Are we truly willing to move past ideologies and embrace the best of human ingenuity and innovation?
The World Economic Forum at Davos is underway as I write [week of Jan 25., 2015].
A recent article from the Forum caught my eye. It underlined the rapid technological innovation being driven by what it called our Fourth Industrial Revolution.
First: steam in the late 1700s. Then electricity in the late 1800s: followed by electronics in 1960s. We are now entering the fourth which the article says is all about cyber-physical systems.
But the sentence that captured my attention was this: “Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.”
It’s an optimistic sentence where the key word is ‘potential’.
So how do we secure that potential when most of the news we hear about climate change and its impact on our ability to feed ourselves when the future is so gloomy?
We are all familiar with dismal news headlines for food security like:
“Eight foods you are going to lose to climate change.”
“Earth has lost a third of arable land in the past 40 years, scientists say.”
“Climate change affects the quality and availability of food.”
“Global population growth to add significant pressure to world food security.”
Pleasingly, the optimistic sentence above was followed in the article by another which read: “In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity.”
That’s good news. But how will technological innovation lead to a supply-side miracle when it comes to feeding the planet?
Unsurprisingly, the World Economic Forum identifies agriculture as one of the industries most susceptible to climate change. There is no doubt that sustainably producing enough food to meet rapidly rising global demand, against the backdrop of a changing climate, is a significant and important challenge.
Because of the complexities involved, I am passionate about the role of innovation to overcome significant global challenges.
How will agriculture continue to feed our planet and do it sustainably as our climate changes? How can it continue to support our food and clothing needs while improving on-farm practices to preserve our soils? How can we develop land productivity practices which protect natural resources and biodiversity?
Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have continued to rise over the last 50 years, from 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1961, to more than 5.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2011. Without greater efforts to reduce them, the FAO predicts an additional 30% increase to 2050.
This Fourth Industrial Revolution is driving technological advancement through digital innovations such as cyber-physical systems and the internet of things (IoT).
Industries of all kinds are harnessing the spirit of this revolution to re-imagine systems, processes, develop products and services delivery to maximise productivity and efficiency gains, acutely aware of their individual and collective impact on the environment.
Agriculture is no different. Given the big questions that need answers, the challenge before us is to build agricultural solutions to assist farmers to grow more food, safely and without compromising the environment. For example, the IoT is using big data to make smart farming possible. It’s providing farmers with added value in the form of better decision-making power and can also provide great benefits in terms of environmental management, for example, through more efficient use of water, or optimisation of treatments.
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, has called for a paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture. He said a variety of options including climate-smart agriculture and genetically modified (GM) crops should be explored based on science and evidence rather than ideology.
New thinking is required and innovation and R&D must continue to be front and centre if farmers are going to be able to achieve these goals.
The good news is that the agriculture sector has risen to these challenges in the past and will do so again but this can only happen if we continue to embrace the scientific advancements that have been crucial to feeding the global population up to this point.
 Smart Farming and Food Safety Internet of Things Applications – Challenges for Large Scale Implementations AIOTI WG06 – Smart Farming and Food Safety