I am Part of the Future of Agriculture

Young people in agriculture are innovating and using new ideas to solve the challenges of today and tomorrow. Simon Appeltans, a young PhD researcher, writes about his experience at the Symposium on the Future of Agriculture and discusses some of those challenges.

The future of agriculture is arguably the most important conversation today. After all, it is the future of our food.

It is this critical topic that brought together one of the most diverse groups of speakers I have ever seen for the symposium on the future of agriculture organized by the Herman De Croo Centre. EU Parliament members, university professors and company CEOs sat with farmers to discuss the future of agriculture.

The themes of the panel discussions varied from circular economy to technological advances, but a recurring topic was the challenges we face under climate change. The entire agricultural sector, from supermarkets to farmers in the field, will have to adapt to meet the new standards set by legislation, changing weather conditions and consumer demands.

And how do we respond to this myriad of challenges? The answer is the same for all sectors: we need to become more sustainable. On top of that however, we also need to feed more people, either by increasing production or improving food allocation and reducing losses. The solution is threefold and lies in technological innovation, the restructuring of the economy and a shift in our perception of agriculture. It’s this last point in particular that I feel generally receives little attention – except at this symposium.

Shifting perceptions

The agricultural sector, especially large-scale and intensive farming, sometimes has a bad reputation of being pollutive. This varies to some extent with farm size, since larger farms are sometimes seen as more pollutive compared to small, biological farms which still rely more on manual labor. It was nice to hear farmers’ perspective on this, since I get the impression they are often overlooked. Their message was that farming is a profession that is fundamentally connected to a passion for nature and that any good farmer is conscious of being sustainable, regardless of the scale of operation. There was a cry for more respect, which the farmers feel is lacking from the rest of society. There are portions of the population with  a lack of understanding of how food is produced and at times, regard farming as a profession that lacks excitement, intellectual challenge and is unprofitable.

But that can’t be further from the truth – agriculture is one of the most challenging fields to work in, whether you are working in the field, conducting research or working as an engineer. It is a biological process that forms the foundation of society and will face the great challenges of a growing world population and a changing climate. What’s not exciting about that? Investing in engaging young students to pursue careers in agriculture and plant science in general is absolutely essential for a sustainable future.

Technological bounds

Technology is helping to make agriculture more environmentally friendly Think about increases in fuel efficiency, precision agriculture, more effective crop protection compounds and robotic tools–all of these innovations help farmers in their daily activities.

However, there is still work to be done – especially in developing countries, but also in European agriculture. There are some farmers who have taken to new technology like real entrepreneurs, but there are also those who are wary of change. It is important that farmers work together and teach each other how to use the tools at hand to overcome the challenges they are facing.

A New Economy

We have seen in the past that an economy is like an oil tanker, slow to change course (and a disaster when it crashes). We are faced with the challenge to change to a circular economy, where waste streams are considered valuable inputs for other processes, rather than being disposed in landfills or burned.

A perfect example of this is the use of apple tree waste by a Belgian research team to make polyphenolic compounds, which can be used for as antioxidants in cosmetics. The infographic below shows how, by connecting farming with research and industry, waste is turned into a valuable resource across several sectors.

This brings us to the biggest hurdle for achieving a circular economy: networking. It is still difficult to connect the right partners who can both benefit – one by attaining an input and one by finding an output. This was the major take-home message of the symposium: cooperation is the key to sustainable agriculture. Cooperatives between farmers, but also industry and academia, and across research disciplines, are essential to tackle the challenges ahead. We can all contribute, whether it means being more aware of our food production or joining a research network.

Graphic courtesy of Hannes Withouck

Author

Simon Appeltans is a PhD researcher under the Precision Scoring research group at Ghent University, working on site-specific pesticide applications based on proximal sensing technologies. He is also an Ambassador for the NextGen Plant Science Network, a global community of early career professionals and students in plant science, supported by CropLife International. In 2019, he won the Nextgen Award at the IUPAC International conference, receiving funding for a project involving farmer/researcher networking.