digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture digitalization agriculture

Digitalization for Greener, More Efficient, and More Profitable Agriculture

There is no industry in the world that has not been touched to a lesser or greater extent by digitalization. Agriculture may be one of the fields where digital technology adoption is slower than in others, but advanced digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, or the Internet of Things are nevertheless being integrated into agricultural practices. Here are some projects where digitalization is a stepping-stone for taking farming into the digital era.

Cloud-based AI platform for sustainable agriculture

Given the challenges facing farmers today – including climate change, lack of skilled labor, and increasingly stringent environmental regulation – there is a need for new tools and methods that can make agronomy more sustainable as well as more efficient. To this end, a team of researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany are developing a cloud-based platform with open interfaces that can be used by the agriculture and industry sectors and providers of specialized service solutions in those fields.

The cloud-based data aggregation platform will enable a series of agricultural applications that can give the process of digitalizing Germany’s agriculture a much-needed sustainability boost. Together with partner organizations, the HHI scientists have launched the NaLamKI (Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft mittels KI, “AI-Based Sustainable Agriculture”) project with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Its purpose is to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform where data gathered by machines and devices can be collected and analyzed to provide an information base that will assist prognostics and decisionmaking in the farming sector.

The NaLamKI platform will aggregate sensor and device data collected by satellites and drones, ground sensors, and robotics, as well as manually collected statistics and legacy data, into a broad data pool that can be used to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) for streamlining agricultural processes and making them more sustainable. For example, the information will help farmers to analyze the state of crops and soils across broad swathes of farmland and to tailor activities such as watering, fertilizing, or pest control in a way that provides sufficient high-quality crops, and reduces emissions and safeguards biodiversity. Measures such as these not only raise crop yields and bring down costs, but also protect resources and the environment.

Beyond concerns about sustainability, the data platform will also help farmers utilize AI to compensate for a lack of skilled labor. By aggregating and modeling drone, satellite, and robot camera data, the planned cloud service will provide them with an overview of soil and plant conditions across large areas. The farmers will also be able to interact with the AI to ask questions and receive recommendations, for example, based on soil moisture or symptoms of crop blights.

The SaaS platform and AI services will be based on GAIA-X, a cloud infrastructure subject to European data sovereignty, together with a distributed-learning AI using farmers’ locally stored data. This will allow them to exchange AI models and transfer them to the NaLamKI platform and improve the algorithms. The platform will be open to third-party solutions, which could be provided by startup vendors of innovative AI applications, for example.

Green-on-Green Tech – Algorithms Fighting Crop Weeds

digitalization agriculture

Weeds are still among the most potent enemies of productivity in agriculture. Over the ages, farmers have constantly been looking for new ways to fight them. Digitalization of weed-control activities seems to bring a new promise of efficiency.

“Green-on-green” technology, a new innovation in agriculture developed and tested in Canada, instantly identifies weeds in growing crop fields, generating real-time maps and allowing for spot spraying. Besides reducing the costs related to human labor and pesticides, this technology has a positive impact on the environment, as it limits the amounts of pesticides released into the fields, leading to more sustainable agriculture.

This innovation builds upon “green-on-brown” technology, developed a few decades ago, which uses algorithms to identify green patches (i.e., weeds) on brown surfaces of soil. The algorithm then triggers a device that neutralizes them with pesticides. Despite the cost savings and efficiency afforded by this method, farmers rarely use it. The initial algorithm, which relied on identifying the color green imparted by plant chlorophyll, couldn’t differentiate between crop plants and weeds. Therefore, the fields first needed to be mapped manually, and the patches of weeds identified by human workers. However, due to the seasonality and changes in soil composition, new distribution patterns of weeds would appear every year, requiring additional efforts and resources for mapping.

Tom Wolf is the owner of Agrimetrix Research & Training, a Saskatoon-based company that specializes in the study of agricultural sprays. He says green-on-green technology is capable of differentiating between weeds and crops, generating the map instantaneously, and targeting only the areas where pesticides are needed. The technology is currently being adopted by an increasing number of farmers, who are able to use it with the equipment they already operate. Moreover, manufacturers of farming equipment have already started to build additional products that complement and enhance this digitalization initiative.

AI-powered sensor suite for more efficient agriculture

In an effort to alleviate the labor shortage and support the adoption of more sustainable practices in agriculture, the Canadian government has commissioned a CAN$419,000 project that will use digitalization technologies and AI to help farmers manage resources in a more effective and efficient manner. The Eye-Box project is a suite of AI-powered sensors and software that will automate agricultural data collection and processing, leaving the farmers more time to focus on other tasks.

Mojow Autonomous Solutions won the digitalization project to build a system comprising multiple cameras with GPS capabilities. These will transmit the collected data in real time to a powerful computer for processing.

digitalization agriculture

Based on these automatically collected images, which are subsequently interpreted and classified, Eye-Box will develop a digital twin of the farm that will be updated continuously and will help farmers make decisions on various issues related to agricultural work.

“By supporting innovation solutions for Canada’s agriculture sector, we are helping our farmers improve the efficiencies within their business while finding ways for them to respond to challenges such as labor shortages. With investments in businesses such as Mojow Autonomous Solutions Inc., the Government of Canada is helping to strengthen the competitiveness and resilience of the sector for the long term,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

New sources of revenue for farmers with carbon credits platforms

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been following the formula of planting seeds and harvesting the produce that grows from them. Now, some of them are being offered a different deal: bury carbon in the ground and get paid to ensure it stays there. Major agro-corporations like Cargill and Bayer are offering to sign up farmers for a program to harvest not cash crops, but carbon credits that can be sold to greenhouse gas emitters looking to offset their carbon footprints.

