Australia: Sustainable agricultural innovation offers key for climate change resilience

Last Updated: 16 October 2019

Introduction

The science on climate change is clear. More than almost any other sector, the food sector is both a contributor to, and a victim of, the effects of climate change, and so it is critical that the sector continues to evolve how it manages the threat of climate change and how it handles emissions and other environmental concerns.

In this special feature article, we explore a number of key innovations which are reshaping the sector.

The global food and agriculture sector is being challenged because its production methods, operations and impact on the environment is significant.

  • As a source of greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide and methane
  • As a contributor to the destruction of forest land to enable grazing and crop cultivation in some countries
  • due to the high energy usage required to power farming production, harvest and process and distribute agriculture products around the globe.

With the rise in greenhouse gases has come changes in environmental conditions, in terms of temperature, rainfall patterns and salinity levels, around the world. These are critical and emotionally-charged issues which the global community is facing.

There are clear reasons to address these issues in relation to sustainability and ensuring food security, and there are also incredible opportunities for organizations to gain a competitive advantage if they are prepared to invest the time and money in tackling these issues.

What is clear is that these issues are driving both incremental and ground-breaking innovations in agricultural practices to

  • reduce or mitigate the contribution of agricultural practices to greenhouse gas emissions
  • ensure the continued viability of agricultural practices in regions where the natural environment has been altered as a result of changing climatic conditions.

The ecological and geographical diversity of the agricultural industry means that there are a number of potential resiliency structures that could be utilized to adapt to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has defined adaptation as an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to climatic stimuli or their effects which reduces vulnerability, moderates harm, or exploits beneficial opportunities. With the diversity of agriculture and the breadth of adaptation techniques in mind, this article provides a snapshot of some of the many and varied innovations being developed to address these issues.

Breeding more resilient crops and animals

Rising temperatures, and changes in rainfall patterns and salinity levels in many parts of the globe have led to changes in the types of crops and the use of seeds with certain resilient properties, and breed of livestock that can be sustainably grown and raised in many regions.

Concomitantly, increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns has caused changes in insect pest populations, including for example in relation to the numbers, size and types of the insect pests typically present.

The cumulative effect is a decrease in the viability of crops and livestock traditionally grown and raised in different global regions and an increased risk of crop destruction and livestock disease by insects.

As a result, innovation has been focused on developing new drought-resistant crops and salinity-tolerant plants and livestock breeds that can tolerate the climatic changes.

Pre-Production Infrastructure

As both water and soil are critical for agricultural development, there has been a focus on increasing agricultural sustainability through climate resilient infrastructure that protects water and soil, on both a small and large scale. One example is the use of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) systems to provide seasonal or yearly water storage. ASR systems work by storing water during the wet season/years and recovering it during the following dry season/year.

Another natural form of infrastructure which can protect both water and soil is a riparian buffer. This is an area which surrounds a body of water to create a natural filter. The area is zoned for different vegetative growth, which often contains forestry. The plants and supported soil act to prevent an accumulation of agricultural chemicals in the water source. The riparian buffer also serves to minimize erosion, ensure more even water drainage and decrease the impact of adjacent agricultural uses. A riparian buffer may also serve as a wildlife corridor. Furthermore, they can increase plant and animal diversity by ensuring access to clean water and allowing natural vegetative growth.

During times of increased rainfall, there will be more runoff of fertilizers and chemicals. Having natural bodies of water protected with riparian buffers will mitigate the effect of agricultural activity on the surrounding water sources. An alternative to riparian buffers could be grade stabilization infrastructure which are man-made structures that control the grade of the land by creating artificial barriers, steps and channels between the agricultural activity and the body of water. These structures reduce erosion which can cause negative impacts on water quality.

Farming operators can also build retention ponds to accept rain and storm water during periods of increased precipitation. Diversion channels may also help to keep water sources clean and free of toxic runoff from agricultural operations. The farmland can be landscaped so as to divert water to different areas and allow for a greater distance between agricultural activities and water sources which could also minimize negative impacts on water quality.

Another natural form of resiliency infrastructure that are widely used by producers are shelterbelts. Shelterbelts are most commonly trees planted to protect agriculture from extreme weather. The trees minimize the effects of strong winds and rainfalls which cause erosion to crops. Trees also provide protection for wildlife which in turn creates more biodiversity. Ultimately, shelterbelts help to mitigate the effects of extreme weather while also allowing for carbon sequestration and improved crop yields.

Both riparian buffers and shelterbelts are pre-production infrastructure projects that protect water and soil quality in the face of extreme weather conditions and changes in the climate. Wind and flood damage can be mitigated by building these infrastructure projects into agricultural plans. This infrastructure also helps to restore natural ecosystems, which are naturally more resilient to climate change, around agricultural land use for ecological and economic benefit.

On a more macro scale, climate resilient water management is a key component in creating sustainable agribusiness. Water management is critical especially as it relates to floods and droughts as these extreme events significantly impacts the agri-food business.

Production

There are a number of ways the agricultural industry is improving their farming techniques to create more sustainable enterprises. These techniques improve soil health, reduce water and energy consumption, reduce chemical and fertilizer dependency, and reduce a farm's ecological footprint and effects on climate. Organic agriculture farming techniques result in increased use of renewable energy, improved soil health practices, proper irrigation access and improved water management. These practices also encompass efficient or no use of fertilizers and chemicals which has a positive knock on effect for the ecology surrounding the farming operation. Zero tillage or low tilling farming allows nutrients to remain in the soil and improves carbon sequestration. Farming operations may also consider switching to crops and livestock that are more resilient and suitable for future conditions. Micro, drip or precision irrigation can be manually or automatically controlled, even down to individual plants, and thereby significantly increases irrigation efficiency and provides substantial water savings.

In the wake of our changing climate, energy use will be difficult to monitor and will be highly variable in response to changing weather patterns. Installing alternative energy sources may mitigate some of the issues with traditional energy sources. Alternatives are less likely to contribute to climate change, in the long term, and may be more affordable. Wind turbines, solar panels and hydro are example of alternative energy sources that are promising for creating resilient agribusiness infrastructure.

Livestock will be impacted by changing global temperatures and experience increased temperatures leading to heat stress. Changes to their body temperature negatively affects their ability to produce eggs, milk, fur and meat. To adapt, animal enclosures and infrastructure will benefit from modifications to allow for more air circulation, greater access to foraging, and reduced livestock density. In addition, livestock will increasingly require structures to protect them from climate extremes. For example, barns with air conditioning will give animals greater resiliency to increased temperatures.

Vertical agriculture is another opportunity to create more resilient growing operations as it may use less resources and have less impact on the land. Vertical agriculture may also be less susceptible to the changing climate and degraded soil conditions. Similar to vertical agriculture, hydroponic and aquaponics may increase growth efficiency and adaptability of crops. Finally, mixed crop-livestock farming allows operations to mix their investments of time and resources into a number of different revenue sources which will decrease risk from climate change as each type of agricultural product provides a different revenue stream that may or may not be affected by climate change in a given year. Mixed farming is also akin to indigenous knowledge which uses local and communal resources to adapt to challenges in farming. Such mixed farming or enhanced crop rotations may also improve carbon sequestration and protect the health of the soil.

Resiliency may also be achieved through 'Climate Smart Agriculture' such as synthetic biology which can increase crop yields and combat climate change through biological engineering. The engineering creates synthetic life forms that are more resilient to the effects of climate change. Such examples are drought-resistant plants and seeds and reversing pesticide resistance so that the use of chemicals may be decreased.

Post-Production Infrastructure

Cover crops can be used after harvest to reduce soil erosion by wind and water, as well as maintain the farm ecosystem. Cover crops will also sequester carbon in the plants and soil.

Capture technologies for animal manure include developing alternate energy sources such as gas capture technologies for stored livestock manure to utilize wasted energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Waste reduction and sanitation systems will need to see technological and innovative advances in the coming years to appropriately address climate concerns.

Technology

Technology has a major role to play in creating economic and ecological benefits in the agribusiness value chain, including resilient infrastructure to mitigate climate change impact. Advancements in artificial intelligence, system design solutions (e.g. circular economy) and orchestration technologies (e.g. creating efficient supply chains) can enable new agribusiness models and lead to increased food security through more productive, efficient, sustainable and resilient food production globally.

In this context, we have also seen innovation in the energy sources used in agriculture, with a push to reduce the fossil fuel usage through the development and greater use of renewable energy technologies such as electric vehicles and large-scale batteries. Innovation in this context has also centred on developing agricultural practices which either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or mitigate against such emissions by for example sequestering carbon.

There has also been innovation directed to more efficiently using the world's natural resources. Increased efficiency in water usage, for example, through precision irrigation minimises the amount of water lost to other plants and to evaporation. Many specialist companies design and implement precision irrigation systems and have obtained patents in relation to this technology. For example, Netafim, a world leader in precision irrigation technology, has numerous patents in relation to precision irrigation technology.

Technological innovation is a key driver in the push for solutions to address some of the environmental, social and economic challenges and opportunities in the agribusiness industry.

Conclusion

The contribution of agricultural practices and food loss and waste to greenhouse gas emissions and the concomitant changes in global environmental conditions cannot be ignored. Changes must be made at every step of the production process to cut down on energy used and the waste produced. Through the development and use of modern technology this is being made possible.

The big question now is what will incentivize individuals and business to innovate to address these issues.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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