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Sustainable farming

As global population grows, usable agricultural land area is diminishing, and farming is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. A ‘business as usual’ approach will only exacerbate existing problems, with shrinking food supplies unable to meet growing demand. Radical changes are therefore needed in the food system – to produce more, with fewer resources.

Global population is projected to rise from 7.6 billion in 2018 to 9.8 billion by 2050 – an increase of around 22% in just a few decades, with half of this growth likely to be concentrated in just nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda and Indonesia.

Population growth will pose major challenges to the world food system, with food production needing to increase markedly from current levels. However, at the same time that population levels are booming, the land area used for farming is decreasing. Within the past 40 years, the world has lost around a third of its arable land – due to urban encroachment, erosion and pollution.

Under such circumstances, greater land productivity is crucial, in order to achieve the United Nations Development Programme goal of zero hunger. Essentially, we need to produce more, with less.

Agriculture and climate change

More responsible and effective farming also means adopting sustainable practices that mitigate its negative environmental impacts. Agriculture is currently responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of the world’s water usage – while also being the primary cause of deforestation. Changes in global dietary habits further add to these pressures, as fewer cereals are being eaten, while more fruits, vegetables, meat and processed foods – the production of which is both more resource-reliant and emission-intensive – are being consumed around the world.

Farming is therefore hugely effected by – and has a major impact on – climate change, with higher temperatures having a detrimental effect on yields for all crops in almost every location. Droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events are further causes of lower output – both in terms of food quantity and financial profit.

Farming and wellbeing

Simultaneously, farming is a key source of livelihood for a large amount of people worldwide. According to the World Bank, global employment in the agricultural sector was around 26% in 2017, while in some developing countries (such as Burundi, Somalia, Malawi and Eritrea) it was higher than 80% – making these economies particularly vulnerable to yield deterioration.

The agricultural sector has great potential to end extreme poverty, however. When compared with other industries, farming is two to four times more effective in raising the incomes (and, by extension, the wellbeing) of the world’s poorest people. Moreover, farming is strongly related to physical health, which in turn has impact on all spheres of life. For example, childhood malnutrition often leads to poorer access to education, which translates directly into lower lifetime earnings, while poor nutrition adversely affects people’s health in general.

Sustainable farming for a healthier planet

Multiple steps are now being taken to ensure that the agricultural sector overcomes the challenges of an ever-growing demand for food, and the negative impacts of climate change, while also reducing its own environmental footprint – with mineral and metal-reliant technology playing a key part in furthering sustainable farming.

  • Precision farming

    Precision farming provides an effective solution to the challenge of producing more with less throughout the crop cycle, allowing for optimal soil preparation, seeding, fertilising, protecting, irrigating and harvesting. Accuracy is key at every stage of the process, from tillage (the loosening, turning and aeration of soil, destroying weeds and incorporating organic material) to seeding (at a depth and distance that encourages root growth and avoids overcrowding, while ensuring efficient land use). Sustainable fertilisation, crop protection and irrigation also require carefully dosed amounts of nutrients, pesticides and herbicides, as well as water. In turn, successful harvesting is determined by timing, speed, and accuracy.

    Specialist machinery and smarter, tech-driven solutions are vital for precision farming. For maximum efficiency, this hardware needs to be interconnected, and equipped with elements that receive, send, generate, and process data – all of which rely on raw materials such as iron, aluminium, copper, nickel, zinc, lead and bauxite.

  • Variable rate controls

    Variable rate technology combines agricultural machinery with a variable rate control system, enabling more precise application of crop inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers or pesticides. This technology is vital for maximising productivity, while also reducing labour cost, inputs, and the environmental impacts of farming. The control system itself generally comprises a computer, specialist software, control mechanisms, and a differential global positioning system (DGPS). DGPS relies on an antenna (made of copper, aluminium or stainless steel) which is used for sending and receiving information, alongside a power source – typically a solar panel or battery. The computers essential to the functioning of a variable rate control system contain a variety of precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, nickel, tantalum, cobalt, aluminium, zinc, tin or neodymium.

  • GPS technology

    GPS technology can be applied to precision agriculture in multiple ways. GPS soil sampling, for example, reveals nutrient status of the soil, its pH level, and other data necessary for making informed soil-improvement decisions (and hence increasing profits). GPS helps construct a base map that delineates field boundaries in a digitised format, whereupon a smart sampling strategy can be applied, using a selection of grid cells. This might involve cell sampling (whereby soil cores are collected from different locations throughout a cell, and mixed to generate a composite sample) or point sampling (where soil cores are collected at grid line intersections, while soil parameters are calculated between sampling points). Soil sample characteristics are then visualised electronically, creating a digital map which can be transferred to the machinery spreading lime or fertilisers, ensuring optimal application.

  • Remote sensing

    Another technology that’s vital for precision farming is remote sensing – essentially, providing the ability to closely monitor a field or crop without physically touching it, through the use of satellites, sensors, and drones – all of which rely on multiple metals and minerals for production and operation. This extra-terrestrial tech is able to deliver key data complementary to the information collected on the ground.

    Remote sensing has a broad range of applications in precision agriculture, including:

    • Crop production forecasting.
    • Assessment of crop damage and crop progress.
    • Identification of planting and harvesting dates.
    • Identification of pests and disease infestation.
    • Soil moisture control.
    • Irrigation monitoring and management.
  • Mineral fertilisation

    Minerals play a crucial role in agriculture – not only as indispensable components of farming machines and precision farming technologies, but also in the production of fertilisers. Losses of nutrients in the soil – which may occur due to harvesting, washout or sorption (a chemical process whereby one substance becomes attached to another) – can be compensated for using either organic or mineral fertilisation. When used correctly, mineral fertilisers can enrich soil without creating a negative impact on the environment. In general, they can be divided into two categories: primary mineral fertilisers, and secondary nutrients – which can be added to primary fertilisers in order to increase their effectiveness. Primary fertilisers comprise compounds derived from nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, while secondary nutrients include calcium obtained from limestone or magnesium derived from dolomite, as well as iron, copper, and molybdenum.