The world is getting bigger. Urban population growth is increasing, with 54 percent of the total world population living in urban areas in 2014. It’s predicted that by 2050, nearly 64 percent of the developing world and 86 percent of the developed world will be urbanized. This global push towards urban living is happening in both developed and developing regions, slowly changing the supply/demand balance of traditional agriculture. But what does urbanization have to do with agriculture?
The Shifting Demand
The increasing pressures of urbanization are changing food demand, and by extension, agriculture, in several key ways.
Urbanization changes two important variables in the food demand equation: total disposable income available for food spending and preferences for the foods consumed. These two variables lead to increased demand both in food amount and quality. These demands have strong implications for traditional farmers.
The Challenges of Urbanization
Changing Food Needs
The rise of urbanization means an increased population, which results in the need to grow more food, therefore increasing yield. Urbanization also changes the type of foods consumed and the demand for what farmers must produce. Typically, urbanites consume more in general and place more emphasis on food variety: dairys, meats, fish, processed foods, organic vegetables, and fast-food options. And while urbanites value variety in food options, the preference for convenient, processed foods is clear. The problems associated with heavily processed diets are twofold: (1) Malnutrition from overconsumption of calorie-dense foods, often resulting in obesity, nutrient deficiencies, or disease, (2) Loss of arable land due to increased demand for resource-intensive meat and animal by-products.
Urbanizing Supply Chains
Urbanization and globalization allow disparate supply chains to deliver products across the world, changing the traditional supply/demand equation. With globalization, access to food no longer depends on where we live, which creates problems for local farmers. Spread out supply chains that feature multiple wholesalers, processors, and distributors are complex and difficult to manage. Global supply chains also create more competition for local farmers, as food distribution isn’t limited by region. Even local farmers must find ways to compete with industrial farming businesses that are expanding their reach.
Growing Labor Crises
Aside from changing food demands and more complex supply chains, a third challenge facing traditional agriculture is a lack of labor.
As a result of urbanization, the global focus on traditional farm work decreases. Less than one percent of the US population are farmers, declining from 3.4 million last century to less than one million today. Combine this with better education overall and increasing employment opportunities in urban areas, and the availability of and interest in farm labor significantly decreases.
This often leaves farming jobs to immigrants and underprivileged populations—groups that are generally less wealthy and less educated. And although new farming technology is poised to reshape the agriculture industry, these populations (who make up the majority of the agricultural workforce) often have a difficult time utilizing these new technologies.
Although challenging for local farmers, these shifts in the agricultural industry are a natural progression of our urbanizing world. As technology improves and becomes more cost-effective to implement, new possibilities for innovation are appearing in traditional agriculture fields.
Innovative Agriculture Solutions
New Growing Methods
What’s one way to set aside the need for land and ample natural resources? Vertical farming and greenhouse technology are improving indoor farming options, offering controlled environments for growth and letting urbanites grow locally sourced vegetables without the need for traditional farmland. Hydroponic growing systems that let individuals grow vegetables in nutrient solutions instead of soil allow farmers to produce consistent crop yields regardless of the season. This helps give urban consumers year-round access to organic produce. Indoor vegetable farming also preserves available outdoor farmland for livestock production, increasing the availability of meat and animal products. This type of convenience gives urbanites access to their preferred food options without needing to rely as heavily on global food transportation and distribution methods.
Better Yield, Better Nutrition
In response to the evolving consumer demand for more food, and more varied and at times more healthy options, start-ups are developing technologies that increase crop yield while simultaneously supporting nutritional security.
One way start-ups are accomplishing this is through plant breeding: by altering the genome of plant structures, companies can optimize crops to produce more and live longer than their unmodified counterparts. In some cases, these crops can even be modified to increase their nutritional impact, a process known as nutritional genomics.
Precision agriculture is a new trend that helps improve monitoring through big data and sensors to improve farmers’ decision-making, which in turn allows for increasing yield and plant/animal health.
These improvements aren’t just limited to growing – improvements in meat production and livestock management are occurring as well. These advancements contribute to more efficient use of available land and resources, two necessary components of meeting the increased demand for meat and dairy by urban consumers.
Automation of Agriculture
Alongside improvements to indoor growing and plant breeding, agriculture automation is occurring to combat the shrinking supply of labor. Forward-thinking start-ups are developing new methods, such as deploying automated growing systems that produce commercial-scale harvests at competitive prices. These allow urbanites access to fresh vegetables while keeping the crop locally sourced, and reducing the amount of manpower necessary to achieve sustainable yields.
Automation is also empowering indoor farming in other ways, such as programmed schedules for watering, lighting, and fertilization. This automation increases the efficiency of indoor agriculture by reducing the labor needed to turn a profit. Such automation will form a central part of a technology-oriented agricultural work force as the supply of qualified workers continues to decrease.
Israel is home to many of the start-ups powering the agricultural tech transition. Consider, for instance, the technology offered by start-up Prospera, which offers a fully automated technology that monitors and analyzes plant health, development, and stress, providing actionable value to farmers, replacing labor intensive processes and outdated, expensive equiptment.
This push is supported by Israeli company, Kaiima, a genetics and breeding technology company, developed a non-GMO technology which boosts the inherent productivity and resource usage efficiency, supporting crop productivity and nutritional food security. Furthermore, companies like Growponics Ltd. design and build automated hydroponic greenhouse factories that use modern agronomics and high technology to maximize food/plant production and profitability of crop yields.
Other companies focus more on the production of animal-based produce. For instance, Afimilk offers an advanced dairy farming and management system, collecting and analyzing information about each animal, giving farmers real-time information about their herd’s health, fertility, milk quality, productivity and other critical factors. Virentes is developing a high-throughput robot and multi-rootstock grafting technology to automatically perform all accompanyting activities—inculding trimming, clearing, and disinfecting—to increase the plant grafting productivity for farmers.
Start-ups like these, and many others, continue to push Israel to the forefront of groundbreaking agricultural technology.
Farming In the Urban Age
Agriculture is slow to change, but the race towards sustainable farming technology is underway. With the global population constantly rising, the traditional model of subsistence farming is being challenged. Tech start-ups with the desire to disrupt this model will begin to direct the course of future agricultural research and farm management. Indeed, for agricultural entrepreneurs who grew up with the innovation-driving tech that an urbanizing world demands, these shifts towards technology may be welcome.
To learn about startups focusing on agritech innovations, explore our Finder.