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New Challenges Require New Innovations
Farming has never been easy, but the modern world has created new challenges in addition to traditional threats such as pests, diseases and harsh weather. Farmers now must cope with the pressures of climate change, soil erosion and biodiversity loss on top of the evolving demands of consumers who want higher quality, fresher food and more comprehensive knowledge of the way it’s produced. Add to this the expectations of regulators, food processors and retailers, and it is no mystery why the industry struggles to inspire the next generation of workers to stay in rural areas and take up the plow.
Challenges abound at every stage of the food growing cycle, and yet there are innovative efforts happening across the world to overcome these obstacles and pioneer the future of farming. Fitness trackers for livestock, robotic milking machines and fruit pickers, driverless combine harvesters, sensors to monitor the health of the soil, irrigation systems driven by AI and farm surveillance drones are just a handful of the advanced technologies that are starting to change how farms function across the world.
A commitment to technological innovation and to the empowerment of marginalized groups of farmers and industry workers bring tremendous hope for the future of agriculture. Here are innovative and inclusive efforts around the world that are impacting each stage of the farming life cycle.
Improving Outcomes in Subsistence Farming
Naturally, the “farm-to-fork” cycle begins with the farmers that are working day-in and day-out to grow produce and raise livestock. Globally, small-scale farmers work to provide a major means of survival for impoverished rural communities. Investing in inclusive rural development and small-scale agriculture in these places can provide long-term solutions to “hunger, poverty, youth unemployment, and forced migration.” Considering the rising food prices due to the global disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, it is clear that these investments are all the more urgent and necessary.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution and specialized United Nations agency based in Rome, invests in farmers living in rural areas who are currently living below the poverty line. Their projects provide these rural farmers with access to finance, markets, technology and information. These efforts help rural farmers grow and earn more, and they also “promote gender equality and inclusiveness, build the capacity of local organizations and communities, and strengthen resilience to climate change.”
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals that were adopted in 2015 spotlight the importance of this type of work. Specifically, Hunger (Goal 2), Responsible Consumption and Production (Goal 12) and Climate Action (Goal 13) are all directly improved upon by supporting local farmers and the local economy they serve. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) works to support smallholder farmers and their families by strengthening sustainable and resilient food and agriculture systems. Examples of their work include providing grants to low-income country governments to support national agriculture and food security investment plans, using blended finance solutions and concessional funding to support projects designed to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and directly supporting smallholder farmers and their organizations.
Before You Can Work the Land You Have to Have Land to Work
In the United States, a major obstacle for today’s farmers is the inability to access farmland – particularly for first generation farmers that are not inheriting property from previous generations. Farmland is expensive and scarce, and though consumer demand for local produce continues to grow, the demand for residential developments also continues to increase. Unfortunately, many once-operable small and medium-sized farms have been shut down due to encroachment of suburban sprawl and conurbation.
371 million acres—more than 40% of American farmland and ranchland – will be transitioning ownership over the next 15 years. One organization working to ensure that this land stays in farming is The American Farmland Trust. The Trust is a national leader in protecting farmland through agricultural conservation easements. This type of easement establishes the land at its “farm value,” not its “development value,” making it far more affordable and opening the way for new farmers to start out or existing farmers to expand.
The Partnership for Inclusive Innovation and the Georgia Working Farms Fund provide a powerful example of innovation to protect farmland. This financing solution developed by The Conservation Fund focuses on ameliorating the rapid loss of critical farmlands in the region by acquiring farmland within 100 miles of Atlanta and placing the conservation easements on the land to permanently protect it from development and environmentally harmful practices. The land is then leased to farmers, “offering a 5- to 10-year path to ownership, targeting especially Black, Indigenous, people of color and female farmers – who have all faced historic barriers to farmland ownership.” The Georgia Working Farms Fund was the first model of this innovative approach nationally and is now being replicated in other states including Illinois.
A Future of Fresh Produce Free from Pests and Pathogens
Shipment and processing remain essential to the logistics of moving fresh vegetables and fruits beyond the farmstand and into kitchens. Leaps in innovation offer new ways to maintain freshness and quality while eliminating harmful hitchhikers that sometimes hop aboard along the way.
Traditional methods of food treatment have often failed to ensure the safety of fresh fruit and produce as it travels from farms to grocery stores. Major outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella have affected stores and restaurants across the country. As farmers, distributors and retailers look for better ways to protect fresh food and consumers, innovative methods are being developed.
With the goal of providing the industry and consumers around the globe with a safe, long-lasting and highly effective solution, Reveam, an innovation advanced by Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) engineers, Dolan Falconer and Chip Starns, has been working hard to perfect a method of food treatment which preserves the natural micronutrients of produce while killing 99.9% of foodborne pests and pathogens.
