Getting more from the land

Thanks to new technology and smart data usage, farmers can produce more food on the same amount of land. Are we on the verge of a new green revolution? Let’s hope so. World food production has to increase by 60% to feed the growing world population.

By 2050, the world’s population will have reached nearly 10 billion people – 2 billion more than now. At some point, as many as 11 billion mouths will have to be fed. Add to that the fact that many people in emerging economies are switching to ‘Western’ eating habits with more calories, more meat and more dairy products, which all require way more farmland. The upshot? By 2050, we’ll need as much as 60% more food than we needed in 2005.

To make matters worse: as it stands now, about 30% of all available agricultural land has been depleted through salinization, subsidence and leaching of important nutrients. The problem is that Asia and Africa – the most densely populated continents – are facing the fastest decline in soil fertility. And that means that farmers are harvesting less per hectare.

“Simply put, we have to get more out of the soil”

- Gilles Boumeester, Head of RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness

More out of the soil

Gilles Boumeester, Head of RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness, argues that the only real solution to all these problems is to be smarter in our use of available agricultural land. Boumeester: “Simply put, we have to get more out of the soil.”

He reckons this can be done through economies of scale. “In emerging economies, there are too many subsistence farmers. They are less efficient than larger commercial farmers,” Boumeester points out. “Once these countries are up to spec economically, some of the small-scale farmers can find other ways to earn a living. The remaining farmers can then increase their scale.”

On the verge of a new revolution

A ‘green revolution’ in agriculture started in the mid-twentieth century. Thanks to new types of fertilizer and pesticides, mechanization of harvest processes, and the development of more resistant crops, farmers have been able to produce more per hectare.

Experts claim that we are on the verge of a new green revolution. This time, it is mainly about technology. And that may be decisive for the solution of the global food problem. Thanks to a combination of smarter technologies and information-driven precision agriculture, farmers are able to substantially increase their yields.

Farming tools: sensors, scanners and drones

Crop farms are high-tech places where sensors and scanners provide real-time information about soil quality. These tools give farmers insights into the chemical composition of the soil without having to send a sample to a laboratory. Potato farmers use sensors to measure whether the harvesters have been set correctly. In addition, drones are deployed to inspect crops and to spread artificial fertilizers and pesticides exactly where they are needed.

“In an ideal scenario, we reward users for good land management”

- Gilles Boumeester, Head of RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness

The right way to a solution

What awaits us in the years to come? Whether the new green revolution will actually solve the global food problem depends largely on how we use the agricultural land, Boumeester believes. “In the ideal scenario, we reward users for good land management, for instance through financial incentives.”

But that only works if you have a good system to measure soil quality. That system is not yet in place. Boumeester: “I believe that top priority must be given to developing quality standards. As a bank we have a great deal of influence on a lot of land in the world. Let’s use that influence.”

Listen to our podcast for more of Gilles Boumeester’s insights into the issue of boosting productivity sustainably. (In Dutch.)

A longer version of this article appeared on October 16, 2017.