Open Problems: Current challenges in farming technology and policy

14 minute read

Updated on: 19 Jun 2020

Agriculture is facing a double challenge: producing enough food for our growing population, while minimising the harmful impact of this industry on our planet. Here we will discuss some of the remaining problems on the path towards productive and sustainable agriculture.

Problem 1: Soil degradation needs to be stopped - fast!

What the world needs to solve this problem:

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Soil is an essential resource that impacts both crop productivity and climate change [ref1,ref2]. However, our soils are eroding at least 10 times faster than they are being formed [ref1,ref2], releasing carbon into the atmosphere and threatening food security [ref]. Indeed, the annual cost of soil erosion to global GDP is estimated to be $8 billion[ref]!

Educating farmers on the importance of soil-friendly practices, such as no-till agriculture, crop rotations, and agroforestry, will be essential if we are to conserve this valuable resource [ref1,ref2]. Sharing knowledge between researchers and farmers will allow farmers to match their practices to the specific soil that their farm is built on to achieve maximum productivity [ref1,ref2,ref3].

However, farmers may be resistant to replacing traditional practices, and the economic benefits of many conservation strategies take several years to be seen [ref1,ref2]. Therefore, government incentives and funding will be required for these practices to be widely adopted [ref1,ref2,ref3].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Syngenta Global

Problem 2: Farmers need incentives and training to adopt precision farming

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Precision agriculture has the potential to reduce both the economic and environmental costs of farming by optimising crop yields while minimizing waste [ref1,ref2]. Despite this, adoption of these technologies (with the exception of GPS systems) has been fairly slow, particularly in developing countries [ref1,ref2]. Why?

While adoption of these techniques will eventually improve farmers’ income, many are unable to meet the initial investment costs [ref1,ref2,ref3,ref4]. Developing cheaper technologies, as well as government incentives and grants to encourage their use, will be needed for wider adoption of these techniques [ref1,ref2].

Many others are put off because they think the technology is too complex [ref1,ref2,ref3]. Developing more user-friendly products and providing more training will hopefully remove this barrier [ref].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Smart Farming Erasmus
arrow_forward Ideo.org
arrow_forward Indigo.com
arrow_forward Trimble
arrow_forward OneSoil
arrow_forward Aibono

Problem 3: GEOs need to be more widely understood

What the world needs to solve this problem:

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We’ve discussed the advantages of GEOs, for both people and the planet [ref], but many people still oppose their use. For example, 47% of people in China hold negative views towards genetic engineering [ref], and 39% of Americans think GEOs are a risk to human health [ref]. This is largely down to a lack of clear communication between scientists and the public [ref1,ref2]. Teaching people about genetic engineering has been shown to increase positive attitudes towards GEOs [ref]. So what needs to be done?

Firstly, we need to increase public awareness of the importance of GEOs for human and environmental health [ref]

Secondly, we need to stop the spread of fake news and shift the portrayal of GEOs in the media [ref1,ref2]

Thirdly, scientists need to provide easy access to research, and the public need to actively engage [ref]

It is also important for regulations that restrict the use of GEOs to be reviewed as we develop new techniques and create new products [ref1,ref2,ref3].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward The Royal Society
arrow_forward Alliance for Science
arrow_forward ISAAA
arrow_forward Biology Fortified
Image of Increasing awareness about GEOs

Increasing awareness about GEOs

Problem 4: GEOs need to be more accessible to farmers

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Most GEO seeds are protected by patents - laws that prevent other people from using the technology without permission [ref]. These laws are supposed to encourage innovation, preventing others from unfairly profiting from the inventor’s hard work [ref].

In many cases, to use patented seeds, farmers must agree to only plant them for a single season and not to save or sell the resulting crops for replanting [ref]. To make sure farmers stick to these rules, the seeds are often engineered so that the modified trait is not passed on to future crop generations [ref]. This forces farmers to rely on seed suppliers, giving these companies a lot of power over access to GE technologies [ref].

As of 2018, four companies were responsible for over 50% of global seed sales [ref]! With little competition from other seed suppliers, these companies can increase the price of their products without the risk of their buyers turning to cheaper sources [ref1,ref2].

To avoid these big companies taking full control of global food supplies, governments will need to introduce policies to restore competition to the agricultural seed market by preventing mergers between large seed companies and supporting the growth of new suppliers [ref].

The development of “open source” GE seeds and seed libraries will also make these technologies more accessible, ensuring that they are available where they are needed most [ref].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Gates Ag One
arrow_forward CGAIR
arrow_forward RIPE

Problem 5: Vertical farming needs better LED lights

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Vertical farms require a lot of energy to maintain optimal growing conditions for plants all year round [ref]. 70% of a vertical farm’s energy consumption is used for lighting [ref]. The lighting can also give off heat, which not only wastes energy, but creates worse temperatures for plant growth [ref].

More efficient LED lights have been developed that only emit the spectrum of light that is absorbed by plants [ref1,ref2]. This will reduce the amount of wasted light energy that is reflected from the plant [ref]. With more research, these could be made cheaper and adjustable to different phases of the plant’s growth cycle.

More efficient LEDs also give off less heat [ref], but it is hard to eliminate this heat production completely. Instead, excess heat could be used to heat other parts of the building where the farm is housed [ref]. For this, research into engineering efficient air distribution systems will be needed.

If vertical farms adopt zero-carbon energy, their carbon footprint will be further reduced [ref1,ref2].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward V-Farm
arrow_forward Plenty
arrow_forward Cubic Farms
arrow_forward Zipgrow
arrow_forward TechnoFarm
arrow_forward Freightfarms
arrow_forward Alkilu
arrow_forward Growtainer
arrow_forward Growing Underground

Problem 6: Cultured meat needs to become commercially scalable

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Cultured beef is over 5 times more expensive than ground beef [ref]. The culture medium accounts for 80% of this cost [ref], so producing cheaper culture medium should be a key target for research.

In addition, to tackle the environmental cost of this energy-intensive process, producers will need to adopt zero-carbon energy sources [ref].

The technology for lab-grown meat is still in its early stages. Research will be needed to reduce the economic and environmental cost of this process through developments in the required raw materials and energy inputs [ref1,ref2].

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Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Mosa Meat
arrow_forward Memphis Meats
arrow_forward Shiok Meats
arrow_forward Aleph Farms
arrow_forward Finless Foods
arrow_forward Higher Steaks
arrow_forward Integriculture
arrow_forward JUST

Problem 7: We need to adopt more sustainable diets

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By removing animal products from our diets, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector by nearly 50% [ref]. However, in most studies, less than 35% of people in developed countries are aware of the environmental impacts of eating meat [ref]. Clearer communication of the health and environmental impacts of different foods will be important in empowering people to make more sustainable food choices [ref1,ref2,ref3].

Sustainable diets must be affordable and provide the right nutrients in the right quantities, while having a minimal impact on the environment [ref]. Even shifting from beef to lower impact meats like poultry and fish can make a big difference to our carbon footprint [ref1,ref2,ref3].

Many believe that, to obtain a balanced plant-based diet, you need to spend more money [ref1,ref2]. Giving food a price that reflects the environmental cost of its production process would remove financial barriers towards adopting sustainable diets [ref]. For example, if governments were to introduce taxation on meat products, customers might be more likely to buy plant-based alternatives [ref1,ref2].

Incentives and awareness, along with improvements to the taste and texture of meat alternatives, will be important in encouraging more people to adopt sustainable diets.

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arrow_forward True Cost Accounting

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward EAT forum
arrow_forward Eating Better

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