Protected cropping and resilience of the food supply chain

| July 21, 2020

From automation to big data, the digital revolution of agriculture is underway in Australia and worldwide.

The roots of high-tech farming can partially be traced back to Silicon Valley branching out into agriculture. History tells us if technology is available, people will use it and eventually equipment and tools become cheaper.

Protected cropping in Australia already incorporates new technological advancements. Ahead, the main challenges for Australia are twofold. (1) Invest in R&D required to adapt new technologies to local conditions and consumers; and (2) shift from users to innovators in this field.

Overcoming these challenges has the potential to build resilience in our domestic food supply chain as well as maintain our global competitive edge.

Rethinking the farm

Farming has historically been an uncertain enterprise, relying on the vagaries of climate and disease outbreaks. The ability to predict the weather, collect big sensory data and transmit them via cloud platforms have been helping open field farmers to make quick decisions.

Automation such as driverless tractors has increased farmers’ agility and reduced their labour costs in large operations. Protected cropping takes all this to a new level by removing the unpredictability from the business of growing plants.

Protected cropping, also known as indoor agriculture, involves growing crops on a large scale under as much control as possible. This ranges from simply managing soil nutrients and moisture, controlling air temperature and humidity, all the way to hydroponics or the substitution of sunlight with artificial lighting.

This method of farming aims to provide plants with the resources (water, nutrients, temperature and light) required for optimum growth, yield and quality.

The progress of protected cropping is part of global trends driving unprecedented changes in the food and agriculture industries. Agriculture is benefiting from the influx of capital due to growing population and diversifying markets.

Agriculture is also reaping the rewards of new transformational technologies. These include genetic advances ranging from genomic assisted breeding to gene editing in order to produce new and more nutritious, efficient and resilient crops.

In addition, major revolutions are under way in automation to reduce labour costs, big data analysis, artificial intelligence and machine learning to better monitor crops, manage farms and supply chains, and reduce waste.

Millennial consumers are also more demanding and engaged, and are placing pressures on agriculture to meet sustainability goals. The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened the need for healthy food as people are preparing more meals at home, and trying to stay healthy at a time when the health system is struggling with the respiratory virus.

Agriculture goes high-tech

Automation and artificial intelligence will play central roles in the future expansion of protected cropping. The latest advances in these two fields are bewildering. Examples include assisted pollination, fruit harvesting robots, and packaging units.

New developments also include smart lighting and integration of different equipment used to control and run the indoor farm using artificial intelligence platforms.

Powerful imaging (visible, infrared, hyperspectral) and sensing (temperature, moisture, carbon dioxide) technologies combined with precise positioning and Internet of Things (IoT) communication platforms are used to remotely monitor crop and fruit growth in real time and support decision making systems.

Network technologies that detect and analyse the development of several key factors that affect plant health such as biosensors, smart pest and spore traps allow early intervention and minimise the use of chemicals inside controlled environments. These are only examples of a fast developing field, where the ‘cloud’ is the limit.

Costs and urban opportunities

The large-scale adoption of protected cropping is hampered by its high capital, energy and labour costs, in addition to its requirement of a relatively well-to-advanced trained workforce.

For example, the capital costs of setting up a high-tech glasshouse is estimated at $600-900 per m2; whilst the estimated cost of setting up a vertical farm is about $1800-2800 per m2.

With increased uptake and competition, these costs will go down, but they remain substantial in the near term. When these plant factories are linked to supplying food to big cities, they will definitely be profitable ventures.

For example, the Greater Sydney metropole is inhabited by about 5 million residents assembled in about 2 million households. The average weekly spend per household on fresh fruit and vegetables averaged about $30 per week in 2019.

Hence, the size of this market is estimated at $3 billion per year. Any grower who can supply 1% of this market is guaranteed a gross income of $30 million per year. Therefore, getting a foothold in urban regions to provide reliable, high quality produce appear to be a profitable business.

Of course, the larger the operation, and greater the market share, the more profitable the business will be and more capable of mitigating initial capital and ongoing running costs as well as adopting new technologies.

In return, protected cropping offers great savings in water and nutrient use, especially in high-tech glasshouses which recycle the hydroponic solutions, or in aeroponic farms which achieve high efficiency by spraying roots with the nutrient solution.

In addition, protected cropping allows the farmer to grow crops year round under controlled conditions. This ensures the continuous supply of high quality fresh produce irrespective of season, climate variability or extremes. Hence, protected cropping is an essential industry for maintaining food security under climate change.

