The gradual industrialization of agriculture has increased food production to record levels, but a solid case can be made that the end results of this success are jeopardizing the benefits. Today, for example, nearly half of the world’s protein intake comes from only three grains – wheat, rice and corn – a situation that has not only resulted in a reduction in the genetic diversity of these crops (thereby making them more prone to disease), but contributes to soil nutrient depletion and susceptibility to insects, which creates a greater need for chemical fertilizers and an overuse of herbicides and pesticides.
A similar lack of genetic diversity, with all its inherent dangers, is seen in the livestock industry (maintaining a variety of inherited genetic traits is how plant and animal species foment resiliency and adaptability and boost their ability to survive varying environments and situations).
Meanwhile, food waste continues to scale at new heights. Currently, over 1.3 billion tons of food (roughly 30% of the world’s supply) never complete their journey from the farm to the fork. Add climate change to the equation, and the situation only worsens. For example, Canada (one of the world’s largest grain producers) suffered severe droughts from 1999-2005 (the drop in Canada’s GDP from crop loss during 2001-2002 alone amounted to $6 billion). And in 2021, prices for Canadian durum wheat increased by 90%; again, because of drought. Further south in Central America, high temperatures are ripening coffee too quickly while an increase in rainfall propagates ‘coffee leaf rust’, which reduces yields and damages trees (coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity and a major economic staple in South and Central America). In the horn of Africa, drought has been withering crops since 2018, while further east, cyclones decimate Madagascar vanilla harvests and Asian rice fields flood with saltwater.
Waiting for billion-dollar, high-tech unicorns to reverse these trends and save the day is probably a pipe dream for the simple reason that many pie-in-the-sky solutions are too specific to a region or area, and/or are little more than theoretical and/or are nowhere near a point where they can be scaled to an industrial level. So perhaps a more practical way to begin resolving the problems facing humanity’s food supply is for industry workers, businesses, governments, financial institutes, research bodies and professional organizations to join together with carefully chosen partners and agree to ‘do more with less’ by streamlining work systems, reducing resource use, and eliminating waste. Just as important, a practical guideline for achieving these objectives should include the following three criteria:
- Affordable – tools, equipment, and related costs (purchase price and operation costs) must be within the financial reach of intended users,
- Available – equipment, tools, and parts must be easy to find and obtain,
- Accessible – uncomplicated access to instruction or training, ease of use, and ease of maintenance/repair.
Such is the mission and purpose of the ‘Green Front-Line’ project, a four-stage initiative designed to introduce pragmatic steps that motivate and empower front-line workers to generate, and improve upon, practical solutions that promote sustainable business development, adopt circular economic models, and mitigate climate change.
In June 2021, the first stage of the Green Front-Line project revealed that costs associated with remote sensing (aerial-imaging) can be greatly reduced. Aerial observation was chosen as a starting point because, as a problem prevention asset in early production stages where disease, moulds, pests and fires can wipe out crops in 48 hours or less, aerial-imaging can detect oncoming devastation before it’s too late – often before it’s seen on the ground. To date, however, the greatest obstacle to aerial-imaging has been its expensive. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), large-scale aerial-imaging can cost anywhere between US$500 and US$3,000 per hour. This is despite the fact that the cost savings aerial images can provide are significant. For example, if a grower only has to spray 30% of a 300-acre plot, and the spray product costs $50 an acre, it would take $15,000 of product to spray the entire field, versus $4,500 to spray 90 acres, or 30% of the field. In Costa Rica, a farm owner increased his harvest by 33% and his profits by $200 per hectare, by using aerial-imaging to decrease chemical use. The results were so successful that 300-hectares of his land were converted into a pesticide-free operation and he now only adds nutrients (such as phosphorous) when needed.
With this in mind, the first stage of the Green Front-Line project began by launching smaller, more fuel-efficient two-seater aircraft as aerial camera platforms and watched the following results unfold:
- Fuel consumption lowered from 57 liters per hour to 11-23 liters per hour
- Hourly fuel costs cut from approx. US$125 to US$15 (based on June 2021 fuel prices)
- Leaded aviation fuel replaced with less-polluting unleaded automobile gas (mogas)
- Maintenance cost reductions (e.g.: no 50-hour oil changes or spark plug cleaning)
- Purchase price decreases (smaller aircraft can cost 20% to 90% less than traditional larger aircraft – or, put another way, less than the cost of a mid-sized tractor)
- Flying time greatly reduced – at the height of 1.5 kilometers, 30,000 acres can be photographed in one hour (a drone needs several weeks to cover the same area)
- Fewer square meters of hangar space required (up to 50% less storage space with some small aircraft)
This year, during the second stage of the project, the ‘Affordable, Available, Accessible’ framework is being used again, but with more specific objectives in mind including wildfire detection (related applications include search & rescue operations, forestry management, damage assessment, safety & security missions, wildlife and conservation data collection, water detection, coastal erosion mapping, LiDAR archaeology, and so on). And a key component of this stage is the introduction of ‘bridging’, which is defined as joining together two or more separate technologies, machines, or work processes for the purpose of producing synergy (i.e.: generating a greater total effect than each entity or device can produce on its own).
If funding can be obtained, the third and fourth stages of the project will combine all of the above and introduce it into a designated region while also bringing onboard local labor skills and existing infrastructure. The purpose is to enable, motivate, and empower the people who work on the food industry’s front-lines to do more with less so they can increase productivity and revenue in their region, leading to job creation. Results will be measured, monitored closely and improved upon by everyone involved.