The food sources that could forestall environment calamities. When wildfires ravaged Abby Rose’s farm in January 2017, every inch of her land was burned. Following many years of drought in Chile, temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) that summer and strong winds spread flames uncontrollably across southern and central regions for weeks.
“Fires were raging, it was terrifying and being on the frontline of devastation like that completely changed my understanding of farming,” says Rose, who recalls struggling in a thick cloud of smoke as she fought to protect her 300-hectare (1.2-sq-mile) family farm in the Loncomilla Valley. “It was the closest I have ever been to thinking what a war zone must be like.”
During those fires – a national disaster made all the more extreme by the intensifying climate crisis – all 8,000 of her young olive trees burned just before their first commercial harvest was due to take place. Almost 90% of her olive crops died. It was a “total wipeout”, she says, and financially devastating.
Climate change has increased the number of large wildfires occurring each year and increased the length of the fire season in which wildfires are more likely. Since the Chilean blaze in 2017, major wildfires have also raged in the Amazon, California and Australia, with farmers paying the cost through lost livestock and crops. And it’s not just fires – major weather disasters caused by climate change, including floods, droughts and storms, have increased five-fold in the past five decades.
If the trend for more disasters continues, it will take a combination of innovation and smarter farming to mitigate those losses. Farmers like Rose are learning to adapt.
Instead of olives, Rose now grows almonds and pistachios, which are both more drought-resistant. She also grazes sheep, which enrich the soil beneath the trees with their faeces. “We had to think differently about how the farm would go forward, so we encourage more biodiversity and keep the cover green for as long as possible throughout the year because that tends not to burn,” says Rose. “We had no choice but to respond quickly and adapt to more regenerative practices.”
The solutions for farming in a changing climate can be both impressively scientific and surprisingly simple.
Today, droughts continue in Chile, but the Rose family are rebuilding a fire-resilient farm that will be much better prepared in the long term thanks to a regenerative farming approach.
The term “regenerative agriculture” includes a spectrum of farming practices, from the no-till movement to companion planting, but at its heart are techniques that have been used by farmers for centuries, and are now considered as important for reversing the climate impact of agriculture.
The interest in regenerative agriculture has received a boost recently, as environmental scientists estimate it could help to avoid carbon emissions, improve soil health, conserve water, as well as protect against future climate disasters. Rose is using livestock to enrich the soil on her farm – a practice that could help to avoid or sequester up to 42 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions by 2050. Other regenerative agriculture practices, like using green manure and organic farming, could help to sequester a further 14-22 gigatonnes of CO2e.
But on the other hand, says Rose, it’s not all about looking backwards. Modern technology has the potential to be a major part of a transition to ecologically friendly farming that leaves less of an environmental footprint. Farmers like her are using smartphones, solar water pumps, robotics for precision weeding, self-driving tractors, drones and even satellites to help them achieve this aim. The drive to reduced-carbon farming and disaster resilience needs to be both traditional and modern.
Smartphones also open up new channels for selling produce directly to customers. A mobile app called Krishi Janani, created for and founded by women, links regenerative farmers in India to their local marketplace. Founder Usha Devi Venkatachalam explains how this “tech with a traditional twist” enables food sovereignty but doesn’t overshadow it. “For us, the answer is not to look at tech as the solution, but to look at the farmers who have this wisdom and see how tech provides us with the opportunity to promote that so it can be practised across different regions in ways that suit those landscapes.”
Through Krishi Janani, more than 10,000 farmers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu can share best practices among themselves and tailor their regenerative approaches to each region. Shoppers can now more easily find out more about the local, seasonal food on offer and speak to a women-only team of sales agents who deliver produce once a week.
“The people can help share the stories about the food and that’s facilitated by tech. But you don’t trust the tech, you trust the farmer,” says Venkatachalam. “There is a very strong temptation to look at science and big-tech solutions to solve our problems but we don’t pay enough attention to small solutions that already work, especially if they come from cultures and communities that aren’t English, French or Spanish-speaking. Sometimes indigenous tribes and smaller communities have the answers.”
Now, this new knowledge transfer and information flow is changing for the better. Rose says that smartphones give farmers access to information in a more democratised way. Many farmers are inspired to try new practices after listening to stories about regenerative agriculture through podcasts or hearing about first-hand experiences in lively Facebook groups or private WhatsApp chats. Rose herself has launched her own podcast – Farmerama Radio – in an effort to share her stories and others from around the world about the growing regenerative farming movement.
How do farmers around the world know that they are comparing data accurately? Deciphering which technology helps and which hinders a transition to more sustainable agriculture is important, and the farming world needs a robust way of charting its progress, says Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, a UK-based environmental charity. This is where big data can help.
“Farmers want to know whether their farming system has better sustainability outcomes than last year – that includes our soil health, water use, biodiversity, nutrient cycling, socio- and cultural impacts,” explains Holden.
For six years, the Sustainable Food Trust has been working with retailers, banks, food companies, NGOs and governments to develop ways to measure sustainability indicators on farms. Only then can all farms be compared, argues Holden. “Of course, you can’t have one biodiversity measurement for every country on Earth but you can have a common framework that allows for regional differentiation. We want to be a catalyst towards creating a globally harmonised way of measuring farming sustainability impacts. That’s a precondition for reaching an agreement about the role of agriculture in addressing climate change.”
Big data from farms has already been used to precisely measure soil quality and the position of the crop (whether it is uphill or downhill within a field, for example), and how these relate to variations in yields in response to climate change. Data from satellites, aircraft, drones, remote sensors and combine harvesters has been used by researchers from Michigan State University, US, to identify areas within individual fields where yields are poor. Using this data, better predictions can be made about the effects of forecast weather.
It is not just the weather that farmers need to predict. With climate change, there will also be an increase in the number of extreme natural disasters. The total number of disaster events worldwide has been increasing in recent decades, with floods, storms and extreme temperature among the most common types of event. In the graphic below you can see that instances of flooding increased 44% between 1980 and 2019, for example. In total, disasters were estimated to cause $1.6tn (£1.2tn) of damage between 1980 and 1999, and $3tn (£2.3tn) between 2000 and 2019.
Somewhere in the range of 2007 and 2016, the US economy lost $536m (£406m) in view of fluctuating yields brought about by environment changeability across the Midwest. Guard years followed by unfortunate years brought about by varieties in precipitation made anticipating harvests more troublesome, influencing around 25% of the corn and soybean crops around here. In any case, with the right huge information, detects that are more inclined to changeability can be distinguished.
One of the advances that large information could open is in distinguishing hybridized crops that suit regenerative horticulture rehearses like no-till cultivating. Decreased culturing could assist cultivates that with having had a time of low precipitation, as the training assists with monitoring water.
Culturing includes digging or turning over the highest layer of soil to kill off weeds and set up the ground for planting. In any case, culturing additionally uncovered roots from the past yield to the air – these would somehow or another be left in the dirt – which works with the arrival of carbon and different supplements like nitrogen. It additionally dries out the dirt, meaning the land could require more water and manure to set it up for the new season. A no-till development is acquiring in ubiquity as a method for decreasing fossil fuel byproducts (maybe by up to 13 gigatonnes), however requires plants that have further roots to track down supplements.
In the video beneath, specialists at the Land Foundation in Kansas, US, are creating wheat, rice and sorghum cross breeds that are more qualified to no-work cultivating.
Another US-based fintech company, Cultivo, recently launched a new platform which enables investments to directly regenerate ecosystems and protect biodiversity. Chief executive Manuel Piñuela aims to restore at least 3.5 million hectares (13,500 sq miles) of land within the next five years by attracting private investment worth $1bn (£750m) to finance hi-tech solutions. Cultivo’s success hinges on artificial intelligence. Satellite imagery is used to survey land, pinpoint the best locations and assess their potential as regenerative farmland, for example, by using algorithms to forecast natural capital returns before a project begins. So financial institutions can choose which of these projects or so-called nature generators to invest in once their viability has been investigated.
Ramping up these climate-positive practices on a global scale might require big data and big investment, but for now Rose is pressing on with reducing her impact and preparing for the next climate-related emergency on her family farm. “As the climate gets more unpredictable, regenerative agriculture is showing a path of resilience,” she says.