Agri-food Tech: towards a sustainable agri-food sector

Food production and consumption account for ⅓ of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is known that the environmental impact of the food sector is also related to the waste of freshwater since 70% of the world’s extractions are used for agriculture purposes. These sustainability issues have enabled companies to understand the importance of agri-food tech or agri-food technology. 

This concept relates to using technology to optimize agricultural products’ production and distribution chain, reducing the harmful effects of exploiting non-renewable natural resources and the emission of polluting gases. 

Under the International Environment Day framework, which was celebrated at the beginning of June, these are some essential facts and figures about the environmental impact of the agri-food sector and the available solutions for companies to improve their sustainability levels.

Fruit industry and agribusiness: environmental impact in figures

Increase in global temperature

It is estimated that emissions related to the food production and supply system will likely cause the world to exceed the 1.5 degree Celsius limit in 30–40 years, bringing the planet closer to the 2-degree limit by 2100.

This is one of the main risk factors for the agri-food industry. Proof of the above is found in the fact that, since 1961, world agricultural productivity has been 21% lower than it could have been without climate change and variations in global temperature.

Emission of polluting gases 

Agriculture, the fruit-farming industryand other land use activities account for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.

A large part of these emissions results from methane from enteric fermentation and manure handling as compost. 

Methane is far more damaging than carbon dioxide when it comes to driving global warming (approximately 25 times more powerful), with effects that would be only noticeable 20 years from now if the agriculture and fruit farming industry fail to make lasting changes.

In addition to the above, agriculture accounts for 80% of the total emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), mainly due to the application of both manure and synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are added to the soil or left on pastures.

Finally, there are the polluting effects coming from supply chains, which are estimated to account for 18% of all emissions related to the food industry.

Water use

From 70% of water extractions (tied to agribusiness), about 40% is lost due to inadequate irrigation systems, evaporation and poor management. 

The direct result of the above is that the water utilized, which could be reused, remains “scattered” in the environment, so it must be reacquired and redistributed through processes involving time, energy, and money. Nor can we underestimate the effects of water misuse on people’s well-being and how food safety is jeopardized due to the above. 

Crops with the most significant environmental impact in this regard are those that consume high amounts of water for every pound of product. For example, during apple production, between 200 and 13,000 gallons of water are needed per ton of fruit, while the production of pears requires 1,400 to 6,300 gallons, also per ton.

Then, during processing, packing, freezing, or fermentation (depending on the sales format), apples consume about 500,000 gallons of water per ton and pears about 400,000 gallons.

Food waste

Another important phenomenon is food waste and its relationship with the agri-food industry. It is estimated that ⅓ of all food produced is wasted; This relates to people’s consumption habits and cultural aspects but is also tied to the lack of corporate new technologies to extend the product’s useful life during storage and distribution. 

In fact, 40% of food is discarded right upon gathering in low-income countries, but before reaching people’s homes, usually due to a lack of adequate infrastructure or methods.

Food loss directly contributes to climate change since if food waste ends up in a general container, it will end up in a landfill. There, food will decompose and create greenhouse gases, including methane.

In addition to roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables have the highest waste rates of all foods, with a quantitative global waste per year of between 40 and 50% of total production.

Sustainable agriculture: the importance of finding sustainable solutions

It is not possible to imagine a world in which the population stops growing. On the contrary, the 2019 review of the United Nations World Population Prospects (WPP) predicted that the world population would increase from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion in 2100.

A consistent relationship has been established between population density and environmental impact, so an exponential increase in population means that countering climate change will be more difficult. However, the demand for food will increase as the world’s population grows, so it is critical that agriculture provides for 49% of the additional food needed by 2050.

Therefore, agribusiness, fruit farming, and the food sector, in general, have a critical responsibility: to reduce their impact through sustainability practices ensuring supply and maximum production with no risk to water reserves and environmental balance. 

Agri-food technologies stand as a long-term sustainable solution to improve productivity without increasing dependence on water resources or expanding the volume of land used for agribusiness. The use of drones, robots and data analysis allows agribusiness to optimize production efficiency and crop quality, minimizing environmental impact and reducing the production involving risks.

Here we find some examples of how technology can be used to develop more efficient food production and distribution systems:

Smart water saving systems

Using Internet of Things (IoT), multiple devices can be synchronized within a perimeter to collect data and convert them into actionable information. For example, the use of sensors in irrigation systems enables automation and optimizes water consumption. 

Decrease in the use of fertilizers and chemical products

The use of AI for the diagnosis and management of pests or diseases is an especially useful trend in agribusiness, reducing the use of fertilizers and other chemicals on the soil. For example, there are satellites and drones for remote sensing of threats or irregularities on the land. 

Use of natural coatings for fruits

This natural coating technology enables an extension of the useful life of fruits, controlling dehydration and microorganism growth. Thus, products can stay on the shelves for longer, reducing food waste and the emission of polluting gases. 

For example, PolyNatural’s natural coatings are made from 100% organic, plant-based components and are manufactured based on custom parameters to ensure the best performance based on the type of fruit. 

Using natural coatings helps do away with synthetics and petroleum-derived components for a final product that aligns with sustainability and environmental responsibility trends. 

The Shel-Life technology used by PolyNatural has saved more than 157,041 m³ of water. In addition to the above, the waste of 273.6 tons of fruit was avoided during 2020, thanks to the Shel-Life application.

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