Why we need high-impact agricultural transplantation

The growing agricultural land use crisis

Agricultural production consumes massive areas of our land mass. Currently, 38% of the global land use is dedicated to agriculture. However, the distribution of this land is not fixed. Sub-optimal placement of crops and poor agricultural practices result in the loss of 12 million hectares of productive land every year. This pushes farmers further and further into previously untouched areas that provide critical ecosystem services. As a result, global food production is responsible for 80% of deforestation, 70% of freshwater use, and is the single greatest cause of terrestrial biodiversity loss. In drier regions, these forces also lead to desertification, threatening the food security of over two billion individuals.

Looking to the future, the impact of climate change will amplify these challenges even further, driving geopolitical instability and exacerbating global food systems. Therefore, we urgently need solutions that can flip the current trends of agricultural land use.

Pioneering desert agriculture

To first limit further damage caused on existing agricultural land, Deep Science Ventures are working to build new ventures for topsoil regeneration. Next, and considering the scale and timeframe required to solve agricultural land use issues, we aim to use all available tools to meet nutritional demands in a way that mitigates additional loss of vital ecosystem services. We envision an outcome that may be achieved by engineering productive agricultural systems in regions where it can add value, rather than exacting environmental costs.

Arid desert regions cover one-third of the global land surface, with significant areas that can be used for agriculture while minimising negative impacts on nature. While known constraints such as freshwater availability and diurnal temperature ranges exist, we focus on the year-round source of sunlight that underpins these constraints, which provides incredible energy to these regions. By taking a first principles approach, we believe that agricultural systems can be engineered to overcome the environmental constraints, at which point the desert sun becomes an unfair advantage that drives fertile production. The resulting agricultural systems can transform desert regions into high-value land, unlocking the potential of these environments for both people and the planet.

Achieving high impact agricultural transplantation

Cultivation can be transplanted into desert regions using agricultural engineering to augment the environment in specific ways. Augmentations exist on a spectrum that spans from simple modifications, such as water bunds, through to advanced protected environments, such as water cooled greenhouses and algal cultivation systems. Ultimately, all these approaches focus on managing temperature and water use efficiency. However, if agricultural systems are going to scale in line with demand, there are significant opportunities to be addressed. Examples of this include:

  • Dynamic environmental optimisation: Most structures used to augment environmental conditions are fixed, leading to yield losses and resource-use inefficiencies under climatic variations. To solve this, sensors and data-integration tools are needed to design, monitor and forecast the conditions created by augmentation structures. This can facilitate the creation of dynamic structures that are compatible with farming machinery and responsive to changes in climate and crop requirements through the growth cycle to maximise output.

  • Desert resource exploitation: Available resources, such as solar energy, are underutilised. For example, agrivoltaics can enable novel solutions at the water-food-energy nexus, combining photovoltaics with crops to generate synergistic cooling effects and improve water use efficiency. Likewise, complementarities between desalination and agriculture can be engineered, utilising rejected brine for environmental cooling or onshore algal cultivation as examples. If properly designed, such systems can enable agriculture in entirely novel areas.

  • Pioneer growth media: Technologies that augment soils, such as mulches, hydrogels and binding compounds, are typically held back from large-scale implementation in arid environments by environmental, logistical or cost barriers. Designing sustainable products that can be combined with available resources in situ, such as sandy soils, to generate productive synthetic growth media could enable rapid agricultural expansion.

  • Crop stress tolerance: Complementing any growth system, there are untapped biological resources found in desert biomes that enable life in hostile conditions but remain poorly characterised. This presents a greenfield for exploring traits, inoculants, stimulants and suppressants that can be applied to crops to control stress tolerance with spatio-temporal precision and enhance yield in challenging conditions.

We’re exploring these and other approaches with an explicit goal of creating ventures built on deep technology, from scratch. Taking a market-led approach, we believe we can enable pioneer desert agriculture systems that deliver impactful benefits to both people and the planet.

We discussed this Opportunity Area in more detail on a webinar on December 14th 2022. This can be viewed via this link.