EU climate scientists recently published a damning annual assessment of Europe’s meteorological predicament, concluding that 2022 was the continent’s second-hottest year on record. Globally, the report further establishes that the past eight years have been the warmest in recorded history, with climate change fuelling catastrophic weather events and ecosystem degradation around the world.
Over the summer, historic droughts and heatwaves in Europe as well as biblical flooding in Pakistan provided a frightening glimpse into a possible future paved by inaction. Climate change poses a dire threat to global food security and farmers’ livelihoods, with modern agriculture methods failing to meet competing demands of farming sustainability and productivity, and even adding fuel to the fire.
Encouragingly, a range of agricultural innovations—encompassing traditional, nature-based and advanced technological solutions—are emerging around the world, providing blueprints for the types of initiatives that must be widely deployed to tackle climate change and safeguard endangered food systems.
Modern farming fueling crises
In 2022, the devastating toll that climate disasters inflicted on agriculture combined with the global economic fallout from the war in Ukraine and Covid-19 pandemic to create a perfect storm for food insecurity. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has disturbingly dubbed 2022 “a year of unprecedented hunger,” reporting that the number of acutely food insecure people globally has skyrocketed from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. And given that the global population—which just hit 8 billion— could reach 9.8 billion by mid-century, the world desperately needs to ramp up food production.
Yet modern agriculture, once hailed for its high output levels, is actively exacerbating existential climate and biodiversity disasters, putting long-term crop viability at risk. The farming sector generates roughly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, consumes 70% of freshwater and accounts for 80% of habitat loss, with continuous degradation of arable lands and soil health through harmful “intensive” agricultural practices such as excessive and poorly-executed irrigation, pesticide and fertilizer usage posing a grave threat to global food security.
As Agame Khare, CEO of agriculture and bioscience firm Absolute Foods, has warned, “we now have a vicious feedback loop between food production and the degradation of nature,” with an ever-increasing amount of damaging inputs needed to maintain productivity levels in eroding soil. Breaking out of this cycle requires agricultural innovations to help farmers adapt to and actively mitigate the effects of climate change.
Moving forward by looking backwards
Age-old, yet largely forgotten solutions are making a comeback after being relegated to obscurity by the industrialisation of agriculture. For example, growing maslins – a mix of cereal species that can include rice, wheat and barley amongst others – as opposed to single crops holds particular promise for climate adaptation according to a study by Cornell University researchers who encountered this practice on Ethiopian farms.
Lead researcher Alex McAlvay has highlighted that “there’s a lot we could learn” from maslin farmers. Crucially, maslins are more drought and pest-resistant than single crops, allowing them to producer higher and more predictable yields with less environmental impact, as each cereal responds differently to specific climate impacts. Sudanese farmers grow rice-sorghum maslins in high-flood areas, capitalising on rice and sorghum’s respective tolerance to flooding and drought, while in Eritrea, field trials have found that a wheat-barely maslin is 20% and 11% more productive than sole-cropped wheat and barley, respectively.
Nature meets technological innovation
Other agricultural interventions have combined these types of nature-based solutions with innovative digital technologies to adapt to soil degradation while contributing to long-term, sustainable mitigation. Italian entrepreneur Gaetano Buglisi has adopted this dual approach to revive 1,000 hectares of abandoned or severely degraded farming land in southern Italy. As the high soil salinity, or salt content, of this land had rendered it virtually unusable, Buglisi decided to invest in species of exotic fruit, like mangoes and pomegranates, that he found were capable of growing in this hostile earth.
What’s more, his projects’ use of technology-driven agriculture 4.0 methods like micro-irrigation has helped optimise water usage and curb the soil salinisation effect inherent in modern, intensive irrigation, while the vocational training and labour integration components of Buglisi’s agricultural endeavours have provided new opportunities for local residents. This type of sustainable, community-oriented investment approach is a welcome antidote to the short-term profit focus typical of modern agriculture, offering a model that can be successfully replicated anywhere in the world.
Regenerative agriculture changing the game
This innovative combination of traditional and advanced farming technologies to meet food productivity and sustainability needs has a name: regenerative agriculture. By reducing unnecessary soil disruption and optimizing use of inputs such as water, fertilizer and pesticides with the help of new technologies, regenerative farmers can restore soil health, which in turn not only bolsters crops’ climate resilience, but allows soil to actively mitigate against climate change by storing higher amounts of carbon.
Recognising that conventional methods were compromising his farms’ soil, Brazilian farmer and founder of the Balbo Group, Leontino Balbo Junior, has revolutionised his family’s traditional approach to sugarcane farming using regenerative practices. In addition to using organic fertilisers and pesticides, Balbo created a modified harvesting machine with low-pressure tires that returns unused organic material back to the soil and minimizes harmful soil compression, which has not only restored his farm’s ecosystem but also outperformed conventional methods by an impressive 20%.
Industry giants have also entered this space, with Microsoft and Danone collaborating with EU-backed food innovation community EIT Food to scale up AI-driven agri-food startups, fund soil health research and provide the next generation of forward-thinking farmers with the finance, technologies and training needed to accelerate the roll-out of regenerative agriculture.
These types of innovations will play a crucial role in curbing climate change in the years to come. The latest studies on rising global temperatures, paired with the increasing frequency of natural disasters, make clear the urgency of the situation. With agriculture both a contributor to and victim of climate change’s wrath, farmers must look to the solutions of the past and future to feed a growing population sustainably.
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Best of Agriculture 4.0 – Farmers are already reducing fertilizer cost and use over 70% and reducing soil toxicity with the “SNX30 fertilizer supplement”. It’s backed by a growing number of agronomists and NCGA Corn Yield Winners too (works with commercial hydroponics also).