By planting cover crops during off-seasons, growers can improve the quality of their soil, raising nutrient levels and enabling it to hold more water. Increasingly, however, another aspect is gaining attention – the ability of the soil to sequester atmospheric carbon. In combination with the sparing use of fertilizer and less tilling, this practice can be used to extract CO2 from the air and ensure that it remains in the ground for extended durations.

Farmers can log these activities on a digital platform and rack up carbon credits, or certificates permitting emissions in increments of one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases, which can be bought and sold or used to offset the farmers’ own business activities in other areas.

While carbon capture and storage (CCS) is only one of many measures for mitigating climate change, it appears to be gaining traction as a commercial proposition, backed by major corporations in the agricultural sector or related areas, including providers of fertilizer, seeds, and chemicals such as Nutrien, Yara, Corteva, Cargill, or Bayer. The latter has contracted with farmers to sequester carbon on approximately 1.5 million acres of land, mostly in the US, according to Reuters. Cargill plans to offset emissions released by its supply chain operations by about one-third by 2030 and will enroll 10 million acres in sustainable agriculture programs by the end of the decade.

The CCS platform may be the best example of a business embracing the digitalization trend in agriculture by offering farmers a welcome opportunity to gain revenue while also improving the health of their soil.

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Top Three Scalable Innovations to Tackle the Food Insecurity

The global population is expected to exceed 8.5 billion by 2030. By then food insecurity is expected to affect almost 10 percent of the population or 840 million people. Climate change and soil degradation have already caused a decline in the availability and quality of food. The situation further deteriorated following the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What should we do to tackle the food crisis? Here are three scalable innovations that can help to feed the world. 

Data-driven soil remediation plans

Although technology based on artificial intelligence (AI) has enhanced crop monitoring and harvesting as well as processing and marketing, the technology rarely reaches the small farmers who really need them. Of the total of 608 million farms in the world, only 38 million are served by AI solutions. The rest, mostly small farmers, have been left behind. 

Many small farms in India have severely degraded soil conditions causing reduced yields so food insecurity is an ongoing danger to them. To make technology and experts available to them, Dimitra, an AI-powered agritech company, is striving to deliver data-driven farming to small agricultural enterprises on the subcontinent. The process of Dimitra starts with evaluating crop performance with satellites and IoT soil sensors. Then machine learning is deployed to analyze the data and help farmers to make better decisions. In addition, soil samples are collected on the ground by human labor. The combined information is used to generate soil remediation plans for individual small farmers. Dimitra is aiming at serving 1.3 million Indian farms with its data-driven platform. 


“Every smallholder farmer, regardless of economic status, should be able to benefit from simple, beautiful and useful technology.” – Jon Trask, CEO, Dimitra


Mobile-based farm advisory

Farming is a complex, unpredictable, and individual business. Farmers must make decisions about “what”, “when”, and “how much” constantly. Today, digital technology helps to remove some complexity and uncertainty and allows them to make more precise decisions. One of the possible ways of supporting decision-making is via farmers’ mobile phones. 

Africa accounts for more than half of the world’s population affected by food insecurity, which was already a serious problem in Kenya prior to the COVID pandemic. The situation deteriorated after the breakout of the pandemic. Fortunately, innovative projects from nonprofit organizations and agencies have helped to reduce food insecurity in Kenya. 

One of the projects is PlantVillage, an algorithmic agriculture advice solution. PlantVillage’s algorithms are based on the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), satellite technology, and field force. Kenyan farmers only need to input three details – crop type, location, and planting date – before they receive PlantVillage’s algorithm advice on their mobile phones. The project has provided food security for 36.6 million people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

In 2020, the PlantVillage project helped manage Kenya’s worst locust outbreak in 70 years. 

Tackle food insecurity by avoiding food waste

Apart from increasing food production, avoiding food waste is another important element of reducing food insecurity. According to FAO, one third of food production is either wasted or lost. Unconsumed food also contributes to an estimated eight to ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 


The global volume of food wastage is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes of “primary product equivalents”. Total food wastage for the edible part of this amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes. – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Food loss can happen either early during food production and processing or later as rampant food waste at restaurants, supermarket, and households. Various smartphone apps around the world have been developed to save surplus food. 

Mobile Apps such as Too Good To Go connect customers to restaurants and stores that have unsold food surplus. 
(Image credit: Too Good To Go)

Too Good To Go is a mobile app developed in Denmark that allows customers to purchase unsold extra food at reduced prices from restaurants and stores. The app covers major cities in Europe and North America. Similar apps are developed in other parts of the world, including Yindii in Thailand, Treatsure in Singapore, and No Food Waste in India. 

There are also solutions for tackling food insecurity by reducing food waste earlier in the supply chain. Instock is a group of restaurants in the Netherlands that serve surplus food sourced from food producers and brokers. Logistics platforms such as Kenya’s Twiga Foods and Ghana’s Cheetah improve the efficiency of the supply chain by connecting farmers and vendors with food outlets and markets. 

Another category of apps uses AI to analyze and prevent waste. These AI-based solutions include Winnow, which helps commercial kitchens prevent food waste, Wasteless, which helps supermarkets and online grocery stores to reduce food waste and extend the value of food items, and nosh and Mimica Touch, which help households to track fridge and pantry contents. 

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Can Modern Technologies be Life-changing for Smallholder Farmers?

In view of the major global demographic and environmental changes expected in the coming decades, agricultural technology (agritech) will play a crucial role in making farming ready for the challenges to come. Such solutions already exist, but they are not yet being adopted at the speed required to achieve a fundamental transformation of the sector. Jon Trask, CEO of agritech provider Dimitra.io, explains which modern technologies are likely to have a major impact on small farmers, and which obstacles need to be resolved to accelerate their uptake.

