An expanding world population, coupled with increasing concerns about resource scarcity, land availability, biodiversity conservation and global warming is fostering interest in sustainable agriculture technologies.
Large companies and clean technology investors are focused on energy, and some are following water. Yet very few are tracking opportunities in breakthrough clean and green agricultural technology. And that suggests opportunity.
Certain innovations from a new crop of companies have the potential to expand yields, increase efficiencies, reduce waste and address concerns about toxicity, safety and the environment. There are innovative companies that are potentially poised for success across all categories of the taxonomy of agricultural cleantech
Crop farming includes the cultivation of grains, fruits, vegetables, fiber crops, fuel crops and other plant varieties like mushrooms and fungi. This sector is of particular importance as cropland covers 12% of the earth’s ice-free land, and grain cultivation alone accounts for 50% of the world’s food supply (when supplies fed to livestock are considered).
Plant Health Care (AIM:PHC) is best known for two natural crop amendments; Harpin and Myconate. Harpins are proteins produced by a variety of pathogens which cause plants to release cellular calcium and increase their metabolic rate. Photosynthesis and nutrient uptake rates rise, resulting in greater immunity and growth. Plant Health Care synthesizes Harpin proteins which have been shown to increase yield and shelf-life of certain crops. Harpin, discovered by Plant Health Care’s chief scientist, was a cover feature of Science Magazine. Myconate, a compound naturally secreted by drought resistant crops like red clover, promotes the colonization of plant roots with beneficial networks of fungi which work to increase the effective surface area of roots. Plant Health Care has developed a process to generate synthetic Myconate. Ultimately, the company claims, Myconate allows greater access to water and nutrient resources which has been shown to generate yield increases on the order of 9% for corn crops and 13% for soybeans.
Controlled environment agriculture
Just over half the world’s population currently resides in urban areas. This fraction is expected to rise over the coming decades, reaching 67% (~6 billion people) by the year 2050. Urbanization presents a myriad of challenges for the agricultural industry and introduces new environmental considerations associated with food production and distribution. One way of addressing these issues is by finding ways to cultivate food within city limits. Urban agriculture practices can take a variety of forms, from greenhouse farming to vertical farming in unused indoor spaces to rooftop gardens and so on. Urban agriculture can reduce risks associated with weather and spoilage. Indoor climates are predictable and controllable, thus droughts and cold snaps pose no threat. Shorter transport distances to markets reduce the fraction of food lost to spoilage and the carbon footprint of products. On top of the practical advantages of urban agriculture, society as a whole has a preference for local food. Research has indicated that citizens of developed countries are willing to pay a 15%-20% premium for local products.
Forests provide a number of invaluable ecosystems services. They are hubs of biodiversity and play an integral role in global carbon and hydrological cycles. Timber is an inherently renewable resource, however proper management practices are paramount to sustaining the regenerative nature of forests. Sustainable forest management seeks to: maintain and enhance forest resources, promote the health and vitality of forest ecosystems, conserve biodiversity and ensure forest land retains its natural relation to soil and water systems. The ultimate goal is to retain the forest’s ability to support ecological, socio-economic and cultural functions beyond timber harvesting. Over the past three centuries, timber extraction has caused a net loss of 7 to 11 million km2¬¬ of forest land. An additional 2 million km2 have been converted to highly managed timber and oil palm plantations. The technologies outlined below represent new opportunities to reduce our impact on native forests and improve the sustainability of silviculture stands.
Livestock operations present an increasingly important segment of the agricultural industry. Nations tend to increase their consumption of animal protein as they become more affluent. China, as an example, more than doubled its consumption of animal products during the 1990s. Over the next ten years, livestock is expected to provide 50% of agricultural output in value terms. Combining the land devoted to animal feed crops and pastureland, animal farming accounts for 75% of agricultural lands (3.73 billion hectares). Thirty-five percent of crop production globally is currently devoted to animal feed. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are becoming increasingly popular in the animal farming sector. CAFOs present unique challenges, most pressingly in the area of waste management.
Seafood currently provides 17% of the world’s protein and over 25% of protein in low-income countries. Roughly half the fish entering the market come from aquaculture and half from fisheries. The aquaculture industry is said be growing at 8-10% per year, making it the fastest growing sector of agriculture. Aquaculture is widely recognized as having a pivotal role in fighting world hunger and promoting the sustainable acquisition of dietary protein.