Faced with the unprecedented challenge of feeding a rapidly growing population, farmers are under pressure to chase higher yields that can satisfy the increase in demand. According to a recent whitepaper from Promar International, by the year 2050, the food industry will have to feed a population of more than nine billion. In other terms, over the next 40 years, farmers are going to have to find a way to produce twice as much food as they are currently producing today. Ensuring the supply of so much food is a daunting task, not least because it will require roughly 24% more land to produce, on top of the third of the Earth’s land mass already being used for agricultural purposes.

In failing to sustain the people and resources on which it relies, global agriculture has come to represent an existential threat to itself. The industry is heavily reliant on stable environmental conditions in order to thrive, which makes it extremely vulnerable to climate change. Somewhat ironically, it also happens to be a driving force behind climate instability, contributing an estimated 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

With extreme weather conditions set to spike over the coming decades, businesses can no longer afford to prioritise short-term productivity over ensuring the safety of supply. As the foundations of these established systems grow increasingly fragile, agribusinesses are under pressure to prioritise a ‘total supply chain approach’ to sustainability, which increases productivity, enhances the resilience of crops and reduces emissions.

Data driven farming: a digital land map

Modern farming has come a long way since the old ‘red sky at night’ adage was used to predict the weather. To meet the complex demands of industrialised agriculture, a number of variables have to come into balance across a largely unconnected and uncompromising production chain, which makes accuracy essential if high yields are to be successfully produced and sold on. However, decades of deeply interconnected and mutually reinforcing issues in the food system have placed tremendous pressure on finite resources, and contributed to the rise of arguably tougher climate and commodity price conditions, which threaten to disturb the equilibrium required to produce the desired yields.

Inefficiencies in planting, tilling, irrigation and harvesting can all contribute to crop death, making it all the more relevant for farmers to use any information they can get their hands on to ensure that costly resources are distributed in areas where they are most needed, rather than uniformly across farmland. Precision agriculture has been around since the mid-1980s, when the sustainable farming movement first began to find its feet. The technique harnesses real-time data from sensors, satellites and variable rate technology placed in strategic points across arable land, which decision-makers can use to accurately monitor the condition of fields, crops and livestock.

Armed with information about fertiliser rates, seed types, soil types, water drainage and yield by square foot, workers can create a digital ‘map’ of the land they have to work with. So, for example, if one section of a field is draining water at a slower rate than another section, farmers can adapt irrigation methods to reduce the amount of water used in that particular area. Similarly, by breaking down fields into smaller ecosystems, on-site workers can deposit fertiliser, seed and sprays exactly where they are needed most, rather than being spread uniformly across the whole field, which in turn helps to optimise yields, and reduce costs and environmental impacts.

Investing in the future: increasing industry efficiency

Given the significant potential that data software has to increase efficiency in the industry, it is unsurprising that big name agribusinesses, entrepreneurs and traditional technology companies have made significant investments in precision agriculture tools and digital platforms that collect data from farms. As part of its sustainability drive, food industry powerhouse McDonald’s has begun to explore ways in which data sharing and sustainability metrics can be used to improve performance and boost customer trust in the production of its food. On the tech side, organisations such as Agrimetrics in the UK are using metrics based on scientific evidence to connect actors across the agricultural sector to information that can help inform decision-making. Centred around a core data platform, which is currently in development, the concept pulls together comprehensive research from institutions and universities to create a virtual ‘roadmap’ to improve sustainability and maximise yields.

“At the moment agri-food data is kept in different formats, which means it is difficult to compare or to repurpose. By reshaping the data so that it is in a consistent format, Agrimetrics is making it available to developers. Once the data is made ‘open’ to other applications, multiple datasets can be used together in new ways,” explains Agrimetrics’ CEO, David Flanders. “Much of this information has been collected over the years by public sector organisations or publicly funded programmes and includes: soil, meteorology, field boundaries, land use, environmental surveys. Agrimetrics is adding value to this data by curating it so that it is accessible to the people that need the information.”

Climate smart farming: the growing threat of extreme weather

Sustainability is no longer optional for many agribusinesses. Years of inefficient management have put tremendous pressure on finite resources, such as water availability, ecosystems and land utilisation. Combined with an over-reliance on costly inputs, such as fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides, this has generated negative outcomes on multiple fronts, as synthetic fertilisers and preventive use of antibiotics destroy the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential, and insects demonstrate immunity to pesticides. Actors across the food chain are under pressure to break the vicious cycle of industrial agriculture and ­­adopting climate smart farming techniques has become a priority for policy makers and consumers.

As extreme weather poses the greatest threat to agriculture, improving the resilience of crops is a core piece of the climate smart agriculture. More than 16 million hectares of the world’s rice lands in lowland and deep-water rice areas are vulnerable to flood damage, which can result in yield losses ranging from 10% to total crop loss. Given the economic and social impact that such drastic losses can have, particularly for smaller organisations, it is unsurprising that some of the biggest breakthroughs in enhancing crop resilience have emerged from areas most heavily affected by the growing threat of extreme weather.

While most rice crops will perish after five days underwater, in the 1970s researchers in India discovered a robust characteristic in an Indian rice variety called FR13A. Once the genetic code controlling submergence tolerance was identified, scientists used precision breeding to develop flood-tolerant, “scuba” versions of popular rice varieties. Unlike standard rice varieties, which will extend the length of their leaves and stem during a flood, rice plants with the SUB1A gene remain dormant, allowing them to conserve energy when submerged. More than a decade after the discovery of the SUB1A gene in 2006, two flood-tolerant rice varieties have officially been approved for cultivation in Nigeria, where approximately 70% of the rain-fed lowland rice farms are prone to recurrent and devastating flooding.

Maximising yields: measurable and accurate data

Securing our food supply is likely to be one of the greatest challenges we face moving forward, and one with the potential to disrupt the working norms of traditional farming. When you rely on the yields from each crop cycle for your income, overhauling an imperfect, but functional, system to improve long-term sustainability means gambling an entire yield’s worth of earnings, your reputation and energy on an uncertain outcome. It’s a lot to ask.

After years of inertia, the data revolution and widespread adoption of precision agriculture technologies could provide decision-makers with enough objective information to drive investment in progressive change across the supply chain. Just as no steak, grain, fruit or vegetable can travel from farm to plate on its own, implementing sustainable practices requires cooperation across the entire supply chain. However, given that each stage of the food supply chain comes with conflicting priorities and business models, this is not a straightforward task. Collecting and analysing relevant, measurable and accurate data is fast becoming a vital tool for agribusiness to understand and communicate the financial and environmental benefits of investing in sustainable practices to suppliers, farmers and consumers.

Ultimately, consumers are likely to be the biggest force driving change in the industry. “Change in the food supply chain is primarily driven by the customer, and the sustainability agenda should be no different,” explains Tom Gill, head of environment at Promar International. “Consumer attitudes are changing, and it has been reported that around 70% of consumers feel that large companies aren’t doing enough to improve sustainability.” For the minority of businesses already investing in sustainability, initial developments have shown strong promise in reducing emissions and adapting to changing climate conditions, but with pressure mounting from consumers, climate change and suppliers, the majority of the industry has given itself a very short time frame to overcome a mountainous problem.