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Sustainable intensification of food production

This article discusses how precision and smart farming can contribute to food production for a growing global population.
© EIT Food

The global population is growing and expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. It’s estimated that global food production will need to increase by 70%, while using less land [1]. Food products will need to provide a nutritional, balanced diet and water and energy will become limiting factors in food production [2]. Alongside these challenges, food waste and sustainable food production also need to be addressed. And consumers need to be made aware of all these issues to enable them to make more informed choices about what they buy.

Infographic defining sustainability as the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the earth to replace them. It shows the global population increasing by 2.2 billion people by 2050 challenging global security. It asks how we can produce a secure supply of nutritious food in a way that balances the three pillars: social, environmental and economic.

This infographic was created by Aanand Tank, an undergraduate student from the University of Reading’s Typography and Graphic Communication department.

Sustainable intensification aims to increase agricultural yields using fewer inputs [3] without creating an adverse environmental impact or converting additional non-agricultural land [4]. There are a number of ways to address this which involve changes to farming and society.

  • Reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides while still maintaining crop production [5].

  • Adopting techniques used in organic farming such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), reducing tillage and growing cover crops [5,6].

  • As a society moving towards a more plant-based diet [7].

  • Growing genetically modified (GM) crops [8].

  • Using precision and smart farming [9].

Precision and smart farming can enable many of these while, at the same time, supporting environmental sustainability. With targeted application of (for example) pesticides, fertilisers and water, precision farming can reduce the ecological impact of farming on the natural environment through reducing use and waste [9]. It has also been found to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions [10] while maintaining yields. Precision farming can also support changing farm management processes and moving towards using conservation techniques such as reduced tillage and growing cover crops through the measuring of, for example, crop growth and yields [11].

According to MEP Petros Kokkalis,

Precision farming practices, including digital farming, are the best way to deliver the EU’s strategic goals of being green, smart and safe and should be part of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans of all member states. It is scientifically proven that precision agriculture practices, using high-tech equipment, have the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, mainly by reducing agricultural inputs which are being targeted to spatial and temporal needs of the crops, and by enhancing the soil’s ability to store carbon.

We’ll be exploring the adoption of precision farming techniques and the use of digital, networked farming technologies, and how they can support sustainable intensification, over the rest of the course. They have disadvantages as well as advantages, and we’ll demonstrate how these can be evaluated by balancing the three pillars of sustainability in your own context. But first, let’s hear from our farmers about their experiences of adopting precision technologies.

© EIT Food
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Innovation in Arable Farming: Technologies for Sustainable Farming Systems

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