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Agricultural technology to feed the world

With a growing population demanding more food, and an agricultural community constrained by lack of land and water while battling demands for greater sustainability, the challenge of feeding the world is falling at the feet of engineers.

Food shortages tend to be a problem for the developing world. Images of famine in Africa or floods in Asia have tugged at the heartstrings and loosened the purse strings of the affluent and influential.

But that scenario is changing almost as fast as the global economic landscape. It is no longer a regional problem but a very real threat facing the whole of humanity. To feed the growing global population we will need to produce 60 per cent more food by the middle of this century. That is a challenge that cannot be taken too lightly given the increased competition for ever scarcer land and water. To compound matters, agriculture is under great pressure to increase its sustainability.

The solutions are, as always, complicated, mired in economic, political and social wrangling. But one thing is apparent: technology has a key role to play. Engineering is often overlooked as part of the solution, but the roles it can play are profound – on the farm and throughout the supply chain.

The UK has recognised the danger and is mobilising its political will allied with its research and technology institutions. Global Food Security is a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the research councils, executive agencies and government departments. To drive the programme forward it appointed a global food security champion two years ago. Professor Tim Benton, from the University of Leeds, is an interdisciplinary scientist focusing on the relationship between food production and the environment.

"The human population is growing, adding 35 per cent more mouths by the middle of the century. At the same time the average person is getting richer," he says. Richer people eat more food and more resource-intensive food: beef, for example, converts plant nutrients to muscle at about a quarter the efficiency that chickens do.

"Richer people eating both more and more luxurious food is entirely human and has been a hallmark of our behaviour throughout history, but it contributes to a projected demand growth of about 60 per cent by mid-century if current trends continue," Benton adds.

Demands on nature

The World Wildlife Fund's 2012 'Living Planet' report suggests that "if everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four Earths would be required to generate humanity's annual demand on nature".

Growing more is not as straightforward as it has perhaps been in recent decades. Benton points out that there is no more land available, perhaps even less. Then there is increasing competition for water; by 2050 over 50 per cent of the world's population may exist in areas where demand has outstripped supply. "Agricultural production currently uses about 70 per cent of the world's available fresh water, and clearly societal and economic use of water (by industry) also exerts a growing demand on a finite supply," he adds. "Thus, any increase in production to meet an increase in demand cannot rely on a proportional increase in water use in many areas of the world.

Finally, much of the global production growth in recent decades has been underpinned by the use of a broad range of agro-chemicals, including synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. "These can have negative environmental impacts and in some areas there is a considerable need to reduce their use for that reason," Benton continues. "Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser also requires significant energy to manufacture, contributing to agriculture's large greenhouse gas footprint [of 20-30 per cent of global emissions]; and again, there is a need to minimise greenhouse gases to prevent extra climate change – which, itself, is likely to act as an increasing constraint on production growth."

The recent history of agriculture has been that it has not properly valued the natural capital that underpins a range of important local and planetary functions, and, indeed, subsidises agricultural production: soil biodiversity helps with soil fertility and carbon storage, vegetation and soils filter and clean water providing access to fresh water; insects pollinate crops, increasing yields, and others may be the natural enemies of pests and so on. "In addition to the constraints on production growth due to climate, water, land and resource availability, agriculture needs to become more environmentally friendly to ensure its own sustainability," Benton continues. "This is the notion of 'sustainable intensification' which is about growing yields on the existing area of agricultural land whilst reducing environmental impacts."

The role of engineering

Engineering is important in all aspects of the supply chain: production, transport, logistics, processing, manufacture, storage, packaging, retail, consumption and waste disposal. "There is scope to use existing technologies, based on previous innovation, to great effect by increasing their deployment, such as RFID boluses that can monitor stomach pH and temperature in cattle to optimise welfare and production," Benton says.

"There is, of course, a huge opportunity to transfer technology and innovation from other sectors into the food supply chain, such as robotics, or remote sensing, into agriculture. And there is a considerable role for both sustaining and disruptive innovation to shape the food supply chain, parts of which are under-considered from an engineering perspective. This is especially true in agriculture, seen as a 'low-tech' industry without sufficient 'pull' to warrant strong interest from the broader engineering community.

"Part of this lack of attention was due to the perception that the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had solved the problem, which has been overturned since the food price spike in 2007/08 and some of the global ramifications of this," Benton adds. "Globally, the need for investment in engineering applications to agriculture and food has increasingly been recognised."

The complete cycle

"Ask the man in the street about agricultural engineering and they immediately think of tractors and ploughs and maybe combine harvesters," Peter Redman of professional body the Institution of Agricultural Engineers explains. "In fact engineering and technology applies to the whole spectrum from the soil and the water, which is the whole basis of crop production right through to maintaining the quality of the products and meeting the needs of the supermarkets.

