Innovation the key behind transitioning to sustainable and climate resilient agri-food systems
RESEARCHED AND WRITTEN BY MARGARITA FONTECHA, PHD CANDIDATE, SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT
Our current food systems need to respond to the challenge of feeding a growing population under climate change scenarios and scarce resources like soil and water. Technology offers an opportunity to produce more food with less resources.
The global agri-food system relies on two elements: international trade and the idea that natural resources such as water, soil and energy are infinite. Over the last few years, external shocks such as COVID-19, conflict in many parts of the world, the Ukraine invasion, the container crisis, the change of rain patterns in Canada, floods, and fires have brought attention to the fragility of current food supply chains. The interruptions on international supply chains due to these external shocks have had direct impact on food security across the globe due to the increased costs associated with producing food. Unfortunately, families are paying more for the same food and many simply cannot afford it.
If we want to reduce the risk that global supply chains face and ensure food is affordable, we need to move towards more resilient and efficient agri-food systems. Food and farming systems must reconcile the need to produce enough healthy and affordable food without degrading the ecosystems on which we depend. Innovation and technology are critical elements to address this challenge because they provide alternatives to make the agri-food systems more resource efficient. New technologies can be used to produce food in winter, reduce distance and time between the food and the plate and reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). Digital farming is also expected to create jobs and drive a green economy.
Examples of technologies being used in Canada:
The production of animal proteins from cell cultures using tools from scientific fields of biotechnology, genetics, molecular and synthetic biology to create products such as meat and leather that would traditionally be produced by animals.
- A Canadian example:
- The North. More info: https://www.cellag.ca/
- Reduce the amount of Greenhouse Gases due to the reduction of livestock use for food production (i.e., milk, meat) and transportation of food.
The process of growing plants indoors in a stacked formation and a controlled environment.
- Canadian examples:
- Vision Greens. More info: https://visiongreens.ca/
- Good Leaf farms. More info: https://www.goodleaffarms.com
- Increase food production
- Less space or square footage required
- Reduced chemical or pesticide use
- Reduction of transportation costs
- Conservation of resources
- New employment opportunities in urban areas
Biodegradable packaging, made from entirely renewable natural materials.
- Canadian example:
- Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Guelph. More info: https://www.bioproductscentre.com/
- Reduces environmental pollution
- Accelerates the circular economy transition
- Processing facilities that can recycle the streams of food waste into reusable input like composts.
In the last decade technology, artificial intelligence and engineering have come together to assist with farm labour. Robots are being developed which use specialized visioning technology to first determine whether a vegetable is ripe, then devises a plan to collect and package the vegetable.
- Canadian example:
- Engineering department at the University of Guelph: https://www.uoguelph.ca/alliance/news/2018/11/robot-lends-hand-greenhouses
- Complement labour activities in the farm.
- Reduce time in farming processes.
The Digital Agriculture Revolution is upon us, and it is exciting. Investors see the potential technology can have on the agricultural industry. This has resulted in billions of dollars being invested into innovative products like lab-grown meat, vertical farming and fruit picking robots. In just the first half of 2022, venture capital investors injected a record US$5.6 billion into agriculture tech companies worldwide. Investment in technology could have a tremendous impact on driving innovation, improving efficiency and lowering the environmental impact of food production.
How to support innovation in agri-food systems?
- Facilitate experimental approaches that allow co-creation, creativity and “practicing with the future”. In other words, private, academic, and public partnerships can support the process of trial and error of testing technologies to make them more reliable and accessible for producers and consumers. It is recommended that private companies and the government fund research to improve the technologies and test them in the field with involvement from farmers and local communities.
- Identify and promote capacity development opportunities for farmers, communities, private companies, and government to facilitate the adoption of new technologies, strengthen partnerships, and enhance adaptability.
- Advance the current understanding of existing agri-food system solutions to help stakeholders identify innovative solution options, support maintaining present solutions, test solution plans, optimize implementation efforts and verify solution outcomes before, during and after implementation.
- Support research and technology uptake. Collect more data and evidence of how technologies work. Make sure farmers and local rural communities are aware of the benefits of technology and find ways to increase the accessibility of this technology.
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