How new technologies can contribute to healthier crops

For 12,000 years, we have been continuously breeding crops aiming to increase their yield. Agricultural practices are the main determinant of the food production level and indirectly, being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Conventional agricultural procedures date back to the mid-20th century with the initiation of the Green Revolution. Since then, agricultural production has been increasing tremendously, mostly due to the adoption of high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and mechanisation. However, the “conventional” agricultural practices deplete our soils more and more. Additionally, there’s an increasing pressure on the production system due to the growing population on earth combined with the effects climate change. This pushes for the adoption of smart agriculture practices, focusing on rebuilding soil organic matter and recovering soil biodiversity.

The necessity for nutrition-smart crops

Considering this, we should emphasize that smart agricultural practices should be nutrition-smart too. We should continue developing climate-resilient crops to ensure food security and agricultural livelihood for coming generations, while ensuring that the nutritional value of crops does not decrease. For example, the rise in CO2 levels reduces the levels of zinc, iron, and protein in staple crops such as rice, soybeans, wheat and peas. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, it is likely that global food production will decline by 2% every decade until 2050 because of the current rate of climate change. Just when the world is expected to have 9.7 billion mouths to feed. An increase in population, together with a decrease in crops and nutritional value of these crops is detrimental for food security. To date, more than two billion people worldwide suffer from “Hidden Hunger”, meaning they consume a sufficient amount of calories, but at the same time have micronutrient deficiencies, leading to several adverse health outcomes.

Solutions

If this is the first article you read on our website, this might come as a surprise to you, but thanks to emerging techniques and technologies, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Examples of these techniques to support the nutritional status are planting certain cover crops, enhancing the quality of seeds used, but also the more targeted use (and re-use) of water through micro-irrigation. Smart irrigation systems can measure the moisture of the soil using sensors, enabling the farmer to adjust his irrigation schedule accordingly. Furthermore, several other technologies exist to analyse soil texture, such as soil composition and the pH value. This and other practices can offer targeted treatment and increase biologically available soil organic matter and is therefore essential for soil fertility and diversity. Studies suggest that a healthy soil eventually also leads to healthier crops, with higher levels of essential micro-nutrients. One of the many examples is improving the zinc status of the soils, as it is estimated that about one third of cultivated soils worldwide contain low amounts of available zinc, which results in low nutritional quality of the harvested grains. Improving the zinc concentration of the soil, and consequently of the crops, is expected to have immediate positive effects on human health.

All in all, these new technologies can improve soil quality and provide extensive environmental benefits. Both might enhance the level of micronutrients of crops, which in turn can have a positive impact on our health. Using new technologies to combat this problem via the production of crops that have increased levels of essential micronutrients, that sounds like we might finally have real nutrition-smart “superfoods”.

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