Agriculture makes the world go round – but at its current rate of expansion, it is becoming increasingly inefficient, costly and harmful to the environment. Is technology the answer?
Given the importance of the agricultural industry and its relevance to local economies, improving outdated systems and processes is more crucial now than ever before. With such a huge task at hand, the best research institutions in the world are being charged with resolving the problems facing agribusiness today. One such firm taking the challenge head-on is Alberta-based nanotechnology specialist Ingenuity Lab, which is working on reducing the negative impact of agriculture not only in its own backyard, but for the entire planet.
The agricultural sector plays a vital role in Canada’s federal and provincial economies, with a contribution to the country’s GDP that exceeds $100bn each year. In fact, Canada is the fifth-largest agricultural exporter in the world, and with over 2.2 million individuals working in the sector, it represents 12 percent of Canada’s total employment. Being the country’s second largest agricultural producer, Alberta has earned an international reputation as a source of advanced agricultural technology, which accounts for 22 percent of the country’s farm cash receipts.
Industrial agriculture practices, severe ploughing and monocrop systems have caused nutrient depletion and large-scale soil erosion
“Since it is one of Canada’s core industries, Ingenuity Lab has chosen agriculture as one of its key areas of focus. Our research team in this area is focused on developing innovative technologies for sustainable agriculture, while maintaining environmental quality. The strategies that we use are cost-effective, fast and accurate in order to help farmers to improve their crop yield with fewer resources”, said Charles Van Neste, Group Leader for Instrumentation Development at Ingenuity Lab. “Ultimately, our technology goals are aligned with local priorities to support the agriculture sector to be sustainable in the national market, as well as within global markets.”
Water, water everywhere
The agriculture sector is facing a growing number of challenges, which include resource depletion, water pollution, land management and livestock management, yet all these issues centre around one basic constant: soil.
“A healthy soil provides sufficient nutrients and water to support plant growth, which can then feed humans and livestock. However, industrial agriculture practices, severe ploughing and monocrop systems have caused nutrient depletion and large-scale soil erosion. On the other hand, the over-application of fertilisers and pesticides continues to contaminate both soil and ground water”, said Prashanthi Kovur, Ingenuity Lab’s Group Leader for Fabrication and Devices. “The soil nutrient cycle is greatly affected by the frequent harvesting of crops, as well as grazing livestock. Unfortunately, there is no stable supply of decomposing plant material to restore nutrient levels within the soil.” Added to this is the mounting problem of food waste. “One third of the world’s food is lost during production, handling and consumption. For example, in North America, a large percentage of this loss comes from consumers wasting food. Landfills filled with organic waste are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”
Although contaminated water is most commonly associated with heavy industries, the expansion of farming to meet with population growth and soaring demand has turned it into a far broader issue, making a deep environmental impact that is often overlooked. In order to tackle this growing problem, Ingenuity Lab has been developing a state-of-the-art water purification system, using nanotechnology that will enable the reversion of soil and water back to their natural states. As research into nanotechnology continues, Ingenuity Lab expects to find a way to reclaim nitrogen from soil runoff, which could have a huge impact on agricultural yield.
“Due to the industrial revolution, water pollution has become a global issue. One of our solutions to this issue is presenting a way in which we can purify contaminated water and then reuse it for agricultural purposes”, said Van Neste. “Ingenuity Lab is developing a bio-inspired hybrid membrane system to address the environmental impact of contaminants to our water supply; these bio-inspired reverse osmosis membrane systems are suitable for industrial scale applications and exceed the performance of existing membrane technologies.”
Another strand of Ingenuity Lab’s research is the development of desalination technology. “The desalination technologies that we are developing will support coastal regions with drinking water and help them to grow their own crops”, said Van Neste.
While agribusiness is becoming increasingly damaging to the environment, heavy industries still remain a culprit in this story as well. “The potential harmful effect of industrial pollution on agriculture from organic waste and mining activities has been raised by many environmental agencies. Mining activity is associated with high levels of pollution and the loss of agricultural livelihoods, which results in stressed vegetation and downcast production”, said Kovur. “As a team at Ingenuity Lab, we are always thinking about ways that we could clean industrial waste water and use it to grow crops and transform industrial-scale pollution into an agricultural solution. At present, we are working on developing state-of-the-art membrane technologies to filter away waste and enhance water flux across the membrane with high levels of salt rejection, so that the resulting clean water can be used for agricultural purposes.”
