New Agriculture: Innovation & Adaptation to Climate Change

As farmers worldwide confront changing climates and challenging new situations, ideas are beginning to spread that can bring new high-tech solutions for farmers to adapt to a hotter world, wherever they live. By Laurie Goering and John Geddie (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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LONDON, July 2019. As warmer, wilder weather linked to climate change brings growing challenges for farmers across the globe - and as they try to curb their own heat-trapping emissions - a rush of innovation aimed at helping both rich and poor farmers is now converging in ways that could benefit them all, say scientists.

Smartphones already allow farmers in remote areas to snap photos of sick plants, upload them and get a quick diagnosis, plus advice on treatment.

Researchers also are trying to train crops like maize and wheat to produce their own nitrogen fertiliser from the air - a trick soybeans and other legumes already use - and even exploring how to make wheat and rice better at photosynthesis in very hot conditions. Agricultural researchers have teamed up to boost harvests and fight the major blight of wheat rust and are now forming an international consortium in a bid to make wheat stand up to worsening heat and drought. Food producers worldwide are looking at the problems brought by climate change – and are coming up with answers.

It’s needed. According to Hans-Joachim Braun, head of the global wheat programme for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, for each 1deg Celsius in global temperatures rise above pre-industrial levels, wheat harvests drop 5-8%. Which means the world will likely see a 10% drop in harvests even if governments hold global warming to "well below" 2C, as they have agreed.

Svend Christensen from UoC says new strains, new technology and more cooperation could all help transform agriculture. Courtesy UoC

Svend Christensen from UoC says new strains, new technology and more cooperation could all help transform agriculture. Courtesy UoC

To help mitigate this trend, scientists are working on a fundamental reshaping of how crops such as wheat and rice carry out photosynthesis, to make them better able to continue producing crops in hot weather, especially if less water is available.

Researchers say the process is hugely complex and will likely require decades of work. But the goal is likely to be worth the effort.

"It would be a mega-breakthrough. Many people think (this is) dreaming a little bit because it's so difficult," said Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), but early tests to improve photosynthesis in tobacco have shown a 40% boost in production - and the technique is now being tested with crops from cassava to maize.

Another initiative being trialled is to develop better strains of flood-tolerant rice that is being used by 6 million farmers across Asia. This will also help smallholders to cope with more extreme weather events and flooding. But researchers from the University of Copenhagen say even more high-tech innovations - from weeding robots to drones - are likely to help poorer farmers worldwide. In decades to come, African farmers may pool their money to buy small robot vehicles to weed their fields or drones that can hover to squirt a few drops of pesticide only where needed.

"If you want to increase efficiency, you need to use machinery to do some of the hard work," points out Svend Christensen, head of plant and environmental sciences at the University of Copenhagen (UoC). This applies particularly in Africa. The continent is expected to see rapid population growth and movement to cities in coming decades, so its farmers will need to become more efficient at producing larger amounts of food, adds Christensen.

Drones are already seeing extensive use by farmers wordwide. Courtesy DJI

Drones are already seeing extensive use by farmers wordwide. Courtesy DJI

Luckily, Christensen believes prices for drones and robots will fall rapidly in years to come, just as they did for mobile phones. "Maybe you will share … machinery with your neighbour," Christensen said. "A village of smallholder farmers could think of buying (a pesticide drone) for all their fields, for example."

And as consumers and companies in more developed nations demand to know more about the origin of what they buy, farmers in poorer nations could also adopt systems from blockchain tracking to microchips tucked into cauliflowers to help with proof of origin and handling standards, said Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) principal scientist Philip Thornton.

Thornton is working on a "Wild Futures" report that will dig into potential high-tech advances and predict how food production might look in 15-20 years' time, given the pace of technological change.

And UoC’s Christensen notes that the good ideas are also are increasingly flowing from poorer countries to richer ones, not just in the other direction, particularly because the poorest are in some cases dealing with the strongest climate impacts first.

"There's a lot of inspiration from the people in developing countries," he said. But it’s not just developing countries driving new ideas.

With only 1 percent of Singapore’s 724 sq km (280 sq miles) land area currently used for agriculture the pressure is on urban farmers to answer the call to “grow more with less”. One pioneer, Sustenir Agriculture, is one of more than 30 recently started vertical farms in Singapore, which grow non-native varieties like kale, cherry tomatoes and strawberries indoors under artificial lights

Vertical farm kale growing strongly in the Sustenir facility. Courtesy Sustenir.

Vertical farm kale growing strongly in the Sustenir facility. Courtesy Sustenir.

Paul Teng, a professor specializing in agriculture at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) says that he advises food security workers in Singapore to stop thinking about land - and think space instead. “Because you can go upwards, and sideways,” he points out.

Innovation applies to animal husbandry too. Sovereign wealth fund Temasek has helped fund the Apollo Aquaculture Group which is building a S$70 million highly-automated, eight-storey fish farm. Apollo says the new farm will deliver more than a twenty-fold increase in its annual output of 110 tonnes of fish.

As ever, it looks like human ingenuity is helping address global problems. Fingers crossed!

 Courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit