The world’s population surpassed the 8 billion mark in 2022. While it took over 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion, it only took another 219 years for that number to multiply eightfold. Naturally, feeding this exponentially growing population is becoming ever more challenging and therefore requires some creativity.
A global hunger crisis of unprecedented proportions is plaguing the Earth, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program, where close to 345 million people in 82 countries face or risk facing acute food insecurity. Other figures on world hunger estimate that close to 700 million people suffer from severe food insecurity.
To tackle the issue, tech innovation leaders developed new technologies and practices to boost crop yields, allowing more produce and food products to reach global markets. Consequently, agriculture has become the second-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, generating around 19 percent to 28 percent of all emissions.
While modern technology helps farmers boost crop yields, produce more meat on less land, and maximize efficiency overall, many technological advances in agriculture were developed without sustainability in mind. High-intensity, chemical-dependent farming damages soil quality and keeps synthetic fertilizers harming the environment, helping to produce more food while the soil keeps deteriorating.
From a short-term business perspective, intensive farming makes sense because it makes efficient use of smaller amounts of land, thus providing greater quantities of food products to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. But the long-term potential damage to soil threatens a farm’s ability to maintain the necessary output. It’s also detrimental to the environment through its use of pesticides and fertilizers on crops fed to animals. As a result, portions of fertilizers inevitably end up being washed away into waterways — which can create dead zones that kill aquatic life, damaging another important food source.
Most farms today employ intensive farming techniques with both crops and livestock. The quest to meet the world’s rapidly growing demand for food, and in particular products like beef, has led to widespread deforestation. Between 1991 and 2005, approximately 70 percent of the Amazon basin’s deforested terrain was cleared out to make arable land for cattle ranches.
As the human population will inevitably continue to grow, finding a solution that addresses the real and devastating cost of food insecurity while protecting our precious environment is a must.
Historically, the best agriculture solutions that boost food production while having a positive environmental impact are developed by companies that turned to nature for inspiration. And by looking to nature, companies should be able to collaborate with public-sector initiatives, which provide much-needed capital to fund research centers and subsidies for innovative agricultural activities.
In general, the concept of integrated pest management (IPM), when combined with sustainable agriculture, relies on biological and cultural control. Farmers already use predators like ladybugs to kill aphids, and poultry to consume pests, their larvae and eggs. There is no reason why new technologies created for agriculture can’t do the same.
In fact, there’s a precedent for this strategy dating back to the 1960s. Koppert produced and implemented insects for environmentally-friendly pest control solutions in 1967, enabling farmers to work in a safer environment and sustainably produce healthier and higher quality crops. Replicating processes like this on a global scale needs to be on the agendas of governments, food product companies and farming associations. Collaboration on this front offers the best hope to both protect the environment and feed our planet’s growing and disenfranchised population.
The same ethos should be applied to livestock farming, where the objective should be to find sustainable and resilient methods that treat animals humanely while still supporting the farm’s profitability. By rotating cattle grazing pastures on a near daily basis, the organic matter levels in the soil will increase, capturing and storing more carbon dioxide and potentially mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. This sustainable grazing system turns cows, a primary emissions contributor, into a tool for climate preservation.
In the past, achieving one objective — environmental sustainability and eliminating food insecurity — involved contradicting the other. When looking to nature, finding creative alternatives allows for the best of both worlds.
Agriculture is a complex industry that relies heavily on technology to meet the intense pressure of feeding a massive global population. But in its attempt to boost food production, tech fueled the industry’s carbon footprint. To meet the unprecedented environmental and social challenges ahead, we must look to nature as a role model to find ways to make agriculture sustainable and more efficient.
Image credit: Steven Weeks and Jonathan Kemper via Unsplash
Assaf is an agrotech specialist and serves as the CEO of Grace Breeding, an agrotech company that develops biological fertilizers. He is a 15-year veteran of ADAMA agriculture solutions, where he held various managerial positions, leading international rebranding projects and marketing mindset transformation. Assaf is also a private business consultant specializing in agriculture investments. Assaf holds an MBA from Northwestern University - Kellog Recanati and a B.SC in agriculture from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also serves as an Advisory Board member for several notable Israeli startups.