By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will populate the planet by then. The agriculture sector, which provides the bulk of our food supply, will need to operate at unprecedented levels of efficiency in order to meet this demand while mitigating climate change in the process.

Many think that the way to increase food output significantly while preserving and protecting the environment is to harness more smart technology. Innovations in agritech aim to improve yield, reduce or eliminate harmful practices, and explore alternative sources of food. But is technology a solution for everyone? Big agricultural companies can certainly afford autonomous robots or analyze satellite imagery in order to improve their operations, but how about the smallholder farmers?

While the use of various technologies in agriculture is gradually increasing all over the world, their global adoption is slow due to a number of reasons, such as high implementation costs or a lack of knowledge among farmers regarding the requirements for integrating them into their businesses.

Supertrends discussed these issues with Jon Trask, CEO at Dimitra.io, an international company on a mission to deliver agritech to farmers everywhere. He shared with us some insights from the frontline on how smallholder farmers around the globe can make use of this technology.

Supertrends: What are some of the problems the farming sector is currently facing?

Jon Trask: We found that smallholder farmers, which include most of the world’s farmers, are underserved from a technology perspective. They operate about 570 million farms and represent maybe a quarter to a third of the world’s population. In terms of productivity and the potential for improving it, these are very different from your typical European or North American farms, which are slowly being bought up by large firms.

Smallholder farms produce 60 or 70 percent of the world’s produce and foods and tend to consume a large percentage of what they produce. Farmers in Africa, for example, depend on their crops as they can consume 70 percent or more of the products that they create and sell maybe only 25 to 30 percent of their produce on the market. By providing good information and use of modern technology, there are many areas where we can help them increase yields, reduce their costs, and mitigate risks. In doing so, we can help them play a different role in the community. After all, farming has been a community event for hundreds and maybe thousands of years.

How can modern technologies help in this situation?

J.T.: Our objective is to find out ways to do that. We’re working in a number of nations with investment partners, governments, software providers, NGOs, and non-profits to find ways to deliver technology directly to those smallholder farmers for free. We have two groups of customers: the smallholder farmers and the governments themselves.

To reach this objective, we created a mobile app called Connected Farmer that can be used to register farms, set up geofences, etc., which allows us to use satellite and other technologies to improve or evaluate conditions in order to recommend improvements for individual farms. The app allows farmers to set goals and extract information regarding crops or livestock. With that information, we can provide analysis and offer best practices for improving productivity.

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Farmers can use mobile devices to introduce information about their crops in the field

Farmers also face problems related to animal health. How can technology help them deal with these issues?

J.T.: Our platform includes a genomics and genetics module that initially was built for governments. It gives farmers access to the information we retrieved from breeding or operations and genetic research labs, which is continually improved. Farmers can compare and assess their livestock using genetic predictors available in the app, just like we do in human health.

The app tracks different traits passed from parents to offspring among cattle and other livestock. They can easily submit information including physical genetic markers, such as the birth weight of a calf, or other health-related events to track the health of an animal throughout its life.

Certain diseases are passed from generation to generation. We offer sample kits that farmers can use to gather DNA from hair or blood and send it in for lab analysis. This information can be used to predict whether the offspring are likely to suffer from the same illnesses or have similar physical characteristics as their parents, which in turn allows the farmer to predict potential health issues and raise healthier livestock, or reduce some of the associated costs by making changes to the animal’s diet, activity, or behavior.

Data such as the weight, health, or ease of birth of a calf or illnesses in its first two years of life can either be analyzed individually or supplemented with additional genetics or genomics information and markers. We collaborate with geneticists and livestock experts, who have designed an algorithm that can make recommendations based on the combination of these two sets of information.

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Farmers can share with visiting specialists cattle data they gathered in the app

How do you make these platforms secure both for the farmers and the governments?

J.T.: Our platform contains information about the identity and financial operations of each farm, which we need to protect by maintaining a secure encrypted environment. Many challenges, including security, can be solved in a decentralized format. We’re also dealing with governments who require high levels of security. They also want to have control over certain data, and in many nations, we want to have data near the location. In a decentralized format, we can do that by combining technologies like edge computing and blockchain to deliver services and genomics.

For example, the genome of a cow is three gigabytes. We don’t want that completely decentralized and stored on 1,000 nodes around the world; we want to store it on a handful of nodes on the edge, and then store the basic identity information on the nodes around the world. Edge computing gives us quick access to the data, while blockchain keeps the identity data very secure, and the two pieces can’t work without each other. One piece of data isn’t useful without the other data.

Secondly, we’re dealing with complex supply chains. We’re not only dealing with a farm, but each farm is selling to packing houses, markets, and exporters. We need interoperability with many types of systems and provide data to many types of systems. Blockchain is highly suitable for maintaining security and ensuring high levels of trust regarding the permanent record within the system. So blockchain really fits that quite well. It’s much more difficult to maintain the level of security that we require in a completely centralized platform.

What are the biggest challenges in implementing modern digital technologies in agriculture?

J.T.: Like previous emerging technologies, blockchain & AI challenge the status quo and are still evolving as a technology. Blockchain with web3 is designed in such a way that we can layer and stack our technologies and make traditional mobile technologies communicate with the blockchain. There’s a bit of a misconception that a blockchain app is just a blockchain. But in fact, it consists of many different technologies.

When we need blockchain capability, we try to limit blockchain’s role in the software to providing or meeting that need. When we need artificial intelligence, we may be reading data from the blockchain. That data is analyzed to generate a report, which may – depending on its sensitivity – be written back to blockchain or kept in a traditional database.

How about at the farm level?

