“The craftsmanship and knowledge of crops built over centuries of farming remain important, but the use of new technologies is indispensable to take a step forward in our agriculture,” writes Louis Verstraete in the run-up to the Global Youth Agriculture Summit.
In 2015, the United Nations established 17 new objectives for sustainable global development by 2030, called the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. The intention is that these SDGs will be anchored in all policy development in the coming years – including in Belgium. But our country still has a lot of work ahead of us to meet this target.
In research from the Bertelsmann Foundation on the global progress of the SDGs, different countries were compared by scanning indicators that are linked to the 17 objectives. Belgium is ranked 8th in all OECD countries. Not necessarily a bad position to be in, but this result unfortunately casts light on some of our weak spots.
In Belgium, there is still a lot of work to do to achieve SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) especially relating to food security, improved food and sustainable agriculture. For example, the report underlines an excessive nitrogen and phosphorus balance per hectare of agricultural land in our country, damaging the environment. With 29th place in this regard, our country scored worse than, say, Hungary and Poland. But that's not all. With regard to SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), many steps could be taken to reduce our waste production. And in terms of particle pollution in cities (SDG 11) our country comes in at a shameful 34th place (!), as the worst pupil in the class. Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), including for agriculture, does not score much better (31st place).
Look at that in the context of increasing populations in our country and worldwide, estimated at 10 billion by 2050, and it’s clear that the challenges are huge.
The key to our country achieving the Sustainable Development Goals lies in promoting innovative farming techniques. Precision Agriculture and Vertical Agriculture are two promising concepts that can intensify our food production -particularly in an area like Flanders, where urbanization is just around the corner.
Targeted approach for greater revenue
The principle of precision farming, giving each plant the right input at the right time, sounds very simple. But it is a revolution in our current agricultural model, where large scale farming is a priority. Modern technology allows for data analysis that reveals the underlying causes of a successful or failed harvest. This could include data from the nutrients in the soil, monitoring the growth of crops through sensors or the use of cameras on drones, alongside using agricultural equipment to treat controlled paths on farms. This allows for a much more targeted approach, even per plant, which results in greater agricultural yield and reduces the impact on the environment.
In urban areas, vertical agriculture can cause a small-scale revolution. Research shows that some crops grow particularly well if grown in containers, stacked in different layers. In vertical agriculture, the plants appear to utilize water and nutrients in a more efficient way. In addition, the temperature and exposure through LEDs can be optimized to the max. The growth cycle is therefore considerably shorter than in a common field – not to mention the space that is saved. Production units can be widely stocked in warehouses, as is already happening in an old Sony factory in Japan. But this kind of agriculture can also take place on a small scale in containers, in cellars of apartment blocks or on roofs of large office buildings where residual heat or CO2 from industrial processes are present. In short, the possibilities for urban crops are plentiful.
The craftsmanship and knowledge of crops built over centuries of farming remain important, but the use of new technologies is indispensable to take a step forward in our agriculture. And this is exactly where the younger generation of farmers can play a big role.
Louis-Philippe Verstraete is a Belgian representative at the Global Youth Agriculture Summit 2017.
This article was originally published in Flemish on Knack.be.