“When you’re eating well, you’re well” sang Obelix in the cartoon Asterix and Cleopatra, as true today as it was in Ancient Egypt. But the aphorism applies to significantly more people on Earth now than was the case 3000 years ago. The Earth now has 8 billion inhabitants who all must “eat well to be well”, several times a day. Unfortunately, not all of them can. The UN has estimated that nearly 10% of the Earth’s population go to bed hungry every night, while hundreds of millions are on the verge of starvation.
The problem is partly caused by an unequal distribution of resources, and partly by an inability to optimise the productive land available such that we can feed increasing numbers.Per Frankelius is process leader for Agtech 2030 and docent at Linköping University. The recurrent theme in his research is innovative processes. Photo credit Magnus Johansson And it’s going to be needed – predictions say that the Earth’s population will be as much as 11 billion at the end of the century.
“Cultivation is changing due to climate change and extreme weather conditions. If we combine that with high costs, in particular for fertilisers, but also for fuel and seed, the challenge becomes monumental,” says Per Frankelius, docent at Linköping University and process leader for Agtech 2030.
Cultivating the soil
Agtech 2030 is an initiative aimed at developing new methods and new technology to secure food supplies of the future in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. It concentrates on four areas of development in agriculture: commercial methods, skills, technology and knowledge. The initiative has gathered more than 90 companies and organisations, together with researchers from several disciplines.
But let’s start at the beginning. The earliest evidence that humans made the change from hunter-gatherers to working the land can be dated to approximately 12,000 years ago, and can be found in the Middle East.Modern seed drills are high-tech agricultural tools that help the farmer to optimise each individual seed. In the small "box" on each hose, there are six sensors that register the amount of seed passing through. The information then goes to a computer that, with the help of algorithms, ensures that just the right amount of seeds end up in the soil regardless of speed. Photo credit Magnus Johansson However, evidence of agriculture at around the same period has also been found in Peru, Mexico and China.
New methods to cultivate the soil were developed. What were probably the most important invention in the progress of agriculture were tools to work the soil, such as the plough and the harrow. These made food supply more reliable, leading to population growth and the establishment of the first true towns. Throughout history, further discoveries and innovations have improved agriculture, to reach the position we are in today. Important milestones include crop rotation, covered ditches, the tractor, plant breeding and mineral-based fertilisers. Further technological advances now coming into use in agriculture are artificial intelligence, machine learning and electrification.
“The agriculture industry is most often in the very front line of technological development. Farmers are leading the dance. And at the moment, when so many factors are changing the situation for cultivation, technology must keep pace with these developments,” says Per Frankelius.
But it’s difficult to balance the advantages and dangers of agricultural development. On the one hand, we have increased food production, while on the other hand we have the effects on biological diversity and the climate. Crister Stark is an innovator and part-owner of Väderstad AB. Photo credit Magnus Johansson And there are at the same time several other factors that affect the agriculture industry today: problems obtaining and retaining a workforce, stricter regulations, extreme weather conditions, a scarcity of arable land, soil compaction and invasive plant species, to name a few.
Väderstad AB, with its head office on the Östgöta plain, is one of the companies involved in Agtech 2030. During the past 60 years, it has developed high-technology agricultural machines, and has spread to 45 countries. Crister Stark is an innovator and part-owner of Väderstad AB. He comments:
“The collaboration with Agtech 2030 allows us to increase the pace of innovation, which would otherwise take many times longer if we were working alone. The future of the agriculture industry is healthy, but it is facing many challenges. Farmers need to adopt new working methods, and this requires research-based knowledge,” says Crister Stark.
He points out that farmers today obtain much higher yields than previously due to better knowledge, the use of fertilisers, improved tools, higher quality seeds, and more effective weed control. But we have now reached a point where the systems cannot be put under ever-increasing pressure without being damaged. Nina Pettersson is chief agronomist at Väderstad AB.
“The soil must not be depleted or compressed,” she says. “We are working with the health of the soil in order to maintain its capacity for future generations. The challenge is to increase production while decreasing its effects, while giving farmers a sustainable economy. Using highly targeted investment in agriculture allows us to optimise production against the background of several factors.”
AI and optimisation
We can draw up a long list of new technology and methods to optimise agriculture.Nina Pettersson is chief agronomist at Väderstad AB. Photo credit Magnus Johansson These include combating weeds by non-chemical methods, rapid plant breeding, new combinations of crops, underground irrigation, and many other elements.
If we consider purely technical advances, we see that we can today sow seeds with millimetre precision and at high speed, use multi-modal machines to reduce soil compaction, use robots and robot swarms, and increase efficiency by using autonomous machines. Furthermore, the complete farm can be equipped with sensors that allow the farm to obtain support using remote methods, plan maintenance, monitor animals by AI-supported systems, and use technology to increase animal welfare.
Many of the concepts have been tested within the framework of Agtech 2030, or will be tested in the near future. Per Frankelius is hoping that increasing numbers of companies and farmers will get involved.
“We are all working with a focus on the farmer. Currently, the level of complexity is very high. This has brought farmers, companies and the academic world to realise that huge benefits can be gained using collaboration to generate innovation. I personally believe in starting to do things in order to learn, and gain new ideas,” he says.