So long as food reaches our table, agriculture is taken for granted. Yet it is thanks to remarkable technological advances, from machinery to genetics, that the farming of crops and animals has become increasingly efficient and reliable, able to support a tremendous population growth. This however has taken a serious toll on the environment. With the growing threat to the ecosystem, it is precisely agritech that we look up to for sustainable solutions. The booming sector is revolutionizing the way we grow our crops, helping farmers work faster, smarter, and more sustainably. It is even inspiring new visions of a green and harmonious future.


Past choices cast a shadow over our future

Previous decades have led to catastrophic decisions when it comes to agriculture. The increasing demand for food, and foremost for meat and palm oil, results in the clearing of forest areas at an appalling rate. About 15 million hectares of forest are destroyed every year, most of which are replaced by pastures. That’s an area the size of Belgium! Less woodland means more CO2 emissions, worse floods, and the loss of biodiversity, to name a few consequences.

Meanwhile, intensive farming directly contributes to pollution. The effort to maximize the output of farmlands drives industries to use chemicals as pesticides and fertilizers without regard for the environment. Furthermore, intensive agriculture erodes the soil and depletes it of its nutritional elements, making it harder and harder for it to keep up with demand. The impact on climate change is ever more evident, with agriculture and deforestation responsible for 32% of greenhouse gases. The way we handle our natural resources could have irreversible effects on the future of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain themselves.


Agritech to the rescue

While technology assisted us in reaching this precarious position, it might actually help us out. Agritech employs artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and the Internet of Things to enable smarter use of energy and resources for cultivation. For instance, Plantation Intelligence, the collection and analysis of data gathered from plantations, offers innovative solutions for farmers to plant, monitor, irrigate, and harvest their crops in more efficient and therefore more sustainable ways. In addition to production itself, agritech is key to agricultural supply-chain sustainability.

The marriage between this traditional sector and high-tech is producing thrilling initiatives. Insight Robotics from Hong Kong provides intelligent plantations and agriculture-focused risk management services for precise and early detection of human and natural threats such as wildfire. French-based Naio Technologies specializes in agricultural robots that can work closely with farmers, assisting with menial jobs like weeding. This would not just reduce physical strain on farmers but also reduce reliance on harmful chemical herbicides, which can have a negative effect on the environment. In contrast to robot farmers, some technologies do the magic from a distance. Drones and satellites are becoming a popular tool for cultivators to survey their lands and gather data on crops. For example, Gamaya is a Swiss-based agritech startup that offers analytics solutions for monitoring crops using drones and satellite imagery. It provides farmers with crucial information, enabling optimal decision-making in the use of chemicals and fertilizers. This in turn improves the quality of produce while minimizing the ecological impact.

Among the applications of science and technology to sustainable farming, some are less obvious and far more visionary. Hazon Yarok, meaning “green vision” in Hebrew, is the brainchild of Moshe Shtrauch: a hybrid forest that could revolutionize cultivation and energy production. This inventor’s wild imagination combined trees, spider webs, cell phone towers and solar panels to conceive tree-like structures whose spider-silk canopy takes in sunlight and generates energy. It may come as a surprise to most, but such alternative solar panels made out of mesh would be highly conductive and robust. At the same time, the silk canopy would let some light through into the forest floor, where the heat would be trapped, serving as a sort of greenhouse for growing crops. This hauntingly beautiful vision could make the Israeli desert bloom and in time, pop up all around the world.


Embracing the technology

It’s not enough to have good ideas; they need to be embraced by the market in order to make a real impact. Interestingly, Early Metrics has identified a startup with strong growth potential in an unexpected sector: Phytech is an Israeli company developing innovative algorithms to process data from in-field sensors to improve crop performance. Though so far it hasn’t received as much attention as foodtech, agritech is definitely gaining momentum. It is estimated that the global agritech market will reach USD 13.50 billion by 2023.

Not just the market – governments and institutions are increasingly aware of the importance of agritech to sustainable farming, and the Europeans are leading the charge. In 2018, Irish agritech company called Devenish Nutrition has secured an €118 investment thanks to generous support by the European Investment Bank. The same year, UK business secretary Greg Clark announced a £90 million investment in agritech aiming to rally together AI, robotics and earth observation to bring the latest innovations and research to farming practice and supply chain management. As of 2019, investment in agritech worldwide has reached a staggering USD 17 billion, a clear sign of the global enthusiasm for this trend.


Towards a green future

By 2050, world population will reach 10 billion. This larger, wealthier and more urbanized society will require a 70% increase in food production. Current developments in agricultural technology give hope that this will not only be feasible, but would be achieved in a sustainable way. Agritech offers revolutionary solutions for accelerating, regulating, and protecting food production from the moment the earth is tilled to the moment the goods reach our local supermarket, reducing waste and preserving our planet. Drones, robots, big data, and fantastic hybrid forests are just the beginning of this effort to live in harmony with nature, meeting our needs as well as those of future generations.