BlogsFriday, October 21, 2022

How to future-proof your farm: Addressing the industry’s challenges for long-term commercial viability

The agricultural industry has always had its own set of ever-changing challenges. Even when the land and crops were healthy, there was always the small risk of drought, flooding, or war. But right now, we are facing ever-increasing risks, including more extreme environmental challenges, and severe economic troubles.

These growing demands mean the industry is calling for the introduction of new technologies. How can this be used to facilitate long-term viability and the future of farming?

What challenges is the agriculture industry facing?

Governments and consumers have rising expectations for farmers to lessen their impact on the earth, for example, to improve the nutritional value of their produce, and reduce chemical residues in both crops and the environment.

The growing population is also a concern. Estimates say we need to produce 60% more food by 2050 to meet the ever-growing population, now expected to hit 9.3 billion by the same time [1]. However, most of the arable land that is currently available is already being farmed. Traditional farming contributes to soil emissions, erosion and pollution notwithstanding that agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater on planet.[2] A farm’s operational inputs such as fuel and fertilisers also have a significant manufacturing carbon footprint in their production.  

Environmental impacts aside, inflation is making profitability even harder and the inconvenient truth of climate change is forcing many farms to scale back production or leave the industry altogether.

Plus, there’s the issue of who is going to farm in the future. 180,000 people leave rural communities every day to live in cities [3]. Do we need to find ways to convince enough of them to stay and build a career in farming? Or is there a way we can bring agriculture into the city?

How new farming technologies can help to future-proof the industry

To meet the growing demands for agriculture, new technologies are needed.  

One solution available is total controlled environment agriculture (TCEA). This is a vertical farm which enables you to control all aspects of crop development by composing its own microclimate. Creating a growing environment that is scalable, predictable, and repeatable.

At IGS, our vertical farms use Growth Tower technology, enabling you to ramp up production levels, delivering preferred crops, at preferred volumes, all year round.  

How else can new farming technologies benefit the industry?

Creating sustainable farming practices

Extreme weather is making yields hard to predict, which is hurting sales and overall profits for farms at a time when things are already tough.

Further endangering the healthy development of crops are rising temperatures, which also make it easier for pests and diseases to spread. 72% of farmers worry that climate change will make it harder for them to grow food in the next five years [4].

Modern technology enables farmers to create more sustainable practices without hurting their profit margins. The eco-benefits of vertical farming systems are abundant:

  • uses 94% less water than greenhouse farming[5];
  • water and nutrients are cleaned and recycled in the growing process;
  • no nutrient waste is discharged into the environment;
  • shorter travel time reduces food waste and extends shelf life;
  • growth Towers are engineered for around 25 years of use, components are replaced as needed.  

With this new technology, we will be a step closer to producing the food we need to feed the growing population.  

Forthcoming changes to farming subsidies in the UK

In the UK, the phasing out of EU farm subsidies (Common Agricultural Policy) has started with the devolved nations offering their replacement schemes. After the transition phase, the policies are expected to be in place by 2024 or before the end of the decade. England is radically changing the policy, while Scotland is looking to mirror the existing EU arrangement.

England’s transition from BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) to ELMs (Environmental Land Management scheme) or ‘public services for public goods’ is causing concern for farmers as the payments are expected to be lower as the funding is also eligible to landowners who manage non-productive land but is rich in biodiversity. Payments are also conditional on agricultural land being used for rewilding and other environmental stewardship schemes.

Given the current geopolitical landscape, many farmers believe their arable land should be used for food production rather than environmental schemes to combat climate change.  

The detail around these policies is still in development. Nonetheless, if farmers are subsidised to scale back food production, vertical farming could provide an opportunity for diversification into new revenue streams while replacing imports with locally sourced healthy food and plants.

Bringing younger people into farming

In the UK, the average age of a farmer is 59 years old[6]. There is a growing concern when these farmers retire, who will put food on our tables?  

Younger people often have a skewed view of the agricultural and farming industry, with one study finding they believe the industry is outdated[7]. The consultancy chair said, “This is probably driven by limited knowledge and coverage within the school curriculum, a lack of contact from the sector with schools, and a sometimes-confusing representation in the media”.

The National Farmers' Union has called for the Government to do more to highlight the benefits of farming to young people. One way to engage them could be through new technologies. Research has found among 15-20-year-olds, technology was the most popular career choice for young men, whilst technology was in the top five preferred choices for young women [8].

IGS’ breakthrough technology could enable young people to thrive within agriculture by using their tech interests to bring the industry into the 21st century. Through our automation platform, we create an environment which needs minimal human involvement, allowing the tech-focused talent to remotely manage the Growth Towers.  

To inspire undergraduates to consider a career in agriculture or agritech, IGS has supported the Saltire Scholar Internship Programme since 2020. The cohort of selected scholars work full-time in the business for 10 weeks typically over the summer. Following graduation, some of our interns have progressed to permanent employment with IGS.