J.T.: Most smallholder farmers don’t have access to much technology. In a best-case scenario, their record-keeping is based on Excel and maybe an accounting system. But for the most part, we’re their first try at implementing technology on the farm. Most farmers wouldn’t notice that our platform uses blockchain; for them, it looks just like every mobile or web app.

However, not every farmer has access to the internet or cellular service, though most now have smartphones. How do we provide services that meet their infrastructure needs, not necessarily related to blockchain technology, but services where one farmer can log in live on their phone, potentially with offline access? Now, that’s a technology challenge.

Our ecosystem will allow other platforms to provide their software through the Dimitra portal itself. If you are a programmer located anywhere in the world, say in Kenya, and you have great software, and you want to use our team, use our distribution, and see how your product can align with our product, you can actually already publish your software within our platform itself. In the long term, we’re looking to have that in a hybrid open-source model, where any company can put their platform within the Dimitra platform itself.

If you had to single out the most significant challenges in helping smallholder farmers adopting technology, what would those be?

J.T.: I think as we grow as a company and get adoption around the world, language is of the first and simplest ones. In India alone, for example, our customers speak three or four languages, and that may cover only a percentage of the population. We’ve got the same issues in Africa and South America. The language issue is not difficult to overcome, but it does take time, effort, and money to publish the software in a number of languages and make it accessible.

The second challenge is the varying literacy levels in different areas of the world. How do you help those in need if their reading skills are lower than the typical average that we’re used to dealing with? We have to work with literacy experts to find different ways of helping farmers. How do you do this AND train all of those farmers? The solution we found is to outsource to knowledge partners, like, for instance with governments, NGOs, and non-profits. We train them so they can train the farmers, and allow them to play a role in distributing the software and helping people be effective with that.

In some of our projects, we need technology like sensors or DNA tests, and we get ecosystem partners who can go out and take a soil sensor reading on a farm, because a farmer may not be able to afford a soil sensor. We train that individual to show the farmer how to upload a soil sensor reading, and maybe show them a couple of tricks within the system to get more benefit for their farm in a very farm-specific analysis.

I think the human aspect in software in general, at least in my career, has been the hardest part. Developing the software is relatively easy. Communicating to thousands or millions of people who all have different communication styles, languages, and levels of literacy requires a certain touch.

When do you think that farmers using a simple app to manage their farms will become the “new normal” worldwide?

J.T.: I think that’s going to be different from region to region. It’s becoming normal in North America for farmers to use an app to do a number of things. I’m sure in the Netherlands, a large percentage of the firms are already using technology in that way. In India, we’re seeing adoption, and the levels are increasing. In some African countries that we’re working in, they don’t yet have the necessary infrastructure to make it normal. We’re going to learn the adoption levels of the country as we enter different countries and find our way around the local infrastructure capabilities.

I think there are generational aspects to it, too. Many young farmers are leaving the farming business, and older generations are looking at technology as a method to keep young farmers in the farming business and keep farming and agriculture exciting. It’s a new method for younger people in their late teens or early twenties to help the farm they’ve worked on – the farm that has belonged to their fathers, grandfathers, or their family for years and years.

When I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, my role was a laborer. I was the young guy who could throw the bales of hay on the wagon or whatever the case may be. Now the youth can teach the parents and teach the grandparents and teach those generational firms how to use technology to increase output. This way, the adoption rate could be much, much higher. It’s a new role, and it’s a new paradigm that we have to deal with.

For more interesting content on modern technologies used in agriculture, download our free publication about Innovation Trends in Circular Agriculture.

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Make it Rain: Innovative Technology Transforms Desert into Agricultural Land

Jordan’s climate varies from a Mediterranean one, in the uplands, to steppe and desert, towards the south. Rising temperatures, a constant decrease in average annual precipitation, and deforestation are some of the main problems the government has been fighting for decades. The installation of a network of emitter stations based on ionization technology on the ground has led to a 27 percent overall increase in rainfalls over a period of three years, the extension of the rainy season, and rainfall volumes of hundreds of millions of cubic meters.

In an interview with Supertrends, Dr. Helmut Fluhrer, CEO and founder of WeatherTec, revealed more about the innovative rain enhancement technology and its potential to transform desert and semi-arid areas into land suitable for agriculture.

Deserts and arid areas cover approximately 26-35 percent of the Earth’s surface, with 900 million people living in these regions. Living conditions are marked by water scarcity, decreased soil quality, and reduced biodiversity. Moreover, the situation is becoming even more challenging due to climate change and population expansion. With average annual temperatures constantly rising, water evaporates faster, leading to serious droughts. Inconsistent rainfalls and low volumes of precipitation have led to accelerated depletion of water supplies and difficulties in maintaining crops or other types of vegetation.

Making rain and generating fresh water

After seven years of fieldwork and research, the WeatherTec technology was finally on the market and achieved its first success in Jordan, one of the most arid countries in the world. According to several reports developed by the Jordan’s Meteorological Department and the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, this technology played an important role in mitigating climate change in Jordan by “breaking and reversing a 30-years trend of constant decline in precipitation,” with a strong impact on Jordan, but also on the neighboring areas. 

Moreover, the rain-enhancing system has the highest potential in generating freshwater when compared to established methods such as cloud seeding (a chemical process that raises environmental concerns) and desalination (which is energy- and cost-intensive and produces large amounts of wastewater).

WeatherTec rain enhancement technology. Copyright: WeatherTec

The “Black Swan Technology”

Mimicking sun’s ionization process, the WeatherTec rain enhancement technology uses solar-powered stations on the ground to emit trillions of ions into the atmosphere and electrically charge the aerosols. When these negatively charged aerosols reach the clouds, they intensify the condensation process. As a consequence, water particles grow in size, increasing the volume and duration of the rainfall as well as the covered area.

