As with everything else that relates to economic production these days, the challenge of agricultural waste and inefficiency includes an overlay of concern about environmental sustainability and, more extremely, climate change.
“We’ve got to wake up as a society,” says John Purcell, president and CEO of Unfold, an indoor-farming startup. “This is not a theoretical conversation; it’s real. We have billion-dollar weather events this decade that we didn’t see in previous decades. We see pests we haven’t seen before because of warmer winters. There have been huge shifts in extremes: too much water or too little water, high and low temperatures.
“It’s absolutely become a risk-mitigation game, and climate change has introduced a whole suite of risks that are unpredictable and in some ways beyond our control.”
In Brazil, for instance, water conservation “wasn’t a big issue for farmers until a couple of years ago,” says Gustavo Porpino, an agricultural marketing specialist for the Brazilian government. “But then La Nina [weather events] and climate change made them take it more seriously.”
Ku McMahan, senior team lead at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), notes, “Because of climate change, the times of year for planting are different. We know weather patterns and drought forecasts, but farmers in a traditional system don’t know that.” So Western governments are helping farmers in developing nations with technologies that gather and communicate more data about basic inputs that farmers around the world have. “Our job is to help farmers better use those and also protect them from the effects of drought and climate change,” continues McMahan.
Additionally, technologists are developing crops that tolerate a wider range of climatic conditions and provide more ways to control pests. Thwarting climate change, in fact, is providing a strong narrative for startups such as Endobiome, which finds ways for microbes to make crops more productive without synthetic fertilizers.
“Nitrogen fertilizers are the No. 1 cause of the increase in nitrous oxide in the atmosphere,” says Michael LaMontagne, founder of Endobiome. “It’s a highly potent, heat-trapping gas, and that contributes substantially to climate change.” His company is working on biofertilizers that could create “a 20% increase in yield or allow a grower to decrease the amount of fertilizer that’s applied while maintaining yield.”
For an in-depth look at how in research and technology are being used to reduce postharvest food losses while facing increasingly unstable climatic and economic conditions—see the March 2022 issue of Food Technology.
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