When I walk the produce aisles of a grocery store, I compulsively read labels. Organic, sustainable, fair trade, ethical. As a scientist, a father, and the son of small-time hobby farmers, knowing how food is grown is important to me.
That’s why I’m frustrated to find that perhaps the most important label is absent entirely.
A year of catastrophic drought, global crisis, and severed supply chains has driven home a now inescapable point: How we grow our food is supremely important and increasingly challenging.
Farmers everywhere are being called on to feed more people with fewer resources. The global population is set to balloon to 10 billion in the coming decades, at the same time that water and other inputs are in short supply. Finding a way forward requires a shift in how we think about where our food comes from, going beyond distinctions between conventional and organic agriculture.
That’s why I think it’s time for a “smart-farmed” sticker. The smart-farmed label reflects a growers’ commitment to using technology, data, and AI to manage risk and minimize resources in a world where waste is no longer an option. To be clear, this isn’t meant to imply that existing practices are “dumb”; farmers have been at the cutting edge of innovation for centuries. Rather, this is an affirmation that we’re doing more with less, through harnessing a resource that today is more plentiful than ever: data.
It’s more than organic vs. conventional
To feed the planet sustainably in 2050 with conventional farming methods, the world will be facing a shortage in agricultural land about double the size of India. Creating that much farmland would require a proportional increase in the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, not to mention the need for fresh water, which is already in short supply in critical areas of food production.
Modern agriculture has enabled us to feed a growing planet, and its practitioners do invaluable and exceedingly difficult work. But the cost of this approach is getting hard to ignore. The world is already dedicating 70% of its fresh water usage to agriculture, and that number is expected to rise by another 15% in the decades to come. The World Resources Institute also estimates there’s a massive gap between agriculture’s current greenhouse gas emissions and global targets.
The organic movement represents an important response to this. Some farmers have converted large swaths of land to organic farming, cutting down on non-natural chemicals and taking other steps to earn that trusted sticker in the produce aisle. And there has been a key mindshift: Most Americans now believe organic food is better for them, and the majority consider buying organic at least some of the time.
And yet, there are limits to this approach. The label doesn’t share a complete picture of land or water usage. In fact, organic farming can sometimes require more land to produce the same yields as conventional farming. What’s increasingly clear is that organic agriculture alone is only part of the puzzle when it comes to feeding the world sustainably.
Big data for farms
What we need is a wholesale embrace of a distinct but related approach: data-driven farming.
Farming has always been about making decisions based on the best data available. People have turned to sources like the Farmers’ Almanac—though it was about as accurate as predictions from a groundhog—since the 1700s. The means of gathering data and predicting conditions have become more sophisticated over the intervening centuries, thanks to advances in everything from weather forecasting to satellite technology.
But innovations over the past decade have taken the ability to collect and interpret data to an entirely new level. This has been made possible by the same technologies transforming so many aspects of our lives: sensors that can gather real-time data, alongside increasingly powerful algorithms capable of crunching it. If you’ve used navigation software to anticipate and avoid traffic, you’ve seen the power of these tools in action. And now they’re available to farmers.
There are three key elements to data-driven farming, which today’s growers are increasingly embracing: gathering fine-grained information, extracting usable insights, and responding in real-time with automated tools. Take the example of an apple grower we partnered with at Semios, the precision agriculture company where I’m the CEO. In the past, he relied on updates from a weather station at a nearby airport to anticipate the best times to spray for the codling moth, a major apple pest. Conditions varied significantly at his orchard, even from one row of trees to the next, which often led to him spraying with less-than-ideal effect.
Then, he took a data-driven approach. He installed a network of hundreds of sensors in his orchard, which reported back every few minutes with precise information on the temperature impacting the timing of development of the codling moth, as well as humidity, barometric pressure, and wind. Software analyzed the data to predict when insects were surging and highlight the best time for intervention. This interconnected system then triggered the solution—pinpointing when and where to spray for greatest effect. The result was a drastic reduction in pesticide use, with better yields and less money spent.
Toward a “smart-farmed” label
Farmers everywhere are incorporating these same techniques in a variety of forms and under a variety of names—precision agriculture, smart farming, site-specific crop management, and more. At root, all these approaches use data to better understand the plants and radically reduce water and chemical usage, optimizing yields to an extent that was unthinkable in the past.
A study published this year on American growers showed that the adoption of precision agriculture technologies resulted in a 6% increase in crop production, 14% reduction in fertilizer use, 15% reduction in herbicide use, 16% reduction in fossil fuel use, and 21% reduction in water consumption. The report estimated that precision ag technology already removes an amount of carbon equal to taking 200,000 cars off the road.
What’s needed now is a way to empower the people who have the biggest say of all on the future of farming: consumers. A smart-farmed label would let shoppers know at a glance that data and technology were used to grow as efficiently as possible. It would arm consumers with key insights, cast a halo on dedicated farmers who have been embracing these technologies all along, differentiate brands, and shine a spotlight on a more sustainable approach to agriculture.
In the wake of the pandemic, 60% of shoppers say they’re making more purchases based on ethical and sustainable considerations. Growers’ use of data and technology to minimize waste is an important part of that calculus. Ultimately, a smart-farmed label represents a critical step toward a more sustainable food system.
Michael Gilbert is the founder and CEO of Semios.