Reveam utilizes a food treatment technology referred to as ECP™, or Electronic Cold-Pasteurization. ECP™ harnesses electricity to create a gentle shower of electrons for produce to pass underneath, eliminating the major causes of foodborne illness before they have the chance to cause severe illness or death. As an added bonus, ECP™ treatment extends shelf life by reducing molds and fungi and helps reduce food waste due to spoilage.
There is a growing gap between the technological resources available to agricultural producers and their actual effective use. Farmers need knowledge of software and hardware resources (exposure), high-speed broadband and over-the-air access to Internet resources (connectivity) and the skills (training) to use them. The University of Georgia – Tifton Campus and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College develop applications and data literacy training for farmers from small to medium-sized farms to help overcome this gap.
Food to Fork Faster
After food is processed into consumable products, the chain of logistics required to successfully transport the processed foods to distribution centers and ultimately stores or restaurants can be maddeningly complex. Considerable planning and coordination is required to guarantee that the transportation of food makes it to these locations without spoiling and contributing to food waste.
Unsurprisingly, advanced technology is transforming the supply chain. More informed and efficient decision-making is now possible through “robotics, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, analytics, and cognitive technologies,” all of which are being used by logistic industry giants like Ryder. Data gathered with these technologies can inform where to locate processing plants and warehouses to allow for faster delivery, as well as making tracking easier while in transit.
One innovation in farming logistics is adding smart sensors and devices into cold chain transport containers. These help monitor key elements like location and temperature and prevent excess spoilage contributing to industrial food waste. These sensors also allow supply chain managers to monitor their goods while in transport. If the temperature or humidity level approaches an unsafe threshold, the manager can intervene and adjust the settings – no matter where in the world the goods are.
Expediting Ripe and Eliminating Rotten
One of the final steps in the food process is the selling of fresh food from farms to distributors and retailers. This step is full of financial challenges and can make or break a farm’s ability to be profitable and sustainable long-term. One critical retail problem is the amount of perishable items that have to be thrown away when a food buyer can’t be established before fresh fruit and produce spoil. In Georgia, Emory University committed to purchasing the locally sourced, fresh food grown from farmers entering the Working Farms Fund program. This results in guaranteed income for the farmers and also provides healthier and fresher food for the eventual consumers. The partnership also allows Emory faculty and students the opportunity to conduct research on Working Farms Fund farms.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program (FFP) is a worker-driven retail effort based on a unique partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers and participating retail buyers, including Subway, Whole Foods and Walmart. These participating buyers pay a small Fair Food premium which tomato growers pass on to workers as a line-item bonus on their regular paychecks. The Program has expanded northward into the tomato markets of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, and now includes Florida strawberries and peppers.
It is estimated that more than 2 million tons of food from farms end up in landfills every year in Georgia, leaving millions of dollars on the table and lots of delicious food in the dump. One example of efforts to overcome these lost opportunities is the work of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation and Retazza’s Fresh Food Forward. Founded by Kashi Seghal and Casey Cox, Fresh Food Forward purchases food directly from farmers that might otherwise go to the landfill and resells and redistributes it to those in need. This brings security and stability to both ends of the supply chain by buying, selling and donating fresh local Georgia food.
This woman and minority-owned social enterprise aims to rescue 100,000+ pounds of food waste while donating nearly 20,000 pounds of food through Fresh Food Forward. Fresh Food Forward is expanding operations from Southeast Georgia to Atlanta, Savannah and Southwest Georgia.
Reducing Food Insecurity and Waste
The farming life cycle culminates when the food is placed on one’s plate for consumption. However, food waste at restaurants and other food businesses is a major problem that contributes to a significant percentage of global emissions. The 2021 Food Waste Index study indicates that 61% of all food waste occurs post-purchase.
The Center for EcoTechnology (CET) works with companies to reduce food waste, recover surplus food and divert scraps to animal farms. CET works as a liaison between businesses with food waste and businesses that can provide solutions for said food waste. In making these connections, CET empowers businesses to make informed decisions for how to decrease or divert their wasted food.
One Georgia based non-profit Goodr works toward the dual goal of mitigating food waste and providing hunger relief through intuitive technology and nationwide logistics to divert waste and provide food to those who need it most. Goodr picks up restaurants’ edible food waste and donates it to local nonprofits to meet the needs of those experiencing food insecurity. Goodr also works with certified organic waste haulers to recycle inedible food items. They help restaurants and other food businesses streamline their entire waste management to support them in achieving their zero-waste goals.
The Future of Food
Looking at the agricultural landscape – both globally and locally – two things are clear today. First, there are a growing number of challenges that make it increasingly difficult to go from “farm-to-fork” in a sustainable and profitable way, but there are many who are advancing these efforts in novel and more efficient ways. Secondly, and even more optimistically, there are innovative strategies and technologies being created that are not only tackling the issues, but also opening the door for a more inclusive farming community. Most importantly, when innovation is considered and applied at every stage of the food cycle, the entire local community is able to reap the benefits of that innovation. Subsequently, problems such as hunger, poverty and landfill emissions will be reduced while feeding a growing human population for generations to come.