers and provides locally-sourced fish to nearby restaurants. “That was sort of a sort of our approach — let’s try to grow produce and raise high-quality protein in an area that needs it most.” As more people move to cities, problems like food scarcity might get even worse.
The vertical farm is also environmentally-friendly. Aquaponics systems result in very little waste. Vertical farming allows growers to use their finite area more efficiently, so we collectively can better utilize established space instead of creating more arable land, leaving more ecosystems intact. Placing the farms close to vendors and consumers means that fresher produce can reach tables with less reliance on trucks, which contribute to pollution and global warming.
What’s the Harm in an Urban Farm?
As people all over the world move to cities, urban centers sprawl to accommodate them. Often, that means taking over former farmland to support more people. In New Jersey, cities like Camden and Trenton are becoming more populous as they convert into urban spaces.
Vertical farming can limit that sprawl. “Vertical farms can actually come into these areas to recolonize the city and to take spaces that have been removed from producing anything,” Paul P.G. Gauthier, a vertical farming expert at the Princeton Environmental Institute, told Futurism.
But setting up an urban farm is often not an easy task. Finding enough space for an affordable price can present a significant obstacle for potential farmers. Vertical farmers also need to know how to operate more technology, including systems that control elements such as soil contaminants and water availability, that nature takes care of on a traditional farm.
Now, companies are popping up to help urban farmers get their facilities up and running. One Brooklyn-based company, Agritecture Consulting, helps people and organizations that want to start their own vertical farms to conduct market research and economic analyses, and to design and engineer the farm plans. The company has successfully completed more than a dozen projects to date, creating farmsaround the world, including some in the cramped confines of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The benefits of urban farming practices extend beyond the tangible aspects of growing food in underserved areas — there’s also a fortunate side effect of cultivating community. That’s a big draw for organizations, including Urban Organics and Agritecture Consultants.
Urban Organics opened a new facility this past summer. It’s much larger than the organization’s other locations, and could provide more than 124,700 kilograms (about 275,000 pounds) of fresh fish and nearly 215,500 kilograms (more than 475,000 pounds) of produce to the nearby area each year.
The former brewing complex in which the new farm is located is undergoing a revitalization, adding artists’ condos and even a food hall, according to a press release emailed to Futurism. Haider is excited about the potential of the new facility and the impact it will have on the developing neighborhood. “Not only are we creating some good-paying, quality jobs with some medical benefits, but these are jobs that just didn’t exist in the area prior to Urban Organics. And these are the things that excite us,” he said.
This winning formula of bringing food and jobs to these areas can help build underserved communities. “Once that’s done, we get to go out to identify the next markets and then do it all over again,” Haider said.
Empowering individuals to get into urban farming can build community, too. Henry Gordon-Smith, the co-founder and managing director of Agritecture, has a side project called Plus.farm, a do-it-yourself resource website for individuals and small groups looking to start urban farms of their own. It’s his passion project, his “labor of love,” he told Futurism. “This is my way of not-so-subtly democratizing some of the best practices. It’s a great way for people to create their own approaches, which is what I really want to see.” The site allows farmers to come up with their own hacks — better lights, better sensors, better growing techniques — and share them on the site’s forum. That’s how an ancient practice like farming continues to improve with modern tools.
Farms of the Future
As people continue to study and tweak urban farming practices, we will continue to learn more about how they can benefit the areas surrounding them and the greater global community. Data on how urban farms directly affect their local communities may compel lawmakers to support and invest more in urban farms.
Gordon-Smith has planned another side project to this effect: an entire building or neighborhood to test urban farming technologies while gathering data. Though the location has not yet been decided, Gordon-Smith has already received a $ 2 million commitment from Brooklyn borough president Eric L. Adams; he has also taken his proposal to the New York City Council. The proposal is waiting for consideration from the Committee on Land Use, and there is no indication of when it will be decided.
Vertical farming, and urban agriculture in general, could be a significant boon for areas with the resources to invest, feeding residents and bolstering the local economy. Still, it’s important to know that urban agriculture is not a singular solution to solve a massive problem like helping people access enough nutritious food. Gauthier, the Princeton urban farming expert, points out that there are a lot of important crops that simply cannot be grown indoors, at least not yet. “We’ll probably never grow soybeans, wheat, or maize indoors,” he said. “Vertical farming is not the solution for solving hunger across the world. It’s not the solution, but it is certainly part of the solution.”
Other efforts to combat world hunger grant people in poor nations more economic freedom by giving them lines of credit, or instituting basic income policies, like those being tested in Kenya. Education, social change, and female empowerment are all social initiatives that can help more people access the food they need to sustain themselves and their families.
Urban farms have the potential to change the world’s agricultural landscape. Granted, we’re probably not going to see a planet of supercities in which all farming is done in high-rise buildings. But urban farms can bring greater yields in smaller areas, increase access to healthy options in urban food deserts, and mitigate the environmental impact of feeding the world. That seems like enough of a reason to continue to develop and expand these transformative farming practices.
