Industries in Depth

Farmers need practical innovation, not moonshots, to stave off global food crisis

A tractor retrofitted with autonomous driving technology. Image: The Robot Report

Jacqueline Heard
Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Enko Chem
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • The innovation the agricultural industry needs to address rising challenges has dried up.
  • Rather than idealistic moonshots, there is a need for practical innovation that builds on existing technology.
  • Healthcare provides a guiding example with respect to rapid, targeted innovation.

We are firmly entering a new era of the humanitarian and environmental crisis centred around food and agriculture. Without sustainable systems that make global production more efficient, the divide between those who have enough food and those who don’t will continue to grow. Farmers shoulder the most direct burden of preventing this. Yet around the world, they are plagued by emerging threats to their crops’ health and the health of their businesses.

The agricultural industry is trying to tackle these complex issues, but its innovation pipelines have stagnated. For example, it takes companies between 13-15 years to discover a new crop protection product and bring it to market, despite the urgent pest resistance issues farmers face. This forces growers to continue using old tools even as new problems emerge and worsen.

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The severe weather that threatens crop yields – including droughts, heatwaves and heavy rains – will become more frequent and severe over the coming years. Meanwhile, food production must increase 60-70% in the next few decades to keep up with population growth and an impending labour shortage in some regions threatens growers’ businesses.

These problems are too big and urgent for agricultural companies to tackle with traditional industry approaches or moonshot solutions that may or may not pay off. Instead, as agtech investment balloons in response to these threats, the industry must swiftly commercialize new technology that helps farmers respond to and build resiliency against them. This includes building on technologies that farmers already use and drawing from proven innovation in other industries.

Agtech investment is rising rapidly – but not necessarily translating into practical innovation
Agtech investment is rising rapidly – but not necessarily translating into practical innovation Image: PitchBook

Farmers need practical innovation that addresses their immediate needs: keeping crops healthy and sustaining their businesses.

Keeping crops healthy

Above all, growers need to keep their crops alive and thriving. This will get harder as climate change worsens. This year alone, droughts are threatening corn in Brazil, cocoa in the Ivory Coast and many crops in the American West. This exacerbates other challenges to keeping crops healthy. Drought weakens crops’ defenses against pests, and if crops are also competing with weeds for soil nutrients and water, those defenses get even weaker. Crop yields can plummet as a result.

To adapt, growers need tools that help them predict, respond to and mitigate climate change’s impacts on their acres. Tools that offer immediate insights into how agricultural practices affect crops’ health are one piece of the puzzle. For example, Yard Stick has developed a handheld device to help farmers quickly map and measure soil carbon levels across their fields. In addition to the climate benefits of soil carbon sequestration, soil carbon is important because it gives soil structure, stores water and nutrients that plants need, and feeds vital organisms. Making information about it accessible helps farmers understand evolving soil conditions and in turn make more informed decisions to keep their crops healthy.

In contrast, buzzy approaches like vertical farming – which promises to keep crops healthy by removing them from severe weather altogether – remain out of reach for most growers and are still far from the scale required to produce sufficient food over the next few decades.

How tech-savvy growers sustain their business

Along with maintaining healthy crops, farmers’ chief concern is sustaining a healthy business.

Labour shortages and time-intensive manual tasks can make that more difficult amid declining margins, but technology can help. Farming has always been a STEM profession, and today’s growers are tech-savvy. But tech needs to fit in with their existing operations and cropping systems – not the other way around – and to build upon what farmers are already using.

For instance, practical applications of automation can help farmers struggling with the slow pace of agricultural job growth. Deere & Company recently acquired Bear Flag Robotics, which develops autonomous driving technology that can be retrofitted on existing machines. Farmers have been using automation in some form since the 1990s, but this level of autonomy opens up dramatic productivity opportunities while keeping heavy machinery like tractors in use for longer.

Technologies that offer growers deeper insights on their crops can also make a difference by giving them data to alter their practices in an impactful way. Bengaluru-based CropIn has developed AI tools to give farmers data that helps them maximize yield and adopt more sustainable practices. These kinds of solutions offer a replicable model to empower growers worldwide.

The healthcare playbook

The power of cross-industry innovation to solve pressing problems is clear. The rapid creation of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines over the last year is just one example. Looking forward, the agricultural industry can draw on proven innovation in other industries to quickly develop new practical tools for farmers – reinvigorating stagnant pipelines with less risk and faster outcomes.

The healthcare industry is one example. Advances in human medicine can have direct relevance to plant health. In the last few decades, pharma has leaped ahead in the drug discovery process by using a toolkit of emerging technologies. This has improved disease treatment by making it highly targeted. For example, where cancer drugs once destroyed everything in their path – the harmful and the helpful – they now target specific cells and leave the rest to do their jobs.

Technologies that originated in pharma, like targeted protein degradation, already show promising applications in agriculture – from weed control to tackling resistance. CRISPR, which could revolutionize human healthcare, should play a key role in crop health too. Scientists are already using gene editing to develop more resilient seeds and plants that can sequester more carbon. The agricultural industry can continue to draw innovation from pharma and other industries to create new tools for farmers more efficiently than it could starting from scratch.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

The threats growers face are becoming more urgent, and they threaten all of us. A worst-case scenario for the global food system, like a plant pandemic, could push more people into poverty and cause huge social unrest. Farmers don’t have the luxury of time to experiment with moonshot ideas. To adapt to climate change, population growth and labour shortages, they need practical solutions that create immediate, tangible impacts for their crops and businesses.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthClimate ActionEmerging Technologies
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