More for less
“Agriculture is the dominant use of land in Canada, and the leading source of pollution. One ongoing challenge is the contamination of soil and water caused by excess pesticides, in addition to the ammonia compounds that enter our marine systems from runoff water. These toxins remain in the environment for generations – many are even suspected of disturbing our ecosystem. However, by minimising toxin transport mechanisms, monitoring plant health and ensuring early detection of diseases, we can reduce excess levels of pesticides”, said Kovur.
“We always hope for a better quality of life for future generations. But what about the excess pesticides that are already present? The analytical methods that we are developing can facilitate the collection of data concerning particular target pesticides that may impact human health and the environment. Our advanced miniaturised micro/nanofabrication technologies have led to the development of sensitive and selective sensor devices for field-based environmental monitoring and the early detection of plant diseases”, said Kovur. “We hope to develop next generation technologies where the earth could filter away excess pesticides and recycle fertilisers at the molecular level.”
When it comes to increasing yield potential, soil holds the key once again. This would make an incredible difference to agricultural industries all around the world. “Precise measurements of soil nutrients are desirable for efficient agricultural production, including site-specific crop management, where fertiliser nutrient application rates are adjusted spatially, based on local soil requirements”, Kovur said. In order to increase crop yield, while simultaneously improving performance and reliability, cost-effective sensor technologies can interface directly with entire growing and herding fields.
“Ingenuity Lab has access to world class talent, as well as the hi-tech facilities required to undertake advanced research. The combination of these two assets helps us in developing innovative solutions for complex problems. Our state-of-the-art sensing techniques can detect trace amounts of various chemicals and fertilisers present in the soil. Additional research and the development of nanotechnologies with the power to reclaim nitrogen from soil runoff have further potential to help our agriculture industry increase its yield”, said Van Neste.
All around the world, land that could be used for large-scale agricultural production goes unworked due to its unsuitability for agricultural activities. Solving this problem would result in a huge boost in production for communities, not to mention the health and environmental benefits of local food. Ingenuity Lab believes the age-old problem of arid land can be solved by technology.
“The quality of soil, landscape, climate and temperature are the limiting factors of how the Earth’s surface can be used for agriculture. In areas where land is less productive, agriculture requires more advanced techniques and inputs in order to address poor soil quality. Those zones that have received few modern inputs can greatly increase productivity and raise the value of agricultural land”, said Van Neste.
“Excess deposits of salt in the soil, especially near coastal areas, prevent plants from absorbing water, thereby making it unsuitable for farming. However, with recent advancements in technology, we can convert the unsuitable land into usable land, where agriculture can be practiced far more successfully. Our research team at Ingenuity Lab is developing biodegradable cellulose-based hydrogel technologies that are used as water reservoirs and nutrient carriers in agriculture. Such advanced technologies will have a huge impact on the reduction of water consumption, together with water resource optimisation, in both agriculture and horticulture”, said Van Neste. “The technologies that we are developing have great potential in converting biomass in Alberta into value-added products. These hydrogel-based technologies make cultivation possible in infertile areas of the world, thus supporting large-scale agriculture.”
Visions of the future
Agriculture – the oldest industry on earth – is as vital today as it was at the beginning of civilisation. Finding new ways to improve, through cutting-edge innovation and technology, is the only hope for dealing with humanity’s continued expansion.
“The global population is expected to reach over nine billion by 2050. With growing demands on the world’s food supply chain, we rely on farmers to enable a sustainable food supply”, said Kovur. “However, farmers are facing various challenges in food production that make it hard to produce more crops with a lower environmental impact. One way to address these issues is through precision agriculture, although current precision techniques require a robust IT infrastructure and substantial resources, which can only be achieved by bigger companies. The inability to obtain soil characteristics rapidly and inexpensively remains one of the biggest limitations of precision agriculture.”
In light of this, Ingenuity Lab has charged itself with an important task. “We are developing cost-effective, innovative sensor technologies to enable precision soil nutrient management by monitoring soil and plant health in real time. These smart sensors can rapidly respond to target ions, making them suitable for in-field rapid detection. A swarm of robots integrated with our sensors have the ability to monitor nutrients and plant health foot by foot. Our SWEEP robotic technologies allow the robots to be powered and controlled wirelessly”, said Kovur.
“Ingenuity Lab envisions a day when farmers in remote areas can use mobile devices to manage their own agriculture. We call it ‘networked agriculture’. Integrated sensors will continuously monitor soil health and transmit the information wirelessly to a handheld device. This user-friendly technology would help farmers to make proactive decisions, save money, and maximise crop yields and food production, while also minimising the environmental impact they have.”