As the global population continues to burgeon, conventional farms face an unprecedented challenge in meeting the growing demand for food. However, this pursuit is hindered by an array of pest and disease management challenges that threaten agricultural productivity. Reports show that between 10-16% of global crop production is destroyed by pests – including insects, fungi and bacteria. Some well-known ones include the desert locust which tends to consume rice, maize, and sugarcane. Typically, desert locusts “can swarm and strip a crop field within an hour”. There’s also the western corn rootworm which causes US farmers to lose up to $1bn a year in revenue.
Looking ahead to the next 10 to 50 years, it is crucial to analyze and anticipate the potential hurdles that conventional farms might encounter in managing pests and diseases.
Climate Change and Emerging Pests
One of the foremost challenges in the coming decades will be the impact of climate change on pest and disease dynamics. Rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and changing ecosystems create favorable conditions for the emergence of new pests and diseases. Conventional farms, heavily reliant on predictable climatic conditions, will need to adapt their management strategies to counteract these unforeseen challenges. It was reported that pathogens (microorganisms that cause diseases and constrain host health and productivity), cause an estimated annual crop yield loss of US$220 billion.
The overreliance on chemical pesticides has led to the evolution of resistant pest populations. Over the next few decades, this issue is expected to exacerbate, rendering many conventional pesticides ineffective. To counteract pesticide resistance, farmers must adopt integrated pest management (IPM) strategies that combine biological control methods, crop rotation, and targeted chemical applications. However, this poses its own set of challenges as farmers will then be more dependent on chemical and non-biological assistance, which will in turn cause more soil health issues in the long run. It also requires us to ask ourselves how many of us are willing to consume GMO products which have been developed to be pest-resistant. While there are many benefits to that, there is no denying that natural fruits and vegetables that are grown well have a multitude of benefits that can never be fully replicated.
Technology and Precision Agriculture
While technological advancements offer promising solutions, they also bring their own set of challenges. Precision agriculture, utilizing technologies such as drones, sensors, and artificial intelligence, holds great potential for optimizing pest and disease management. However, the adoption of these technologies requires substantial investment, education, and infrastructure development, particularly in developing regions. In addition, the question of protecting indigenous farming practices comes into play. A balance between utilizing technology to resist the growth of pests and disease, along with not forgetting the benefits of traditional knowledge, will need to be balanced. In the Himalayas, indigenous practices examples that could easily be replicated include: “the farmers were also planting trap crops/repellent crops on the borders of the field. Trap cropping means growing plants susceptible to pest attack in the perimeter of the field. These attractive plants attract the pests towards them, thus saving the cash crop because insects pests attack the trap crop.”
Over the next 10 to 50 years, population growth, urbanization, and changing dietary preferences will place increased pressure on conventional farms. By 2050, we’re expecting the world’s population to hit approximately 9 billion people, increasing from 7.4 billion in 2016. Around the world, farmers will be pressured to up their food production by 70% compared to 2007 levels in order to meet the needs of the larger population, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This, coupled with socioeconomic factors, may result in labor shortages, further complicating pest and disease management.
The challenges that conventional farms face in pest and disease management over the next 10 to 50 years are complex and multifaceted. Climate change, globalization, technology, and societal shifts all contribute to an evolving landscape that demands innovative and adaptive solutions. As we explore how closed-loop agriculture solutions can potentially offset the increase of pests and diseases, it is imperative to recognize that addressing these challenges requires global collaboration, research investment, and a commitment to sustainable agricultural practices. While a circular food system may not solve everything, perhaps it will reduce the need for chemical-induced options, without ignoring the very real challenges that farmers face.