According to Dr. Fluhrer, the technology is environmentally friendly, doesn’t make use of chemicals, and creates no waste. Endorsed by many scientists in this area, including Professor Peter Wilderer, holder of the Stockholm Water Prize, this innovation earned the title of “The Black Swan Technology” during the Munich Security Conference.

Transforming desert into agricultural land

The impact of the rain enhancement technology on agriculture has proved to be substantial. Besides providing continuity in the irrigation of crops, it could also significantly help with reforestation. Covering thousands of square meters through traditional irrigation is not efficient, and even impossible in arid areas. Rain is a natural process that can cover much larger surfaces, increasing soil moisture, nurturing the seedlings, and helping them grow. Moreover, increased humidity plays an important role in preventing forest fires.

“In agriculture, rain enhancement technologies will definitely help with crop seeding and harvesting in the more arid areas. However, given the water scarcity all over the world, even less arid areas could benefit from building up small ponds of rainwater to secure it for the periods with no humidity in the air.” Dr. Helmut Fluhrer

After enhancing rain in the region for three years, the Jordanian Farmers Union reported a 30 percent increase in the production of rainfed plants (i.e., olive trees), the re-emergence of several species of medicinal plants, and an increase in biodiversity. Furthermore, this had a significant impact on the country’s self-sufficiency, leading to a decrease in imported livestock and an increase in the national supply. Besides its direct applications in agriculture, this technology can also be used to enhance snowfall in order to increase water reserves, snowpack, and cloud coverage. Adding cloud coverage reduces temperatures by a minimum of 5°C and leads to a decrease of fog, which is of paramount importance for the land, air, and maritime transportation sectors.

Jordan’s transformation with WeatherTec rain enhancement technology. Copyright: WeatherTec

Interested to find out more about sustainable technologies with a direct impact on the agriculture sector? Check out our sustainability publications.

Sustainable Gardening and Permaculture – the Key to Restoring Urban Land Vitality

When speaking about sustainability, regeneration of resources, and permanent agriculture, people often think of fields and farms. We often forget that cities also occupy large swathes of land, and their landscape plays an important role in our entire ecosystems. Limiting our efforts to making open-field agriculture sustainable would not only be short-sighted, but also overlook massive benefits for us and the environment.


We spoke with Caleb Gruber, Supertrends expert in permaculture and owner of a business specializing in landscape designs for urban properties, about the challenges of restoring the ecosystem in the urban environment. We complemented his ideas with a few tech innovations that could benefit consumers in creating and maintaining their own home green spots in a sustainable way.

Supertrends: What is permaculture and why is it important for us?

Caleb Gruber: Permaculture gives us a system of ethics and principles which we can use to guide our urban land use decisions. For example, conversion of irrigated turf grass to wildscape and food production can have enormous environmental benefits.

In order to restore vitality and stability to our urban land, we must consider re-wilding as much of it as possible. Truly wild landscapes are at the heart of ecological sustainability – they provide the buffer for everything that we do, and it is the sheer beauty of these wild areas that grounds us and reminds us of our role as a humble species of Planet Earth.

Permaculture gives us a toolbox and a language for harmonizing with the rhythm of nature, for becoming stewards and caretakers of Earth rather than just taking resources from it, and for creating a new urban ecology which all beings of the Earth can benefit. Just imagine what we could do with all the land if we applied permaculture as a solution.

A NASA-sponsored study estimated that between 40% and 55% of all urban development in the US, or roughly 40 million acres, is devoted to irrigating turf grass. By converting just 10% of this land area to wildlife refuge, using permaculture methods and indigenous plants that flourish based only on natural precipitation, an estimated 25 trillion gallons of irrigated water per year could be saved. If another 10% of that land were used for growing food, we could grow enough to feed two million people.

ST: What are the most important practices of urban sustainable gardening?

CG: The most important practices of sustainable gardening can be drawn from permaculture, and that is to use only organic methods for growing, i.e., eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Only organic fertilizers should be used, such as manure and compost. The gardener should strive to keep their ecological loop as close as possible, meaning they should recycle nutrients and organic material back into their gardens by composting as much as possible and growing a sufficient amount of high carbon crops (a technique known as biointensive gardening). Also, it is very important to actually eat or use what you grow. Vegetable and fruit plants require a significant amount of water to grow, so it is important that we aren’t just growing food for “fun”, but with the intent of consuming all of it.


ST: Why is it important that city people practice sustainable gardening in their homes?

CG: Even by growing a small amount of your own food, you can greatly curb your carbon emissions. Food mileage has a significant carbon footprint. A tomato shipped from 1,000 miles away may have a carbon footprint of a few hundred pounds of CO2. By growing our own food, we also reconnect ourselves to the cycle of nature and gain a better appreciation for the process. We learn how to eat in season, and we learn how to preserve our food to make it last longer. Food security and food resilience depend on a diversified and stable food chain, and by growing food ourselves, we greatly increase our own resilience and the resilience of our local food system.

Click & Grow builds indoors smart gardens for home use that come already assembled and are fitted with automatic watering and lighting, as well as an accompanying app. Available in several sizes and levels of complexity, these little gardens make it possible to grow your own food, even if you live in an apartment.

ST: What are the practical challenges urban people face in implementing permaculture principles and sustainable gardening?

