Using photonics for sustainable global food supply

By the end of the century eleven billion people will be living on the Earth. In order to keep them fed, agriculture needs to become more productive and at the same time more sustainable than before. Photonics is a key technology for achieving this.

If there is currently a question of the century, it is the following: How can eleven billion people be fed without losing sight of existential threats such as climate protection and species extinction?—On behalf of the association SPECTARIS and Messe München, the consulting firm TEMATYS searched for answers, and summarized them in the recent study, “Photonic Technologies for Agriculture”. The core message is that sustainable food supply for the growing global population is possible using photonic solutions.

As the driving force behind photosynthesis, light is already the key to food and to life in general on our planet. Photonics turns it into an efficient tool that can help agriculture on many different levels. The study identifies these as follows: The spectrum ranges from increasingly precise satellite-supported weather forecasts to efficient LED lighting for greenhouses and vertical farms with plant-specific wavelengths; from sensor- and camera-based monitoring of plant and animal health to the development of resistant seeds using biotechnological methods. Another central area of application for photonic solutions is what is known as “precision farming”.

Highly precise, data-based agriculture

Precision farming is the general term for precise, sensor-supported, data-based agriculture. Automation and robotics are also leading the way. Even today, the steering of many tractors and agricultural machines is already automated thanks to GPS positioning and comprehensive sensors when used in the field. This ensures that they always use the same tracks, which minimizes crop losses. Meanwhile, this leaves the operators’ hands free for the touchscreen-based operation and control of the processing machines. When crossing fields, sensors check soil moisture, plant health and any nutrient deficiencies. The data is precisely mapped using GPS positioning so that precise action against diseases and pest infestations can be taken and fertilizer can be topped up on the next crossing. Later, the harvesters also map their yields very precisely.

In this way, data-based agriculture is approaching closed control loops, which achieve maximum yields while minimizing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. The first farms are also utilizing process automation using drones, field robots and machine fleets, whereby an experienced operator steers the first vehicle and makes all machine settings. These are transmitted wirelessly to the following, sometimes driverless devices. Photonics is the backbone of this highly efficient agricultural practice that is precise to the centimeter: camera systems, multi-/hyperspectral imaging and LiDAR sensors collect data and provide orientation during the automated execution of the work. Combating weed with weeding field robots and lasers instead of pesticides is also part of the photonic repertoire for this sustainable agriculture.

Strong growth of photonic applications

In view of this diversity and the potential of photonic applications in precision farming, which is nowhere near fully leveraged, the study predicts that global sales will almost double: the market will grow from the current €4.6 billion to €9.1 billion by 2027. That equates to an annual growth rate of 15 percent. The study provides a precise breakdown of these figures. It indicates that two-thirds will be used for lighting in greenhouses and vertical farms, with another €2.2 billion for solutions for UV disinfection of agricultural water and for UV treatment of seeds, the latter of which immunizes the growing plants from diseases and thus helps to minimize the need for chemical crop protection.

Photonic analysis (€342 million), which is used to research and breed more resistant plants, and photonic sensor technology follow at a great distance—but with steeper growth curves. These include refractometers, spectrometers, camera systems and multi-/hyperspectral imaging. According to the study, sales for these solutions will add up to a total of almost €440 million a year by 2027.

Photonic key technologies

It is clear that the arable land, which currently accounts for 37 percent of the land area of our planet, cannot be expanded indefinitely. Quite the opposite: Due to progressive degradation and devastation on the one hand, and the loss of biodiversity on the other hand, at the end of the century it will be important to farm significantly less area for feeding the world’s population—which will have grown by 40 percent by then.

Accordingly, the yields per hectare need to increase much faster than the population. The study shows how photonics can become the central driver of this leap in productivity: as a key technology for robotics and automation; as a supplier of the necessary sensor and camera data for highly efficient, data-based management; as an enabler of a digitally networked and increasingly smart machine base; and as a technological basis for sophisticated bioengineering that can minimize the use of fertilizers, pesticides and artificial irrigation through more robust, adaptable plants.

The authors see the potential of photonics across the entire agricultural process chain: from soil preparation, plant breeding and seed treatment to cultivation and harvesting to all further processing in the food industry. Photonics provide both overview and insight, whether it’s over hundreds of kilometers for weather observation from space, over dozens of kilometers for drone flights or early forest fire detection, or in the centimeter and micrometer scales of sensors and analytics on fields and in laboratories. The study concludes that “photonics is the key enabler for all areas of application in precision farming”.

You can download the study for free here.