Whether it’s cattle, crops or agricultural machinery that need to be monitored, farming is proving fertile ground for IoT technologies.
The number of wireless connections used in global agricultural production is predicted to reach 27.4 million by 2021, according to new figures released by Berg Insight. That’s up from an installed base of around 17 million connections in 2016 and represents an annual compound growth rate of 10 percent over the intervening 5 years.
According to the Berg Insight report, M2M/IoT in the Agriculture Industry, A broad range of wireless technologies are used in agricultural production today, with different characteristics and use cases, said analysts at the research company. For example, the 802.15.4-based standard for low-rate wireless personal networks (LR-WPNs) is the most widely deployed, due to its use in monitoring applications for dairy cattle.
Cellular communications (those supported by mobile networks) are most commonly used for machine telematics and remote monitoring for in-field sensor systems. Cellular comms amounted to some 0.8 million connections at the end of 2016; they are expected to reach 3.1 million in 2021.
Low-power, wide area networks (LPWAN) technologies, meanwhile, are expected to see the highest growth over the next five years and achieve a significant market position in the remote monitoring and control segment, according to Berg Insight.
Agricultural production remains greatly under-penetrated by wireless IoT solutions, said Berg Insight, which maintains a positive outlook for the sector as a result. But a change in the vendor landscape may be on the horizon: manufacturers of farm and dairy equipment have traditionally chosen to partner with smaller, specialized players but are increasingly focusing on developing their own, proprietary technologies.
“Leading providers are now investing in technical platforms capable of supporting integration with third-party hardware and software solutions as agricultural equipment are becoming part of broader systems,” said Fredrik Stalbrand, IoT analyst at Berg Insight.
He added that the increasingly complex technological environment that farmers operate in requires dealers to offer a greater extent of services to integrate and support the range of technologies that are utilized in advanced production systems. Such services are needed, for example, for precision farming solutions, in-field sensor systems and animal monitoring technologies.
In the crop production sector, a group of companies have emerged as leaders on the market for precision agriculture solutions. Leaders include Deere & Company, Trimble, Topcon Positioning Systems and Raven Industries. Other significant vendors include AGCO, Ag Leader Technology, Dickey-john and Hexagon.
New research from global mobile satellite company Inmarsat has found that the agriculture sector is interested in embracing the power of IoT and will spend significantly on the technology over the next five years.
The study, titled ‘The Future of IoT in Enterprise – 2017’, contains responses from the world’s 100 largest agritech companies and found that the sector is rapidly taking to IoT technologies. It shows 62% of the surveyed firms had already fully or partially deployed IoT-based solutions, far outweighing the adoption levels seen in the mining, transport and energy sectors, and a further 27% had plans to do so within the next six months.
It also revealed that expenditure on IoT-based solutions is set to increase dramatically over the next few years.
Ayan Jobse-Alkemade, director of agriculture sector development at Inmarsat Enterprise, said: “With the planet estimated to reach a population of 10 billion people by 2050, humanity will face challenges with sustainable water sources, food production, and the best use of land to get the maximum yield from crops. Additionally, using the most efficient method to deliver the resources will increasingly feature on the global agenda.
“In short, farmers, with the help of the agritech sector, need to get smarter, leaner and faster from field to fork.”
Another piece of research shows how IoT will play an increasingly important role in helping mining companies meet their obligations to their staff, governments, the environment and shareholders. Joe Carr, director of mining at Inmarsat Enterprise said: “The mining sector has worked over many years towards an industry-wide commitment of zero harm. Mines are a uniquely specialised, hazardous environment and as such miners are highly focused on employee safety. IoT solutions can play a significant role by remotely monitoring conditions and gathering data to anticipate and react to potential safety threats.”
Agricultural machinery manufacturer Deere & Company, better known as John Deere, has announced it will acquire Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley-based specialist in machine learning and robotics for precision agriculture, for $ 305 million.
Blue River’s ‘see-and-spray’ robots are fixed to tractors and use computer vision to identify plants in a field, to ‘see’ if they are in need of fertilizer, pesticide or other crop management procedures. The robots are primarily used on lettuce, cotton and other specialty vegetable crops.
Blue River had previously raised some $ 31 million in venture capital funding and claims that its ‘precision farming’ technology can save farmers up to 90 percent of the volume of chemicals they might use with more traditional approaches. And if farmers are being more efficient in their use of fertilizer or pesticide, presumably, then they may free up money to invest in more machinery.
According to Blue River’s website, the company is also developing a ‘LettuceBot’ for “precision lettuce thinning” and a drone imaging system that collects data from fields.
“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”
In addition to new technologies, the acquisition gives Deere a 60-person team specializing in precision agriculture in Sunnyvale, California to work on new developments.
Other companies targeting smart farming are thinking along similar high-tech lines: Monsanto (which recently scrapped plans to sell its Precision Planting unit to Deere) struck a deal with biotech company ToolGen to develop farm products in mid-August, while DuPont bought agriculture analytics firm Granular around the same time.