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The tech-focused future for sustainable farming

11 January 2021: Agriculture needs to drastically change if it’s to feed the world’s population. Agritech businesses are trying to find the answers.

There is an urgent need across the globe for more sustainable food systems. In many areas, food systems are operating beyond acceptable environmental and resource boundaries. As demand for food grows, agriculture production cannot continue business as usual.

Food production is also under increasing scrutiny from the value chain, policymakers and associated stakeholders, explains David Nickell, VP of sustainability and business solutions for DSM Animal Health and Nutrition. “Consumers are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of their diets, which is leading to shifts in food choice in many parts of the world. Sustainability is very high on the agenda of the food value chain and is shaping what and how food is produced, marketed and sold.”

The sustainability of animal farming is highly nuanced, depending on farming methods, geography and animal species, he says. Some globally traded foods have a lower footprint than those produced locally. The desire to reduce carbon footprint, along with food provenance, is driving more local purchasing. “However, there are examples of major animal protein producers that have substantially reduced their environmental footprints, in some cases to carbon neutrality and trade internationally. A key aspect is ensuring transparency on the environmental footprint of food production, whether derived locally or from another area, especially in relation to the foods’ nutritional content.”

This is where the greater adoption of agritech comes in. Scientific innovation and technology advancements have a huge role to play, and the business world is recognising that. According to a recent report Rift Research and Development, R&D claims in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries have increased by 103% in four years.

DSM has developed several technologies in this regard. Its Bovaer solution, for example, reduces methane production from cattle by 30% or more – helping the dairy sector reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of a kg of milk. 

It has also developed ProAct, a protease feed enzyme, which improves the digestibility of the protein in broiler feed by between 5% and 8%. “This means the broiler industry can reduce the amount of protein fed for the same meat yield – essentially we are getting more out of less.” 

Technologies such as this can help agriculture businesses make better use of local alternative feed raw materials and reduce the reliance on soy and the pressure to the deforestation of areas such as the Amazon rainforest. 

Nickell lists, with great enthusiasm, a number of new technologies that DSM has produced in areas such as animal feed and aquaculture. “The ability to understand and quantify the issues and then being able to innovate and apply technology fast will play a leading role in the future sustainability of the industry.”

We should think of sustainability both in terms of input and output, he says. “For example, we closely manage our absolute Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reduction, GHG efficiency, and energy efficiency. We’re targeting a 30% reduction of the company’s direct GHG emissions and emissions from our purchased energy by 2030. Our goals are aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement, and we develop all our products with a clear sustainability purpose which meet at least one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

Some of these measures are much easier for large agri-businesses than for SMEs. Larger entities should share their innovations to help smaller partners keep up. “Making an assessment of the footprint of animal production at farm level is key, whether its large agri-business or an SME. This can be done with expert sustainability centres and advice.”

Through this process organisations can identify practical areas of improvement, whether it is based on utilities use or how effective the farm is when it comes to feed, says Nickell. Tackling feed is vital as it often represents between 50-80% of the footprint of animal production. Changes in farm management and husbandry and greater use of functional feed ingredients can make immediate improvements to a farm’s footprint.

But farms also need to feed more people, which is where the challenge lies. The human population is expected to grow to 9.7bn by 2050, and very significant change is necessary if the industry is to feed those people without destroying the planet. 

“If we try to feed all those people using current methods of production, the animal protein industry will use up about 80% of humanity’s total greenhouse gas emissions budget by 2050 (accounting for decarbonisation elsewhere).”

DSM has launched its We Make It Possible campaign to help resolve this problem. “There is no hiding this is a big challenge, but we’re confident in saying it’s not an impossible one.

“We all know what happens when we procrastinate and try to avoid something because it’s difficult: it gets worse and more difficult to achieve. We want to be the leader in this fight and show our industry that tangible change can and should be made today.”

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