Forum Institutional

Here’s how bioscience is revolutionizing food systems without synthetic chemicals

Biosciences and information systems together can transform global agricultural systems.

Biosciences and information systems together can transform global agricultural systems. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Agam Khare
Founder and CEO, Absolute
Devansh Pathak
Strategy and Community Engagement, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The rapidly developing biosciences can help deliver resilient and sustainable food systems.
  • Agcloud systems provide farmers with the precision data they need to work more productively and sustainably.
  • Only innovative collaboration can deliver agriculture-related SDGs by 2030.

Global food prices hit a record high this year, and the number of people facing acute food insecurity has more than doubled since 2019 to reach 345 million worldwide, according to the World Food Programme.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the intensification of the major drivers behind recent food insecurity and malnutrition (e.g. conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks), combined with the high cost of nutritious foods and growing inequalities, will continue to challenge the global food situation. This will be the case until agrifood systems become more resilient and sustainable, delivering lower-cost nutritious foods and affordable healthy diets for all.

Listening to plants

Traditional agriculture is making climate change and biodiversity loss worse: Farming is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of freshwater use, and 80% of habitat loss.

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We now have a vicious feedback loop between food production and the degradation of nature. At this point, it’s not enough to just produce food in ways that minimize harm to the planet – we must start producing food in ways that actively restore the health of the planet.

Climate change is affecting farmers’ livelihoods, and they need to adapt to new conditions. In today’s farms, it is critical to listen to the needs of plants and their symbiotic lifeforms (the microbes, worms, and insects that co-exist with them) to discover sustainable solutions.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered that secretions from a strain of fungus called penicillia killed bacteria. This eventually led to the commercialization of penicillin, the most widely used antibiotic in the world. Since then, scientists have been on a quest to decode nature’s biology.

A spoonful of soil has a million microbial species. Years of research have gone into building libraries of data on crop-friendly microbes. Biologists have asked themselves the following questions:

  • Which microbes positively impact a particular crop’s yield, taste, and nutrition?
  • What molecules in the secretions from these microbes enable these changes?
  • What are the catalysts for such secretions?
  • What are the pathways in crops where absorption of such molecules triggers positive outcomes?
  • What can be learned from nature’s biocontrol mechanisms, and are they commercially scalable?

This involves the multi-disciplinary approach of “-omics” sciences (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, metagenomics, phenomics and transcriptomics).

In a nutshell, biosciences have matured hugely over the last decade, enabling scientists to “listen” to crops; synthesize natural solutions to address their needs; observe the response and iterate until we achieve higher quality and productivity, but sustainably.

From research to scalable impact

A true breakthrough in agriculture can only come from an unparalleled understanding of why nature and plants behave the way they do, by understanding their choices and preferences and then marrying that science with the latest in technology to build sustainable products and services that impact at scale. Only when the intelligence of nature and artificial intelligence are married together will an exponential shift be seen: substantially increased farmer income, environmental sustainability, and better consumer health.

One example is agcloud ecosystems – interlinked agricultural software used by insurance, banking, forestry, botany and biology companies – which make farming easier with precision advisory tools such as:

  • Personalized soil reports for farmers.
  • Unique do-it-yourself insurance products for farmers.
  • More efficient and customized financial products.
  • Precise farm inputs as and when needed.
  • A gateway to markets across continents.

Research institutes and leading organizations in this sector are pulling data from satellites, verifying this data on the ground using drone, IoT systems, and biomarking activity in the soil.

In this way, agcloud ecosystems have already impacted several million farmers; a perfect example of what’s possible when scientific approaches merge with strong business acumen. Such ecosystems put together have enabled over 15,000 village-level entrepreneurs to have a healthy monthly income in hand, and at the same time take pride in developing their local communities.

The CEO of a farmer-aggregator organization in Rajasthan, India noted: “We’ve been encouraged by farm input companies to use more fertilizers and pesticides to lift our yields and quality. We started using a digital farming app about two years ago and now we have changed our choices of fertilizers and pesticides. Our cost of cultivation has been reduced by 15%, our quality of production has significantly improved, and our yield has gone up by over 50%. We have more money in our hands, more avenues for a better life.”

By combining comprehensive datasets with groundbreaking biology research, scientists are innovating the next generation of sustainable, safe farm inputs: biofertilizers, biocontrols, biostimulants and bio seed-coating products. Nature-based affordable farm inputs give regular farmers the ability to grow residue-free produce with precision and traceability.

“Some farming communities we support were testing the biopesticides and other bio farm inputs from a bio-ag startup. We learned that they were outperforming most existing products in use. That’s when we got interested,” said Dr. Vister Joshi, an agricultural specialist at Uttar Pradesh’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Farm Science Center).

For the first time, smallholder farmers have a chance to ship their products to the global market without having to worry about the cumbersome sales, supply chain and fiscal processes. All this would be impossible without agtech companies offering precision advisory-guided scientific cultivation practices, use of integrated crop management practices, farm inputs availability, along with a window to global buyers with full traceability. What better way than this to raise their incomes? Ultimately, that's the only true way forward to build a shared future where people and the planet win as one.

Seven years to the SDGs

The deadline for fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goals is only seven years away, in 2030. Some of the targets pertaining to agricultural include:

  • Creating a world free of hunger by 2030.
  • Doubling the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers.
  • Ensuring sustainable food production systems and implementing resilient agricultural practices.

Leaders from the food and agri industry such as UPL’s OpenAg have witnessed the potential and are now backing similar initiatives. Many more such collaborations are required globally. India is well positioned to be a testbed for food-system innovations that are likely to work elsewhere. “It has several agro-climatic zones with a range of income levels across farmer groups. If a product or service performs in India, it can also perform globally very well,” said Dr. Dhiraj Singh, former Director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Discover

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

A single entity can’t come close to achieving these lofty targets. We need an accelerated model of co-innovation and commercialization. In Absolute’s case, it’s phenomenal to see how scientists have moved from the US, South Korea, Israel, Africa, the UK and other parts of the world to support such an initiative in India. “Our world needs fundamental science-led ecosystem enablers in each country. Imagine what can happen if many such ecosystems come together the world over,” said Dr. Shivendra Srivastava, of the Indian Institute of Agriculture Economics and Policy Research.

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