Water scarcity and climate change are some of the biggest challenges facing humanity. It can be easy to forget that global warming has far-reaching consequences, but humans need water to survive—and so does our food.
Agriculture is the largest consumer of fresh water in the world. About 70% of our freshwater use goes to agriculture and irrigation, accounting for a third of the world's total usage. The amount needed by crops varies depending on crop type and location. Still, farmers generally strive to give their crops at least 100 centimeters of water per year.
The good news? There are a lot of ways we can reduce this water use! As long as there is enough rainwater or surface runoff water for plants to grow in a given year, farmers don't have to irrigate their crops if they don't want to. Using nutrient-rich fertilizers and well-timed planting also helps increase yields without extra irrigation needs. These methods have been gaining popularity among smallholder farmers due to their cost-efficiency and sustainability benefits. But what else is out there?
First up is precision agriculture. This technology may sound wonky, but it's a game-changer for farmers. To put it simply, it's the use of sensors, drones, and another tech to detect problems and make adjustments on the spot. It can help growers do everything from increase crop yield to reduce water consumption to reduce pollution—and more (we'll get into that in detail shortly).
In addition to helping farmers be kinder to the planet, precision agriculture is also helping them save money. It can reduce pesticide use by targeting only affected areas, reduce labor costs by having fewer people needed in the field, and even minimize labor shortage by making farming more desirable.
Vertical farming uses hydroponics, aeroponics, or aquaponics to grow crops. Indoor agriculture and vertical farming are similar. They are both built indoors — typically in warehouses or other spaces with high ceilings — but indoor agriculture is less technologically advanced than vertical farming. The latter incorporates robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), and automation to reduce labor costs and increase productivity.
Vertical farms can be built indoors or outdoors and are ideal for areas with poor soil quality or limited arable land — like most major cities worldwide. Since they have a smaller footprint than traditional farms, they can be closer to where consumers live, reducing transportation costs and food waste. In addition to producing more produce per square foot than conventional farming, vertical farms usually operate year-round regardless of climate conditions.
Gene editing and genome sequencing are two of the most extensive areas in biotechnology right now. Researchers have used gene editing to produce strains of mushrooms that don't brown, pigs resistant to an incurable virus, and hornless dairy cows, so they don't injure each other or handlers.
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is one of the most essential tools in gene editing because it can locate a specific sequence on a strand of DNA, delete or modify that sequence, then send the edited strand back into the cell. It's gotten attention for its ability to edit human embryos (which raises some ethical concerns). Still, CRISPR also has significant potential for agriculture.
Biotechnology is quickly becoming a mainstay in breeding efforts—for example, scientists can use genome sequencing and CRISPR to select genes associated with particular traits like drought tolerance or high milk yields. With livestock breeding alone generating $1 billion annually in revenue by 2022 (and expected to grow at a 6.7% rate), this is one area where biotechnology will be worth watching closely over the next few years.
AI will be a crucial driver of innovation in agriculture.
Many companies are developing AI systems to help farms increase productivity and reduce waste. AI is bringing the best technologies to the farm and helping us produce more food with less land while reducing food loss and waste.
AI is already helping us develop new ways to take better care of ou.
You might be surprised to learn that many innovative companies are working hard to change how we produce food. They're using AI, machine learning, IoT, and blockchain technologies to make it happen. Precision agriculture is helping farmers manage their water consumption and make the most of what they have. As a result, they will continue thriving in a world where water scarcity and climate change pose risks to the food industry.
The companies in this list demonstrate that there's room for innovation across the entire spectrum of agriculture and beyond it as well: from how plants are grown in greenhouses all over the world to how we combat hunger with more efficient crop yields and even how we produce lab-grown meat so it can be consumed by those who follow animal-free diets.
As climate crisis and food inflation are getting serious, awareness and actions are arising. At Hackquarters, agritech is one of our top priorities. Check our Workup Agri and Sustainable Growth Program where we are dedicated to empowering startups fighting the climate crisis.