Vertical farming and Growth Tower systems can be built on brownfield sites and retrofitted into existing buildings such as warehouses. Enabling the farming industry to follow young people into cities. This means we can tap into the talent who are leaving rural areas but still may have an interest in farming.  

These technologies not only attract a younger generation, but they also reduce the farmer’s workload, meaning fewer people can get more done.  

Combating automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) scepticism

A sustainable future for humanity depends on the agricultural sector. In light of global population growth, diminishing natural resources, and changing environmental conditions, few other industries offer as much promise for positive change.

Estimates show we must produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 10,000 years of agricultural history[9]. How can we increase food production while using less land, less waste, less energy, and less input?

Even with a rising population, we must do more with fewer workers. Growers must discover ways to automate as their labour shrinks or risk losing the ability to operate. Despite this, many farmers struggle with the idea of AI or face it with heavy scepticism. But AI and automation will complement traditional farming methods, becoming part of the solution to many issues the industry faces right now.  

Modern farming techniques like vertical farming can work in tandem with traditional agriculture to deliver a more sustainable future for food production. It allows farmers to take complete control over every element of a plant’s growth, whilst eliminating the need for pesticides and reducing water usage (the only water used is in the plants, the rest is cleaned and recycled). For a world that’s facing a perfect storm of challenges, we believe this technology is vital.

Let’s use a UK-based grower as an example, who imports their starter plants from the EU. They are consistently facing supply chain issues and often receive poor quality crops, especially since Brexit and COVID-19 have presented further logistical challenges.  

Investing in, or outsourcing to, a vertical farming system for starter plants can eradicate these issues:

  • transport costs are reduced when starter plants are grown close to home;
  • the total controlled growing environment makes yields bigger, timescales shorter and outputs much easier to predict while minimising inputs, interventions and labour costs;  
  • profit increases when healthy starter plants are guaranteed;
  • in some cases, farmers can potentially add an additional crop cycle throughout the year;
  • vertical farming systems reduce the need for imports, which is especially important during a time when the pound is incredibly weak. Buying plants and other materials from the EU is costly at these times.  

We know farmers understand better the problems with their current ways of working. Our automated vertical farming technology is ready to help farmers face these problems head-on.

Guaranteeing the future of your farm

IGS’ Growth Towers enable farmers to grow excellent quality crops consistently. You can increase your commercial viability through this technology by improving productivity, crop diversity and reducing the cost of labour.  

Vertical farming in a Growth Tower creates a clean, bio-secure environment with zero protective chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. You can deliver your preferred crops, at preferred volumes, all year round, increasing productivity and profitability.  

For larger-scale farmers, our Cultivation Management Platform (CMP) is the perfect complement to IGS’ Growth Tower Management System (GTMS). With this platform, farmers can manage costs, boost revenue, reduce risks and increase profit margins by:

  • maintaining operational transparency and traceability;
  • create reports to forecast and yield, labour and inputs (e.g. seeds, nutrients, packing, etc.);
  • monitor in real-time to identify crop health risks before it is too late;
  • measure workflow efficiency and productivity;
  • reduce the risk of human error.

Future-proofing your farm through technology will not only provide solutions for many problems the world is facing. It also enables you to conduct successful succession planning, while enabling you to create a profitable and robust business you are happy to pass down to future generations.

Get in touch to learn more about the commercial opportunities with IGS’ vertical farming technology. Visit these pages for more information about recruitment and internships at IGS.

Sources

[1] Feeding the world sustainably United Nations. United Nations. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/feeding-world-sustainably [Accessed: October 19, 2022].

[2] World Bank. 2022. Water in Agriculture. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water-in-agriculture [Accessed 19 October 2022].

[3] Syngenta. 2022. Challenges for modern agriculture | Syngenta. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.syngenta.com/en/innovation-agriculture/challenges-modern-agriculture [Accessed 19 October 2022].

[4] Syngenta. 2022. The Good Growth Plan | Syngenta. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.syngenta.com/en/sustainability/good-growth-plan  [Accessed 19 October 2022].

[5] Graamans, L. et al (2018) Plant factories versus greenhouses: Comparison of resource use efficiency (page 40) Elsevier

[6] BBC News. 2022. Why we want older farmers to hang up their wellies - BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-57172065. [Accessed 19 October 2022].

[7] Young people see farming as 'outdated' (no date) Farmers Guardian. Available at: https://www.fginsight.com/news/news/young-people-see-farming-as-outdated-129018 (Accessed: October 19, 2022).

[8] Editorial Team. 2022. Why today's youths are primed for success with their tech knowledge - HR News. [ONLINE] Available at: https://hrnews.co.uk/why-todays-youths-are-primed-for-success-with-their-tech-knowledge/. [Accessed 19 October 2022].

[9] WWF 2022. The 2050 Criteria Guide to Responsible Investment in Agricultural, Forest, and Seafood Commodities. [ONLINE] Available at: http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/the_2050_critera_report.pdf [Accessed 19 October 2022].

Written by

Georgia Lea

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