CG: Space is always a concern in urban settings. Many people may have access only to a balcony, or perhaps not even that. Modern technology gives us tools for growing plants indoors, but without direct access to the Sun, they are energy-intensive. Cities and suburban areas often have rules, ordinances, or Homeowner Associations that can impose legislative limits on what people are allowed to do on their properties, or may require that a certain percentage of their yard be devoted to turfgrass. It is not uncommon for urban soils to be polluted or contaminated, preventing people from being able to grow edible food safely. All of these issues create roadblocks and limitations to implementing permaculture that can be difficult to overcome. However, consumers don’t need to convert their entire property into a farm to practice permaculture or sustainable gardening. The best way to start is to start small, and use the permaculture principle of “small and slow solutions”. Plant a tree, start a small vegetable bed, make a worm farm, support local businesses – all of these things are a great way to get started with permaculture.

ST: What is a wildscape, and why is it important for the ecosystem?

CG: A wildscape is a deliberately altered and maintained landscape with the sole purpose of providing habitat for wildlife and conservation of regionally endemic plant species. This differs from a true wilderness area, in that a wildscape is maintained by humans, and in that wildscapes are typically a form of restoration from the previously damaged landscape. Urban areas have sprawled into wildlife habitats, causing irreparable damage and strain on the survival of wildlife. Therefore, it is critically important that we cultivate our urban land with the intention of providing habitat for wildlife.

ST: What is the role of pollinators for the ecosystem, and what should city dwellers be doing to protect them?

CG: Roughly 90 percent of plant species on Earth require pollination by animals in order to reproduce. For nearly 250 million years, flowering plants have been co-evolving in symbiotic relationships with their particular pollinator species. For example, the tubular white flowers of the flowering desert yucca plants co-evolved with only a few species of night moths and bats.

Urbanization of wilderness areas drastically changes the biodiversity of local pollinator communities. When we talk about pollinator conservation, we cannot omit a discussion of rural agricultural land and its impact on pollinator biodiversity population. Because agricultural land has takes up a much larger amount of land than urban areas, it is actually in these rural regions that we see significantly lower populations of pollinator species. As it turns out, urban areas can act as oases and refuges for these threatened pollinator species to survive.

In 2015, Barack Obama issued a challenge to the urban conservation community to create a million new pollinator gardens in residential yards and business campuses.

The farming robot from FarmBot is fully automated, can be assembled in a very short time (1h), and can be a good solution for busy city people who do not have a lot of time, but still want to grow their own food. The FarmBot is suited to growing a polycrop of many common garden vegetables at the same time.

ST: How can technology assist in implementing sustainable gardening in the city? Can you give us examples?

CG: One example of a sustainable garden technology is smart irrigation controllers. Most irrigation systems use timed controllers to water a landscape on a pre-set schedule. Modern smart irrigation controllers take this a step further by automatically up-regulating or down-regulating their water use by accessing the internet to predict the weather and rainfall amounts, and by using on-the-ground sensors to measure rainfall and soil moisture. The future of this technology will utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and more advanced sensors to integrate every measurable environmental factor, and cross-reference this information with botanical databases to determine the exact water needs of each individual plant in a landscape, thereby allowing plants to thrive on less water and not wasting a single drop of this precious resource.

Smart irrigation controllers could be connected to rainwater collection systems and prioritize the use of rainwater over tap water when the rain collection tanks are full.

There are also many technologies in the realm of hydroponics and aquaponics that can assist with increasing the sustainability of gardening in cities where it isn’t feasible to grow outdoors. Examples include LED grow lights, vertical hydroponic tower gardens, and growing systems incorporating fish (aquaponics). Composting technology has come a long way as well, and people can now purchase home-scale anaerobic digesters and biogas generators. Satellite technology could be used to determine which areas of a city might be best suited for conversion to wildscape or farmland.

ST: Should city people grow their own food? If yes, how and why?

CG: Without a doubt, everyone who lives in the city should be growing at least a small portion of their own food, and in particular, they should be growing things that they like to eat often. Growing our own food helps to curb carbon emissions from food mileage, and it also adds to the food security of the urban eco-region. But before starting out, it is important for people to do a bit of research and educate themselves on what techniques are appropriate for their region, so that they are using their natural resources most efficiently and effectively. There is an ever-increasing number of technologies for people living in city apartments to grow food indoors. Many companies have created hydroponic growing towers that can fit in a living room or balcony. Wall-mounted hydroponic systems exist, as well as small desktop grow lights.

Autonomous smart greenhouses from My Food are modular, turnkey solutions of different sizes and incorporate sustainable tech like water-saving function, and connected sensors for harvest optimization

ST: Can aquaponics and hydroponics technologies be used in an urban home setting? How and why?

CG: Yes, aquaponics and hydroponics can be a great alternative to traditional soil growing methods in urban settings, particularly when people have limited access to land. Aquaponics is a more sustainable approach than hydroponics due to the use of fish in the system. The fish, along with beneficial bacteria, provide all of the nutrient needs of the plants, and eliminate the need for synthetic nutrients. Hydroponics does have the advantage of being able to grow food in small spaces with just a small tank of water, such as grow towers like those of Lettuce Grow. One big advantage of using aquaponics or hydroponics indoors is that it is possible to grow food year-round, and if LED grow lights are used, electricity consumption can be minimized.

Curious to find out more about sustainable agriculture and technology? Check out our sustainability publications page for more information on the topic.

About Caleb Gruber

Caleb’s personal mission is to empower urban land owners to regenerate their land and use its inherent potential to create ecological habitat for wildlife and to grow healthy, organic food. Through his private design practice All Beings Ecoscapes LLC, Caleb creates holistic permaculture landscape designs for urban properties and works with clients to maximize the potential of their land and reconnect with the rhythm of nature. He has spent the last seven years studying and practicing sustainable farming and landscaping techniques, including permaculture design, ecological habitat design, organic gardening, hydroponics, and aquaponics. He also teaches sustainability topics at Montessori School of Denver. Caleb holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Permaculture Design Certificate from Koanga Permaculture Institute in New Zealand.

