It’s been described as the 21st century’s biggest challenge. How do we feed a global population which is predicted to rise to 11 billion by 2100, an increase of nearly 50 million people every year? The problem will place huge pressure on agricultural producers—particularly those who grow rice, a staple crop throughout the developing world.

research article published recently highlights a troubling trend which adds a further complication to this dilemma. Seattle-based health sciences professor Kristie Ebi exposed multiple lines of rice to the dense carbon dioxide concentrations scientists expect to arrive by the end of the century. She and her fellow researchers found that rice grown in these conditions has lower levels of four key B Vitamins, echoing earlier studies which showed a reduction in protein, iron and zinc.

The analysis is particularly troubling because rice fields are notoriously prolific sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane. If climate change is going to stunt the nutritional value of rice crops, producers find themselves locked in a vicious circle. The more they produce, the more problems they’re creating for their successors.

Yet it’s a circle they have to break, and fast. Rice is the primary calorie source for over 3 billion people worldwide, and this figure will increase as populations rise. Poverty and hunger are already major problems in developing countries;  earlier this month, the U.N. warned that 6 million people are coping with severe malnutrition in West Africa’s Sahel region, and the previous week it was revealed that the number of countries requiring external food relief has risen to 39. Rice producers will have to find a way to jumpstart production while adopting the sustainable practices that slash carbon emissions.

Inefficiency offers hope

Thankfully, it seems there is plenty of low-hanging fruit for the growers to grab as they search for improvements. The average farm in Africa is only producing at 20% of its capacity, according to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. In Asia, the regional development bank has criticised the outdated management and infrastructure which prevents farmers from maximising the value of their crops. This inefficiency is nevertheless good news—untapped potential is far better than no potential at all.

To realise that potential, rice growers have been encouraged to make certain fundamental changes. The Asian Development Bank suggests that basic improvements in the region’s irrigation systems can drive real gains. Meanwhile a number of academics have recommended that growers move away from wet tillage, the process of transplanting seedlings into puddled soil, and towards direct seeding. They believe this will be more efficient and will cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But the real key to the improvement of rice production—the fundamental factor in ensuring sustainable progress—is provided by technology, data and precision agriculture. The agricultural technology, or AgTech, sector is already worth around $3 trillion, and its innovations have clear potential for rice growers.

New frontiers

One of the most promising areas of technology is big data, the term used to denote huge volumes of information which can only be processed using modern digital methods. The Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, launched in 2017 by CGIAR (previously the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), connects growers with cutting-edge analysis about agricultural conditions. Its key focus is spreading innovation, helping farmers in the developing world tackle problems such as climate change.

The Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of agricultural giant Monsanto, also provides farmers with incredibly detailed data—50 terabytes a day of weather information, years’ worth of soil and precipitation records for every one of the 29 million farm fields in America, tens of thousands of simulated weather scenarios –which can radically increase farmers’ yields.

New technology is providing huge efficiency gains out in the fields, as well. Drones are being used to spray crops, monitor their condition and irrigate the fields. Last year, a rice grower in China’s Hubei province sprayed more than 1,600 acres of land with insecticides and fertilizers in just six months, using a single remote-controlled device. Elsewhere, several companies are developing sensor devices to monitor soil nutrients and water levels; the devices are connected wirelessly to irrigation machinery via the Internet of Things (IoT). One company has even developed a ‘digital rice analyser’ which takes pictures of rice and uploads them to the cloud, where the images are analysed for inefficiencies.

Researchers suggest that if the value of these technologies is fully harnessed, they could trigger the sort of improvement in farm output not seen since the dawn of mechanisation. Encouragingly, huge corporations—even some from outside the agricultural industry—are now throwing their vast resources into the AgTech sector. Alibaba, China’s answer to Amazon, has launched the ‘ET Agricultural Brain,’ an AI project that uses visual recognition and real-time environmental monitoring to record the growth conditions of rice and other crops.

Other corporate giants have flooded the sector with cash. John Deere, for example, has ploughed over $300 million into Blue River Technology, a Californian startup whose machine learning innovations enable tractors to spot weeds and blitz them with pesticides at a level of precision which could reduce the amount of pesticide sprayed by 90 percent.

Such investment is, in turn, being poured back into R&D. Indigo Agriculture, another company that applies machine learning to raise crop yields, has raised over $400 million from investors in four years. Just last week, the company announced the creation of the world’s largest agriculture laboratory to drive research into new technologies.

But if the planet is to feed its rapidly growing population, this trickle of innovation must become a flood. For centuries, the world’s rice growers have stuck to tried and tested practices as the world transformed around them. Now, this ancient industry must finally face the future.

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Margaret Koffman

Margaret is a London based freelance researcher and development consultant with a specific focus on the African region.

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