There are few human activities that have changed the world’s landscapes and environment more than farming. Fields of crops and pastures for animals occupy an extraordinary 40% of available global land. But the way we grow food on these vast swathes of land is putting increasing pressure on nature.
Growing demand for food has polluted much of the world’s water, soil and air with excess fertilisers and chemical sprays, which are remarkably inefficient. Up to 98% of a crop spray won’t stay on the plant but will instead bounce straight off, accumulating in the soil and eventually running off into waterways. At the same time, conversion of land from wild spaces to farming is driving biodiversity loss, as wild plants and animals have less space to live in.
Is it possible to transform the way we farm so that agriculture doesn’t compromise the natural environment? Because of the sheer scale of the world’s agriculture, it seems like a gargantuan task. But farmers and researchers are already developing the tools that will be needed to make it happen. Technology, used wisely, is one of them.
Many new innovations have the potential to redesign global food systems to make them sustainable. Some of them come from unexpected quarters. Bees can be surprisingly efficient and accurate crop sprayers. Clever chemistry can help get more pesticide to stay on target, drastically reducing pollution. Meanwhile, some types of indoor agriculture can produce more food in a fraction of the space used by conventional farming, leaving more space for nature outdoors.
Creating new and sustainable food systems that can support the world’s population is going to mean rethinking the fundamentals of farming, from the resources used, to where it happens and its basic relationship with nature.