Reducing farm land use to feed the world


WE can consider this article as the second installment of the one published last week titled “The will to push ‘smart agriculture'” (The Manila Times, Dec. 15, 2022), as I will discuss how technology can reduce farmland devoted to feeding the world.

I read an article posted on titled “New food technologies could release 80 percent of the world’s farmland back to nature” published on Dec. 6, 2022 that gave an overview on how science and technology, and political will can reduce farmland use but still be able to feed the growing world population. This sounds like a pipe dream but based on the technological advances I have witnessed, I believe this is doable. Or very doable.

The article said that around 80 percent of farm production is devoted to raising animals for meat and dairy production, and offered “cellular agriculture” or producing “lab-grown food” as one of the solutions to help feed the world. I do find cellular agriculture a new frontier for farming and should be further developed, especially if we take into account that more citizens in the developing world are earning more and shifting to meat-based diets.

The three ‘ponics’

There is more we can do to reduce the hectare of lands devoted to agriculture by using all the current and emerging technologies that can be applied to producing food.

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Let me first discuss the three “ponics,” particularly hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics done indoors through vertical farming.

An article I wrote for The Manila Times titled “Can vertical farming and hydroponics work in the Philippines?” that was published on Oct. 11, 2022 in time for the paper’s 124th anniversary discussed extensively the subjects and their viability in increasing food production without having to utilize soil resources.

I quoted Dr. James Altland, a research horticulturalist with the Application Technology Research Unit in Wooster, Ohio, from an article posted in the website of the United States Department of Agriculture, saying: “Vertical farms are being built in deserts, high-population urban areas and other places that traditional open-field farming is not practical.”

He went on to say that vertical farming can produce 10 to 20 times per acre compared to traditional horizontal farming.

Let me add that vertical farming is best combined with hydroponics, or the utilization of water instead of soil to grow edible plants. And since hydroponics can be done indoors, there is no need to undertake pest or disease control measures, eliminating the need for pesticides. Those into hydroponics can also develop their own organic growth solutions or buy them from companies, making it possible to grow vegetables free from chemicals.

When it comes to scaling up vertical farming utilizing hydroponics, we can cite how vast Eco 1 in the United Arab Emirates is — it occupies a total area of 330,000 square feet.

Singapore also reported a breakthrough in February this year after making its first harvest of rice grown in an indoor vertical farm. This is truly a breakthrough as most vertical farming systems, especially those utilizing hydroponics, are devoted to the production of vegetables.

Hydroponics can also be combined with indoor aquaculture for a system called aquaponics. Under the system, the water used to grow crops is circulated to tanks that grow fish, and the manure of the fish are also used as organic input for the plants in a closed loop. It is highly recommended that the fish be fed with organic feeds so the vegetables grown in the hydroponic system will remain organic.

Now, the third “ponics” can hold the key to growing major staples like potatoes without need for soil. Called aeroponics, this method suspends the roots of plants in air that are then exposed to mists of water similar to that used in hydroponics.

While aeroponics will mostly require mist spraying systems controlled digitally or with artificial intelligence (AI), which can be costly, I still believe the technology must be adopted on a wider scale to lessen the conversion of forests and vast natural green spaces for farming.

Also, growing more food in the face of dwindling land and water by using technology should be the new paradigm in feeding the world.

More technologies available

However, this does not mean that there should be a massive shift to growing crops indoors vertically using the three “ponics” in the next decade as this is impossible. I also say this as growing crops traditionally or in fields can be made sustainable and more productive by also utilizing technology.

Among the technology that can be utilized to attain higher and sustainable crop production the traditional way are: plant varieties that are resistant to diseases and pests, and/or can survive flooding and drought; efficient irrigation systems like drip irrigation combined with rainwater harvesting; balanced fertilization utilizing organic elements or formulations in place of 100-percent chemical fertilizers; deployment of drones to monitor the field and spray natural solutions on plants; installation of sensors in the field to monitor soil and plant health; and intelligent robots driven by AI to harvest crops.

The solutions that I just identified are from the sphere of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4ID) that is fast swamping agriculture, creating disruptions on how food is grown. And amid 4ID’s advancement is the rise of the Fifth Industrial Revolution that places humans at the center in the application of vast technologies, assuring stakeholders that they will benefit in the end.

And going by the need for people to consume less and less meat, I still believe that this cannot be done over the next decade, especially in developing countries where incomes are improving. So, I think the best solution is to develop meat substitutes from plant sources that taste like real meat and are healthier options.

There is already a big food company in the Philippines that is manufacturing and selling hamburger patties made from plant sources. In the United States, research and development of so-called plant-based meat is on an upswing as green activists are preaching the health and environmental benefits of consuming plant-based products, including “meatless” meat.

That is something worth discussing in a future column.

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