"It deals with everything from growing, harvesting, maintaining, storage, protection from disease – they all have engineering inputs. Almost without exception the development of new science in agriculture will need engineering to deliver it. What is bringing it all into focus is the recognition of global food shortages, changes in diet, limitation of land, and the scarcity of water."

The UK's response has included the recent publication of the agri-tech strategy recognising the importance of agriculture and food as an industrial sector and stimulating its growth. This is coupled to recognition also within the higher-education community and the funders of research that this area needs more support than in recent decades. "That the IET is also recognising the importance of the area, and stimulating interest from the community is really very welcome – given the huge societal challenge created by food insecurity we need the brightest and most innovative minds to engage with this area," Benton concludes.

The first role for agricultural engineering was the replacement of labour. It replaced the drudgery or made tasks possible that weren't before. "This is a weather-dependent industry and sometimes we get a very small window of opportunity so you have to have the capacity to deal with that opening," Redman continues. "Having established the replacement of labour it now became a matter of adding precision and intelligence to the processes while also managing this with less environmental damage.

"The other area where engineering has played a key role is the reduction of waste and pollution. It has been a gradual process; precision agriculture has not happened overnight."

Lacking in research

The fear is that the UK has neglected its agricultural engineering research for so long that it is now having to catch up. In days gone by Silsoe Research Institute, formerly the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, was a world-renowned organisation providing innovation, research and technology around the globe. The government took the view that the market should be responsible for developing that form of technology and Silsoe closed its doors for the final time in March 2006.

At the same time the major manufacturers were moving their R&D capability offshore along with the migration of manufacturing. The consequence that the UK has a deficit of research capability at the government level. A deficit of professional engineers and technologists also exists in this sector, owing to Cranfield University's takeover of the National College of Agricultural Engineering.

"They don't have an undergraduate teaching ability, so that feedstock of capacity has been seriously undermined," Redman says. "What is needed now is firstly the recognition of that deficiency and secondly the invitation to the marketplace to play a part in revitalising that. I personally am not in favour of creating another piece of infrastructure that is specific to agricultural engineering – it is important that engineers work alongside other technologists."

This gap in expertise and engineers suggests that the market has failed in its role, but Redman explains it is simply a matter of different priorities. "The market does its job," Redman argues. "It does it progressively. There are pieces of innovation that have been delivered such as the high-speed tractor and robotic milker.

"If there's an immediate and commercial need for a product the market is prepared to take the risk. Where the market isn't prepared to take the risk is in some of these 'blue-sky' innovations; that is where there needs to be some input from government and they have responded with the agri-tech strategy initiative.

"The theory is that there will be funding for catapults and issue-based initiatives. The one thing that funding packages requires is that government funding is matched pound for pound by industry.

Sensing the way

"There are many ways that engineering is helping agriculture but there is much more that we can do if we add intelligence such as sensors," Redman says. "The capability of sensing is driving lots of the innovation, but sensing in the biological processes, because agriculture takes place out in the field. Precision and sensing are vital, but only if that is coupled with an understanding of what you need to sense and why. It's not just a matter of information but energy information."

One area that is garnering a good deal of interest is computer vision and machine guidance for weed control. "There is a problem with the use of pesticides particularly if the crop is going to be consumed directly, such as in salad," Redman explains. "What we need to do is control the weeds using the minimum amount of chemicals. So first we need to be able to differentiate between the plant and the weed. If we can do that we can direct a mechanism to take out the weed or spray it with a tiny amount of chemical."

With the plants identified the next task is delivering just the optimum amount of chemical. "We are concerned with aerodynamics, the behaviour of crops, the creation of small amounts of material delivered precisely. The other part of that is again sensing whether the crop is exposed to disease or pest attack."

There is also research required in soil and water management. It is important to avoid compacting the soil as that prevents oxygen getting in and water flowing through it. 'Controlled-traffic farming' is being developed, using a set wheel-base and GPS tracking to keep the traffic in one lane and cause less damage to the field as a whole. This method also looks at reducing the soil load from machines by increasing their surface area. This can be done either by using a track instead of wheels or by making sure that tyre pressures and loading are appropriate without losing traction.

When it comes to water, quantity is key. "You need to have water available to the crop when it is growing," Redman says. "That means that you need water storage. You need to know when the crop is going to make use of that water so it is a question of understanding the soil condition and how much the crop needs. Then you need to apply just the right amount of water without any waste – precision irrigation. A lot of these technologies have been developed for more arid areas of the world that can be brought back to more temperate regions."

As for the future Redman believes that changes will be incremental. "I think the farm of the future will have some robotic devices; it will be collecting data across the whole system including the marketplace. It will include information about the status of the soil in relation to weather and disease forecasting. All of these data streams will be combined to enable the farm land to be managed more strategically and how to manage it at a day to day basis."

The quest to secure the food supply will be an ongoing process. In previous decades we have been somewhat complacent, assuming that access to food is only a real issue for the poorest in the developing world. However, as we are increasingly recognising, the time for complacency is over and this is a growing issue for every society.

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