The natural world and we, as a global society, are facing an ever-growing challenge of growing enough food for an ever-growing population. This is a problem, because our supply of natural resources is limited, while demand, driven by the increasing population and further development, comes with an ever growing appetite for food, water, and other natural resources. We are in danger of running the natural world into the ground and it is imperative to find a more sustainable path forward.
Continued population growth, coupled with the fact that 200 million additional hectares of arable land will be required by the middle of the century raises concerns as to how we will continue to produce adequate amounts of food with a limited amount of natural resources, especially fresh water.
Bon Appetite: The development of land and nourishment
The average arable land per capita worldwide was 0.42 hectares in 1960. By 2050 the average arable land per capita is predicted to be less than half at 0.19 hectares per capita. Since the majority of population growth will be occurring in developing countries, the available arable land per capita is even less than the global average, reduced from 0.33 (in 1960) to 0.14 hectares (Silva, 2018). For many countries, the option of farming more land is simply not viable.
The world’s soils are also changing. Most of the world’s soils are in only fair, poor or very poor condition and the situation is expected to worsen in the future (FAO: Status of the Worlds Soil Resources). The most serious issues facing the worlds soils are erosion, loss of soil organic carbon and nutrient imbalance. Soil erosion is broadly defined as the accelerated removal of topsoil from the land surface through water, wind or tillage. Presently, soil erosion from croplands carries away 25 to 40 billion tons of soil every year (Pozza, 2020). The result is a reduction in both crop yields and the soil’s ability to regulate water, carbon, and nutrients.
It’s tough to predict decades into the future, but the most cited reference for global food demand comes from a Food and Agriculture (FAO) briefing paper and estimates that
Global agricultural food production needs to increase by 70% to feed to the 2050 population (Tillman, 2011).
Increasing the amount of arable land is the logical answer to increase food production. Currently, there are roughly 1,500 million hectares of arable land worldwide. In the past 40 years, about one-third of the arable land has been threatened by erosion, sea water incursion and pollutants degrading soil health and biological productivity. As the majority of fertile land is already under crop production, expansion of arable land will be limited to certain regions and most likely will require some form of land use change which would lead to destruction of existing ecosystems and release an untold amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
It’s currently estimated that the world will have to add 200 million hectares of arable land to feed the global population by 2050. It’s predicted that much of this land will need to be added in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. It’s highly likely that this expansion will come at the price of further deforestation, which currently adds some 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year (Gates, 2021). Deforestation and clearing of land, especially in the amazon region, known for being the lungs of the world, has already lead to the loss of pristine habitats and destruction of ecosystems of rich biodiversity for cropland — replacing carbon sinks with futile soils that act as carbon sources when they are transformed to farmland.
Doing more with the current land to increase yields further is imperative to avoid cutting more forests and clearing more land for agriculture use.
In theory it would be nice to take a page out of the playbook of the famed plant scientist Norman Borlaug who is credited with saving a billion lives for his innovations and breakthroughs in agriculture. He was able to dramatically increase the yield that each acre of land produced, an innovation so profound that he won the 1970 Nobel peace prize. He was credited with creating different varieties of wheat with bigger grains and other characteristics that allowed them to provide much more food per acre of land. His semi-dwarf wheat spread around the world and is still the dominant strain feeding billions today. Other scientists did similar work on corn and rice, and thus technological breakthroughs are the main reason as to why people’s fears of feeding an ever-growing population were largely alleviated. We, as a planet, must do something similar this century.
Advancements in crop-sciences allowed for yields to triple in most regions and countless lives were saved from starvation. Now, in a new century, as a global society we once again face a similar problem. We will not be able to fall back on crop scientists, like Norman, to once again triple yields, and therefore will have to look to new precision agriculture breakthroughs to not only increase yields, but to optimize our limited natural resources.
Benefits Adhered by Precision Agriculture.
Increasing productivity of existing cropland currently presents the most sustainable approach to food security, as recognized by the 2nd UN sustainability development goal (SDG). The potential to increase crop yield even with existing technologies is considerable. Provided the appropriate socio-economic incentives are in place, there are significant yield gaps -difference between potential yield versus actual yield – that could be exploited.
In order to meet the future dietary demands from a rising population while minimizing environmental impacts, a serious increase in agricultural productivity, yield, combined with improvements in water and nutrient efficiency will be required (Kumar et al. 2016; Monaghan et al. 2013).
Irrigation efficiency will play a critical role when it comes to increasing agricultural production in arid and semi-arid regions
as well as enhancing overall health and quality of the crops through complementary irrigation in temperate or humid regions of the world (Daccache et al 2014; De Paz et al. 2015).
From a changing climate and drought to regulation and increasing expectations for sustainability efforts, the need to use water more efficiently and effectively in agricultural production is paramount. A study conducted by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), in partnership with the American Soybean Association, CropLife America and the National Corn Growers Association quantifies how widely-available precision agriculture technology improves environmental stewardship while providing economic return for individual farmers.
The study explored five key environmental benefits achieved through adopting and implementing technology that allows for precision agriculture:
- Yield benefit through increased efficiency.
- Fertilizer reduction by more precise placement.
- Pesticide reduction by more accurate application.
- Fuel savings due to less overlap and better monitoring.
- Water savings through more accurate sensing of needs
This study which focused on adoption of precision agriculture in the US market concluded that as precision agriculture equipment and technologies are more widely adopted it will lead to significant increases in yields and just as importantly reductions on inputs to reach those yields, like fertizilers, pesticides, and water.
Reducing the amount of inputs is just as important as increasing the output, yield. Fertilizers and pesticides have negative impacts on our ecosystems and climate, while water is already a limited resource. The results of the study indicate
- Productivity has increased an estimated 4% (could do another 6% with broader adoption)
- Increased fertilizer placement efficiency by 7% (could be up to 21% reduction)
- Herbicide use has been reduced by an estimated 9% (24% at full adoption)
- Fossil fuel use has decreased an estimated 6% (with the potential to decrease another 16%).
Water use has decreased an estimated 4% because of current precision agriculture adoption and has the potential to decrease by another 21% at full adoption.
Irrigated agriculture represents 20 percent of the total cultivated land and contributes 40 percent of the total food produced worldwide. Irrigated agriculture is, on average, at least twice as productive per unit of land as rain-fed agriculture, thereby allowing for more production intensification and crop diversification (Worldbank: Water in Agriculture, 2020).
This graph shows the compound annual growth rate of both soy and corn crops for the past 18 years. It’s clear that yields have been increasing by 1.2 and 1.4% respectively per year. These advancements in production can be accredited to three primary factors: more efficient and resilient hybrids of crops, better input and management practices, and improved on-farm technology.
How TerraRad Applies
The technology we exploit, passive microwave radiometry, has been used to map soil moisture from space for decades. Our proprietary technology has allowed us to miniaturize the 8m antenna used on the satellites, bringing this space borne technology closer to home. Our passive microwave (L-band) radiometer, allows us to measure parameters not visible to the human eye. Human eyes see in the visible spectrum while our instrument can “see” in a much longer wavelength, and therefore can assess water contained within crops and beneath the surface of the soil.
Will TerraRad’s pioneering field mapping technology be the key to the next agricultural revolution; towards precision agriculture and data-driven farming? Stay tuned as we go further into precision agriculture, irrigation, the effects of climate change on food production, as well as diving deeper into the water problem and our vision for a sustainable future.