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With the world's food supply at risk due to climate change and shortfalls during the global COVID-19 pandemic, new agricultural technologies, or AgTech, are coming to the fore. Robotic, drone, and artificial intelligence (AI) applications are among the potential solutions in development.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, globally or nationally.
The agricultural sector was hurting before extreme weather and wildfires began to wreak havoc on the US. The total number of farms in the nation has shrunk from seven million in 1935 to two million today. During the same period, the US population has more than doubled.
Now add global warming to the risks facing the $135-billion-a-year industry. Crops are highly dependent on climate, and changes in the frequency and severity of droughts, floods and heat waves are beginning to pose serious challenges for farmers. Without intervention, climate change will almost certainly affect the nation’s food supply negatively, and since the US exports 25 percent of its crop yield, this would affect other nations, mainly China, Mexico, and Canada.
Hardest hit would be the nation’s underserved populations. About 20 million Americans live in “food deserts,” low-income census tracts where residents must travel further than most others to reach a grocery store. Lack of transportation options, high prices at small neighborhood stores, and fewer available healthy food options make the bad situation worse in these areas, which are disproportionately Black and Latino.
More recently, the crisis has expanded. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than 50 million Americans facing food insecurity, meaning they don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Here again, socioeconomic barriers come to bear: Black families have faced food insecurity at double or triple the rate of white families during the pandemic.
Climate Change Is Upon Us
The summer of 2021 demonstrated that we, indeed, are living in a time of heightened environmental risk. Dramatic images of escalating climate crises dominated our social media feeds and TV screens, from massive forest fires across the western US to deadly floods in the East and Northeast. Record heat waves hit city after city, especially in the Northwest.
The entire globe has been affected. This summer, extreme rainfall resulted in deadly floods in Germany and Belgium, and heat waves that radiated across the entire Northern Hemisphere are expected to continue.
In this changing world, climate-smart agriculture is good business, a pathway to food security built on the pillars of productivity, resilient ecosystems, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
The industrial agriculture and food (agri-food) industry is responsible for feeding the US and many of its trading partners. In a push for greater efficiency and scale to meet future needs, industry leaders have invested in robotics and automation technologies. Some key areas of development include automated irrigation, fertilizer, harvesting, and breeding systems. These process improvements are aimed at reducing production costs and conserving water, fuel, and fertilizer.
Financial publications such as Forbes and Barron’s have written extensively over the last two years about the popularity of investment in AgTech startups. Though almost no AgTech companies are traded publicly at this stage, they have caught on among investors with an eye to sustainability and social change. In fact, AgTech investment has grown from less than $100 million invested in 2010 to $3.2 billion invested in 2020. The Produce Marketing Association reports that 28 percent of total investment in the agriculture sector went to crop protection in 2020, including climate-proofing technologies.
The technologies in development are decidedly futuristic, leaps beyond anything traditionally associated with farming. They include digitally enhanced mechanisms for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, drone applications for seeding and pesticide delivery, and new gene-editing technologies such as CrispR/CAS9. AI can provide farmers with real-time insights, allowing them to identify areas that need irrigation, fertilization, or pesticide treatment. In fact, AI is expected to be one of the biggest game-changers, with that market projected to reach $2.5 billion within five years.
Roadblocks to Progress
The path to practical use of AgTech remains unclear. Many technologies are still in development, and perhaps most significantly, there are no earmarked subsidies for farmers who want to take advantage of evolving innovations, many of which are expected to be cost prohibitive.
Erik Kobayashi-Solomon writes in Forbes:
To the extent that AgTech innovations create a higher capital cost hurdle to clear for farmers, it will be difficult for AgTech innovations to come into the mainstream and we would expect the most capital-intensive AgTech areas to be the most disadvantaged.
If agricultural subsidies are restructured to encourage AgTech innovations such as was done to encourage electric vehicles and renewable energy in years past, we believe the boom in AgTech will strengthen significantly. However, if subsidy structures remain trapped in the Vietnam Era, capital-intensive areas of AgTech will face a headwind.
America is in a food supply crisis. No Kid Hungry estimates as many as 13 million children live in food-insecure homes. Effective government programs, food supply chain resiliency, grocery store retail strategies and school food programs all play crucial roles. AgTech’s role in shoring up and boosting crop yield undergirds all of this.
Recently dubbed the “fourth agricultural revolution,” AgTech has often been presented as a way to even the playing field amongst disparate populations, to solve some of the seemingly intractable food supply crises in the US and around the globe. But British scholars Hannah Barrett and David Christian Rose, authors of a recent paper in the Journal of the European Society for Rural Sociology, warn against societies’ tendency to favor those least in need:
We know that the benefits of the [AgTech] revolution are likely to be unevenly spread across society and that its risks are similarly likely to be shared unevenly across farming communities. [We are] interested in the pace, direction, and uneven impacts of social and technical change, as well as who has the power to decide.
Amy Alexander's reporting and commentary on demographics, cultural politics, and the innovation economy has been published in The Atlantic, The New York Times, NPR, and other outlets. She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland.