ROCHESTER HILLS, Michigan — By 2050, the world’s population could reach 9.7 billion. This, coupled with the increasing risks of the changing climate, the accelerating growth of urbanization and the crucial need for sustainable practices, provides a dynamic and ever-changing agricultural landscape for the coming years and a pressing challenge that calls for immediate attention and action. In the next quarter century, food production will need to increase by more than 60% while conserving our limited land and resources, posing a significant challenge for the agricultural industry. Sustainable practices that optimize productivity, minimize waste, and mitigate environmental impacts will be imperative to achieving this ambitious target.
Among the novel breakthroughs in agricultural engineering, two notable innovations, satellite-based land surveying and phytoremediation, have emerged with significant implications and applications on a global scale.
Satellite-Based Land Imaging – Enhancing Agricultural Understanding
The use of satellite-based technology in the agricultural sector has been practiced for decades. Since the inception of the joint NASA and USGS mission Landsat in 1972, satellites have continued to return regular images of the Earth and agriculture specialists have been extensively using and studying reports and data from orbiting instruments. Nowadays, instruments and sensors in space are most commonly used to image large swaths of land, measuring crucial indicators such as soil moisture, the status of vegetation and more.
Leveraging these precise measurements, farmers and agricultural specialists have been able to optimize their farming practices, attaining unparalleled levels of efficiency. And thankfully, the pace of innovation in this field has continued unabated, showing no signs of slowing down. The Borgen Project spoke with Professor Narendra Das, a researcher at Michigan State University, who is also a scientist working on the very frontier of this new technology. “[There are] satellites that measure how much water is in the soil, the status of vegetation, the status of the crop, how much ice is on the surface, what the temperature of the ocean is… Satellites can do many things…”
Professor Das is also very enthusiastic about the advancement of this type of equipment in agricultural engineering in the coming years. “The technology now is all about improving resolution and accuracy… [it is]going to improve over time, and we can get a higher resolution as well as a higher frequency of observation… with AI, satellite imaging and computing power going up… our forecasts will become more and more accurate.”
Implementing Novel Agricultural Engineering Technologies
Ultimately, however, the crux lies in effectively implementing these novel agricultural engineering technologies. Dr. Das, who is also a member of the science team for two ongoing NASA missions, was able to provide a wealth of information about satellite-based imaging in practice. “So we cannot directly intervene with the farmers. Whenever you go to the ground level, it is very difficult to change human habits. We do not interact with the farmers directly, we try to interact with intermediary agencies like government agencies or some NGOs… We make our data and our product available, so they can communicate with farmers…”
But, while the methods of implementation may be indirect, satellite-based imaging still has a global reach. Dr. Das explained, “…with satellite remote sensing, you can reach all parts of the world… some of my projects are in Southeast Asia, Africa and India. In Kenya, people now use our drought reports and crop yield reports, which go into the country’s statistics and government departments and now six months in advance, they can prepare for the upcoming forecast.”
As the field of satellite-based imaging continues to evolve and expand, researchers and scientists like Dr. Das are actively working towards enhancing the capabilities and applications of this new technology. As sophisticated and precise agricultural innovations like these become more common, they have the potential to make a significant contribution to global food security, sustainable resource management and resilient agricultural practices for generations to come.
Phytoremediation – A Novel Solution to a Long-Standing Problem
In a similar vein to satellite-assisted agriculture, phytoremediation is another technology that has been a crucial milestone in the fight for sustainability. Whereas other innovations address the issue of global security by increasing food production, phytoremediation aims to enhance the food we already grow.
Across the world, soil pollution and degradation affect 3.2 billion people or more than 40% of the world’s population. Heavy metals and toxic chemicals have now begun finding their way into the ground. From food production and crop growth to water regulation and nutrient cycling, the Earth’s soil provides a plethora of irreplaceable benefits to the world we have created. By allowing these materials to seep into the Earth, all of these processes are hampered and rendered ineffective.
While current filtration and cleansing procedures are moderately effective, they remain extremely complex, time-consuming, and costly. As a result, phytoremediation, or the process of naturally removing pollutants through plant-based ecosystems, is a far superior alternative solution. Along with being considerably more cost-effective than other remediation techniques, phytoremediation also boosts ecosystems, is applicable over larger and more diverse areas and can prevent other environmental problems as well.
The Advances in Phytoremediation
The Borgen Project spoke with Dr. Dawn Dechand, another professor at Michigan State University and a leading expert in the field, who was able to shed some light on this contemporary technique. “[With phytoremediation}, we do things like remediate pollution, track antibiotics and pesticides, and where they go in food crops… In addition to the methane you are producing through that process, you are also producing wastewater that is really high in nutrients… we can look at using things like constructive treatment wetlands to remove some of those nutrients before you discharge them…”
The advances in phytoremediation are critical to consider because they pave the way for using sophisticated techniques to protect valuable resources like fresh water and clean produce without incurring exorbitant costs and complex machinery along the way. The collaboration between Dr. Dechand and the Shaubb community in Kalamalka, Costa Rica, serves as a tangible demonstration of these applications in action.
Dr. Dechand described the project, stating, “[Shaubb] is an indigenous community;… and so we worked with them because they wanted to build an eco-resort… but, at the same time, they did not want to pollute the nearby river. So we used to use a small digester to treat the wastewater and it also treated water from the kitchen, and then after it went through the digester, it went through a small wetland, and then they used the water coming out of the wetland, actually, for a greenhouse where they grew the vegetables that they used to cook… ”
The future of technologies like these is always uncertain, but Dr. Dechand hopes that techniques like phytoremediation will become more mainstream in the coming years. Looking ahead, further advancements in phytoremediation hold great promise. The focus of research and development will be on refining and optimizing phytoremediation processes and expanding exploration into diverse use cases ranging from urban and industrial environments to agricultural landscapes.
Shaping Global Food Security
The significance of novel agricultural engineering innovations in shaping global food security cannot be overstated. The transformative solutions of phytoremediation and satellite-based land surveying have demonstrated their immense potential in addressing the pressing challenges of food production, resource management, and environmental sustainability. However, these two techniques are merely the tip of the iceberg of the future of agricultural innovation.
Continuous advancements in agricultural engineering technologies, coupled with increased support and cooperation among industries, could be paramount in ensuring a more food-secure future. By embracing transformative solutions like these and fostering a collective commitment to innovation and sustainability, people can pave the way for resilient and sustainable food production systems that meet the needs of a growing global population.
– Sanjith Sambath