Protected cropping is also a response to rapid urbanisation around the world. The proportion of urban population is about 70% in the developed countries and about 30% in the developing countries, where urbanisation is expanding with unrelenting pace. In addition, global population is increasing and the current century is expected to witness doubling of Africa’s population.

Urbanisation is not only increasing the distance between where food is produced and consumed, but it is also competing for arable lands which have little scope for further expansion. The area of available arable land per person by 2050 is expected to be one third of what it was in 1970 (~1 acre).

Urbanisation also increases the demand for higher quantity, quality and diversity of consumed food. Today’s consumers demand high quality produce and want to know where their food come from. There is also an increasing trend among some consumers to buy locally produced food from small producers.

Protected cropping suffers from an image problem, being viewed as an artificial rather than natural or organic mode of food production. This stigma is based on a misunderstanding of its purpose.

Protected cropping is not an environmental or ecological enterprise but rather a food business model born in response to the major crises of our times including climate change, food security, urbanisation and water shortages.

Protected cropping contributes to sustainability goals by sparing farming lands, reducing pressure on irrigation, and minimising carbon footprints of food production.

Lowering the carbon footprint can be achieved by locally producing food and hence reducing the need for long distance transport, as well as by adopting renewable energy resources for operating, cooling, heating and lighting the indoor farms.

The impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has made protected cropping even more relevant for our food production systems on a number of levels. The pandemic has exposed a number of deficiencies in the food supply chain, including concentration, specialisation and globalisation.

Achieving high productivity and profitability has led to high levels of concentration of a few large operations. This was particularly apparent in the meat and dairy industry.

As the pandemic disrupted supply chains around the world, farmers resorted to destroying their crops or throwing away perishable produce that cannot be stored, while supermarket shelves ran low on some meat and other food products.

Specialisation has also exposed the food supply chain to the pandemic. A particular example is the over-reliance of some growers on supplying food to the restaurant sector, which collapsed during the early days of the lockdowns.

Growers who supplied supermarkets and grocers with high-end produce packaged in small boxes lacked the flexibility as the home consumer has no need for such produce or is not prepared to a high price for the premium goods. Therefore, food production systems need to be more flexible to survive future pandemics or other major crises.

The pandemic also revealed the over-globalisation of our food production systems. This was well illustrated by the plight of barley growers in Australia following new Chinese regulations, and pictures of goods piled up at ports for quarantine purposes, whilst some supermarket shelves were empty.

Some countries closed their borders to limit viral transmission while other countries halted export to protect their national food supplies.

COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of our economic and social models. Building resilience into the food supply chain requires a better balance between efficiency, profitability and resilience.

This will also require a paradigm shift away from long-held believes in optimisation and efficiency towards redundancy and diversification of modes of food production. These moves are hard to achieve.

However, the sooner we realise that COVID-19 is not a passing crisis, the quicker we can start building resilience into our food production systems. Post-COVID-19, our over-populate planet with highly mobile and increasingly affluent global citizens will remain vulnerable to new forms of pandemics as WHO officials warn us.

Science and innovation will play critical roles in driving increased productivity, efficiency and resilience in the food supply chain.

The future of protected cropping

The world’s population is becoming increasingly urbanised and today’s cities are getting bigger. Protected cropping can be thought of as bringing manufacturing back into the city. Indoor agriculture does not require a lot of space and can be integrated into big buildings.

Hence, it can help address transport and employment issues in urban and regional areas. These imperatives have been recently reinforced by NFF’s President Fiona Simson who is promoting the ‘Get Australia Growing’ 2030 Roadmap in partnership with the Federal Government Regional Deals.

These initiatives aim to reinvigorate regional agriculture in Australia as a means of bringing innovative and real jobs to these regions. Protected cropping can also play critical roles in ensuring food security for Aboriginal communities.

This has been highlighted in a recent report indicating Indigenous people in remote communities are running out of food due to supply and management failures. Medium tech and mobile versions of protected cropping facilities may help secure both food security and employment in these communities where they can grow their own produce.

Hence, protected cropping can foster community building as well as the circular economy, including finding solutions for the overuse of plastics in packaging and help decarbonise the economy.

By replacing cheap and unskilled labour with real, high-tech and longer term jobs, protected cropping can reduce the reliance on seasonal workers, which has emerged as a particular weakness during the pandemic due to closing borders. These solutions are now possible because technology allows it.

We are now witnessing the accelerated convergence of various technology platforms. These will help us focus on solving the main challenges of farming: energy, water, nutrients, disease and genetics.