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Nanosensors Benefit Small Farmers and Reduce Pollution

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute rivers, oceans, air, and soil. Yet small farmers rely on them to produce food. Researchers from Singapore are working on ways to improve the efficiency of these tools and reduce pollution at the same time. 

Disruptive technology for a more sustainable agriculture

In an age when sustainability is becoming a major concern, traditional agriculture faces a dilemma between preserving resources and meeting the increasing demand for food. This is where innovative technology comes into play. DiSTAP (Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision), an interdisciplinary research group in the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, recently developed the world’s first nanosensor that can perform rapid testing on plant hormones. 

Synthetic auxins (plant hormones) such as 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) are widely used as herbicides in the agriculture industry. They are also used as plant regulator sprays to prevent premature flowering and fruit dropping. However, they are not safe for human health at higher concentrations, and their residue on plants should be monitored carefully. So far, there are no non-invasive and efficient ways to monitor these chemicals. A DiSTAP research team has now developed nanosensors to monitor the chemicals in real time. 

Will the nanosensors benefit farmers as well as the environment and consumers? Supertrends interviewed DiSTAP team members Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang, research scientist, and Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh, scientific director and principal investigator, to find out more about this breakthrough discovery.

Dr. Mervin Chun-Yi Ang & Dr. Gajendra Pratap Singh – Supertrends experts and researchers at DiSTAP

A precision agriculture tool

Supertrends: The sensors have been tested in the lab and in greenhouses to monitor synthetic auxin levels in plants. Does that mean the sensors will also work in real farms?

DiSTAP: As advanced analytical tools, the sensors could be used commercially in the context of precision agriculture as they are able to inform the farmers of the optimal amount of plant regulators required for their specific crops. Furthermore, as the output is available in real time, farmers can adjust and calibrate the amount of plant regulators to suit the growth needs of the crops at every stage of their development.

DiSTAP nanosensor and camera instrument setup

Economic and social benefits

Supertrends: How will farmers and consumers benefit from using the sensors?

DiSTAP: These novel sensing tools help farmers economically by preventing wasteful and ineffective deployment of herbicides, thereby improving cost efficiencies in herbicide usage.

There is also a mounting body of scientific evidence proving that the synthetic auxin herbicide poses a hazard to both human health and the environment. Given its widespread usage in agriculture, it is frequently detected in water from agricultural runoffs. Hence, besides the economic benefits to farmers, there are also health and environmental benefits that could be reaped from these nanosensors because the nanosensors allow for precise calibration of herbicide dosage in order to minimize usage. 

Challenges and future development

Supertrends: What are the major challenges in making the sensors into practical products?

DiSTAP: The environment is complex and changing constantly in the open fields. We are using a sentinel plant model to evaluate the technological robustness of our nanosensors under varying conditions of weather, plant development stage, soil types, etc. It may take one to two years for our nanosensor tools to be available on the market. 

For future development, we are looking into integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms into the nanosensor imaging platforms to simplify the data and make the information more useful to farmers. 

Do you want to know more about supertrends in agritech? Keep an eye on our page of sustainability publications for some awesome content on this topic coming soon.

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Smart Software Could Make Sustainable Agriculture Affordable, Scalable, and Measurable


By 2050, humanity will need to produce 60 percent more food in order to feed the over nine billion people who will exist by then. These unprecedented demands on the planet’s resources will come as the need to mitigate climate change requires that the agricultural industry switch to more sustainable practices. Farmers will face even more pressure to meet the new requirements while keeping their businesses afloat. The main challenge is not only to make the agricultural sector sustainable but to protect farmers and their livelihoods in the process. Some answers could come from the geospatial industry.


Sustainable agriculture – a challenge of the future


Agriculture is vital for the survival of the human race. Farmers provide food and textiles, as well as fuels and raw materials for machines. Using modern technology and automation, farms becoming more efficient every year, but the current growth trend in agricultural production has a huge negative impact on natural resources and the environment.

Climate change aside, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) offers more reasons to replace current agricultural practices with more sustainable ones: One-third of farmland is degraded, up to 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has been lost, and 22 percent of animal breeds are at risk.

“There are around 10 million farms in the EU and 22 million people work regularly in the sector. They provide an impressive variety of abundant, affordable, safe and good quality products.” EC

But what makes agriculture sustainable? The FAO defines sustainable agriculture as “the management and conservation of the natural resource base, and the orientation of technological and institutional change in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for present and future generations. Such development […] conserves land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, is environmentally non-degrading, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable.”

To put it more simply, we need to find ways to grow enough food to feed us all without harming the environment or shutting down all farming businesses in the process.

Carbon farming – unwanted chore or opportunity for agriculture?

The agriculture sector is responsible for a significant part of the global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions linked to climate change. Farmers can help solve this problem through carbon farming – sequestering carbon in the ground by taking it out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.


“In 2018, agriculture and related land use emissions accounted for 17 percent of global GHG emissions from all sectors, down from 24 percent in the 2000s. In addition to the noted slight decrease in absolute emissions, this reduction in 2018 was also the result of emissions from other economic sectors growing at relatively faster rates during 2000–2018” – FAO.



Based on a study carried out from 2018 to 2020, which explored issues, challenges, and options related to carbon farming in the EU, the European Commission (EC) plans to launch a carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021. The study concluded that result-based carbon farming could be a key instrument in tackling climate change while also increasing bio-diversity and preserving ecosystems.

