The average European farming family of the 1950s would be considered flexitarian today. They ate meat once a week – if at all – and on Fridays they ate fish. They grew much of their own food: the father worked hard on the cash crops, the mother held an allotment where she cultivated potatoes, vegetables, and fruit and then conserved it all in mason jars. The family kept a pig, raising it for the meat. The grain produced was ground at the local mill and what wasn’t needed for consumption was sold there as well. This was a hipster lifestyle pur sang. Today, this sounds idyllic to many, but back then, people simply had no other choice.
From the golden age to smallholder farmers
This example demonstrates that we seem to have come full circle with our ideas and ideas about agriculture and food production. Since the end of World War II, scaling was the keyword. This was necessary to produce all the food that was needed for the growing population and, on top of that, meet the demands of the emerging middle class (having a meat-based menu, for instance). Antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and hybrids revolutionized farming. Farms could scale up and ensure big harvests, all with less manual labor. Large barns were built for cattle. Local governments and, later, the EU subsidized farms and made sure that they could grow to enormous proportions. It was the golden age of farming.
But scaling is no longer the keyword in food production – even though we face an unprecedented spike in the global population. We’ve learned our lesson about large-scale farming through crises involving animal diseases, animal welfare, and soil exhaustion. As a consequence, we have seen an increase in smallholder farmers worldwide. When you look at these farms today, they have the same structure as the farms in the 1950s. However, there is one big difference. These farmers already know the outcome of industrial farming. Those valuable lessons and experiences allow them to better define their own direction. And their approach is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture. Minister of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality Carola Schouten recently presented a plan to work toward fully circular agriculture by 2030.
Circular agriculture is, by definition zero waste, according to the Wageningen University and Research in their Circular Agrofood System report. This means that all products leaving a farm are used. Even though only 30% of crops are suitable for human consumption, the other 70% can be used in the production of animal feed, for example, while the manure of the cattle can be used to replenish the soil and benefit the growth of crops. This creates a potentially endless loop.
The other major shift in modern agriculture is, in contrast to circular agriculture, unique to the twenty-first century: digital farming. Not fertilizers, but bytes are now revolutionizing farming. How can we combine these new technologies with the way of working to create a new sustainable way of farming? The first is the industrialized way of farming that we call Digital Yield, and the other is smallholder farming that we call the Digital Donkey.
Digital agriculture is particularly revolutionary for smallholder farmers. Without having to invest in large and expensive machinery, the Digital Donkey profits from mobile applications and other technical solutions that help them in growing crops successfully – with an increasingly less negative impact on the environment. On megafarms, digitalization can also make a big difference. Hardware, such as sensors in the soil, can be used to collect data and software can be used to assemble, process and analyze data. Access to and understanding of this data transforms the decision-making processes at farms – small and large.
Event: Bytes against hunger
At our upcoming event “Digital Agriculture, Bytes Against Hunger,” we dive into the various ways in which digital agriculture is changing farming in revolutionary ways. Moreover, we zoom in on what changes to the industry are necessary in the face of challenges like climate change, the growing world population, and the increasingly loud calls for far-reaching sustainability.
Join us on November 14, in Utrecht! [link to registration]