This post is also available in: Danish

Both agriculture and the food industry are facing a technological revolution that will enable us to grow and sow smarter, eat more climate-friendly and waste less food.

It seems a little absurd. But it is true. On one hand, our food system, the production of food, accounts for about 37% of total greenhouse gas emissions. On the other, about a third of all food goes straight into the bin after it is harvested.

Fortunately, several Danish startups are ready to take on the challenge. Among them is food-tech company NextFood, which is behind an advanced and automated vertical farming system that produces crops to order and delivers them from hyperlocal warehouses.

“The problem is that natural resources are extracted and polluted by growing crops conventionally today,” begins Rasmus Bjerngaard, co-founder and CEO of NextFood.

“By moving production indoors, we avoid polluting nature. We do this by simulating a climate in reality. So regardless of whether a crop is doing best on Lake Garda or in the south of France, through our IoT system we can control everything; air exchange, temperature, water, humidity, size, nutrients and so on,” he continues.

NextFood is primarily aimed at supermarkets and food service, where customers simply order a number of kilograms of a crop for a specific date and then the AI software the company has developed provides capacity in the vertical farm, schedules production and sets sensors, lights, water and nutrients and monitors that the harvest goes as it should.

“Because all variables are controlled by artificial intelligence, we can predict everything. The quantity, taste or timeframe will always be exactly as we want because we don’t depend on wind and weather. It also means much less risk than for farmers, who after all work with good and bad years for their crops. So you could say it’s much more software-based than farm-based,” the entrepreneur explains.

In fact, the solution is so far from conventional farming that the plant’s roots don’t even grow in soil, but instead hang in the air, drawing 16 different nutrients from a haze water. The Artificial Intelligence, IoT software, lights, sensors, ventilation and irrigation system were all developed by founders Rasmus Bjerngaard and Hannes Lindal (both engineering graduates) themselves.

“The method uses no pesticides, uses up to 98 percent less water and will always have been produced hyperlocally. For every square meter of vertical farm, our technology can free up 200 square meters of nature. So I have no doubt at all that the future of food is based on technology,” predicts Rasmus Bjerngaard.

Soil that makes sense

A high-tech revolution doesn’t happen overnight in all places. That’s why DTU engineers Jesper Alkestrup and Michal Gacka have developed a software platform and sensor system that helps growers streamline their irrigation strategy to get the same or more yield for less water.

The idea came from projects in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where the entrepreneurs saw first-hand how local farmers struggled to get the most out of a scarce supply of water.

Jesper Alkestrup co founder and CEO SoilSense

“We recognise the soil and how much water the soil type can hold. Because it can vary from field to field and from area to area. In addition, we calibrate the sensor to the specific crop according to the different thresholds recommended by the literature,” explains Jesper Alkestrup, co-founder and CEO of SoilSense.

SoilSense is a mix of hardware and intelligent software that uses algorithms to analyse irrigation data in real-time. This means the platform automatically collects and analyses irrigation data and displays it in an easy-to-understand way through a smartphone app to customers currently from Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, Hungary, the Netherlands, Peru and Kenya.

“At the heart of this water issue is agriculture. More than 70% of the world’s water is used for crops. And if we are to solve this challenge, we must first work more efficiently,” says Alkestrup.

According to the EU’s calculations, higher efficiency could save around 40-45 per cent of water in the cultivation of so-called high-value crops such as fruit and vegetables. And technological optimisation will only gain momentum as climate change accelerates, SoilSense believes.

“There is clearly a technological development underway in agriculture. But it’s also driven by necessity: 2022 will have been the driest in 500 years, so many farmers are suddenly feeling very tangibly about how the climate is changing and the uncertainty it creates for their livelihoods. So I expect there will be a lot more focus on this area,” says Jesper Alkestrup.

A technological scarecrow

It’s not just water we have to worry about when growing our food. Birds also play a key role in the big climate game.

Because they eat the crops, and on large farms, the problem is so big that up to 30% of green yields are stolen by our little beaked friends. And in coastal areas it can be up to 70 percent, experts say.

But the start-up NAUST Robotics wants to change that.

“A Hungarian fruit grower once told a joke that it was a race between him and the birds. But when we dove into the problem, we found that the issue was actually quite crucial for the green transition,” says Guifré Vidal, co-founder of NAUST Robotics.

“Over the years, this problem has existed. Chemicals, scarecrows and dead animals on sticks have been used, but none of it is very effective – not to mention unsustainable. The technology is outdated,” explains Vidal.

Guifré Vidal co founder of NAUST Robotics

Together with two other international founders, he has developed an automatic drone that interacts with an app to fly over farm fields and playback the birds’ own sounds, gently and naturally removing them.

“Birds quickly identify that the sound is from their own breed. Basically, the sounds are a combination of warnings about the approach of large birds, such as an eagle or similar,” says Guifré Vidal.

In the worst cases, the problem can amount to a loss of over 300,000 DKK. /100 Ha per year. Therefore, farmers need to regain control of their fields through technology.

“Our solution works automatically. With a small controller, the farmer marks the bird sounds to be played and the zones or fields to be protected, and then the drone takes off by itself and follows the route,” Vidal describes.

Although the solution can already help farmers today, the founders of NAUST Robotics hope to develop the drone even further before too long.

“In the future, we hope to have a solution so that the drone itself detects when there are birds and which sounds to use. And when they drift away, it lands quietly again, says Guifré Vidal.

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