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In addition to the desirable climate effect, trapping carbon in the ground will also make the soil more fertile and productive. Better soil means higher productivity, but will this be enough to convince farmers to invest in CO2 trapping technology, re-organize existing systems, and change their practices? Economic incentives for farmers are seen as a powerful driver for the success of the initiative, so the new green business model would reward practices that will help EU achieve climate neutrality and create new sources of income for farmers.

In addition, the EC will develop a regulatory framework for certifying carbon removal. The action plan for both initiatives is planned to be announced officially by the end of 2021.

Accurate measurements and objective criteria – essential for fair financial support

Effective implementation of such incentive schemes requires a set of measurements tools and evaluation criteria that are accurate, objective, affordable, and scalable enough to drive real change in the field. To this end, the EC has enrolled the help of different organizations and private entities.

AgriCircle, a Swiss company developing software solutions for agriculture that already has a few innovation projects under its belt, is one of them.

The company is currently developing a platform for measuring the quantity of carbon sequestered in the soil and automatically generate certificates that can be converted into funds.

“Depending on the outcome of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) negotiations, eco-schemes can bring between EUR 38 billion to EUR 58 billion to farmers.” EC

Their system, based on remote sensing, years of experience in agronomical data modeling, and smart software, will simplify and automate the exchange of carbon credits and create an objective base for a carbon farming incentive scheme that farmers can trust and apply.

Based on satellite imagery and other remote sensing data, AgriCircle has developed measurement methods to monitor carbon sequestration that are not only precise but also affordable and scalable.

Their system, based on a mix of deep know-how and technology, minimizes the number of measurements performed on the field by humans by applying “precision soil sampling”. This method, which does not require a great deal of manpower or rely on the accumulated experience on the part the farmer, can lower the cost of soil measurements while providing additional information that is useful for land management.

“Monitoring the carbon content in the soil is not only an indicator of how much carbon could be removed from the atmosphere but also an important indicator of the soil’s health. Due to the soil’s heterogeneity and with carbon usually only accounting for 0.5 to 5 percent in it, it’s a challenge to do this accurately over an entire field. With the help of satellite data and AI, the most representative sampling points can be detected.

Subsequent calibration of the satellite data with the data taken from this soil sampling not only provides the required precision for a targeted improvement of the carbon stocks but also reduces the cost of soil sampling overall and builds a base for reliable and scalable carbon compensation schemes in agriculture,” Daniel Markward, co-founder of AgriCircle, told Supertrends in an interview.

Based on this data, the AgriCircle software calculates the quantity of carbon storage for each field and automatically issues a carbon storage certificate to the farmer. These certificates can then be exchanged between the farmer and a potential buyer, e.g., a food producer.

“We strongly believe we need to get away from activity-based measures and move towards outcome-based measures, where remote sensing technology such as ours is crucial.” Daniel Markward

The carbon measurement and monitoring method developed by AgriCircle could be the most precise process currently in the market, and it is already being used in several European countries.

As the method operates on open interface standards, it can be easily combined with various other complementary models or software systems and applications for the determination of greenhouse gases (GHG) and integrated into existing processes.

The AgriCircle team spent several years analyzing huge amounts of remote sensing data, combining it with ground measurements (60,000 data points for soil alone) and ultimately developing models that allow now the system to make accurate estimates about the field condition. The same platform can also give farmers valuable feedback about how to optimize practices like cultivation, fertilization, or use of crop protection.

“By 2026, we want to help our customers store 10 million tonnes / CO2eq per year in the soil.” AgriCircle

Success factors for the carbon farming project

Since the EC plans to launch the carbon farming initiative by the end of 2021, the implementation process could start as early as January 2022. The project will not focus solely on carbon sequestration, but will also facilitate collaboration between farmers and interested parties in the food supply chain and beyond. Its success will depend on many factors, but Daniel Markward believes one of the most important ones will be convincing the farmers not only that their investments will pay off via a fair price for farmed carbon, but also that the incentive scheme is based on reliable and accurate models and data.


“Everything starts with convincing the farmer. Farmers have gone through different changes through incentive schemes. The key is convincing them that this is not just a hype, but something that is here to stay,” Daniel Markward.


At the industry level, another challenge is to set a fair price for the sequestered carbon to incentivize adoption of, and investment in, new sustainable agriculture practices. After all, farming is a business, so landowners need to feel that their investment is justified. “Changing your way of work to regenerative agriculture practices usually requires an initial investment, and we think it’s crucial that farmers should receive fair prices for going through that change. That means that a good carbon credit price is one good incentive, so the overall price that farmers receive for the work they are doing needs to be on a level that makes it interesting for them to undertake these changes.” said Daniel Markward.

The EC plans to promote the new policy with a series of sub-projects, but the credibility of the scheme itself could be another important factor contributing to a successful implementation. This is why accurate measurements and widely accepted scientific methods of interpreting data should remove all doubts about the volume of carbon removed and the certificate itself.

On 14 July 2021, the EC adopted a series of legislative proposals regarding the concrete plans to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050. As an intermediate goal, these plans aim for a net reduction of at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

In Daniel Markward’s opinion, when it comes to agriculture, this goal will be hard to achieve, but not impossible. “The cycles in the agriculture industry are much longer than in many other industries, so it takes a little bit more time to go through changes. However, if you’re able to start treating soil differently, and I think this is the essential point here, that we start doing that on a large scale and start doing it quickly, then I think we have a chance to cut emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years, but it’s going to be a huge challenge.”

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Daniel Markward works for AgriCircle, a Swiss SME that connects farm data for better decision support along the food value chain. He co-founded the company in 2013 after finishing his MBA at the University of St. Gallen and has won several innovation prizes with AgriCircle since then. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he worked across industries for seven years as a management and technology consultant for KPMG in Zurich and Los Angeles.

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