Norwegian Tech Keeps Small Farms Competitive and Sustainable
As the human population continues to rise, it is essential that agriculture increases in efficiency and sustainability. This is particularly the case for smaller countries with limited land available to agriculture. Imports are still important, but domestic agriculture can provide economic benefit, independence, and the preservation of culture. Many variables such as labor retention and recruitment, technological development, and climate change impact the success of a country’s food system. Small countries can be especially sensitive to changes brought on by these variables, but with much of their sector based in family farming, they can innovate and adapt faster than industrial agriculture systems if the government provides the money and resources to help.
Norway is a good example of a small country that has prioritized agricultural innovation. Norway’s land-based food production has doubled since the 1960s even though their labor input has dropped by 35% since the 2000s. The key to this is technological innovation. Only 3% of Norway’s mainland is devoted to agriculture because a third of this hilly country is covered by forest or other cultivated land. While Norway’s agriculture accounts for a very small part of Europe’s GDP, Norway is known for dairy, pig, poultry, egg, and salmon farming.
The nation’s food impact might change soon because Norway will likely reap agriculture benefits from global warming, at least in the short term. Climate change is likely to increase the growing season by one to four weeks, positively impacting the yield of several crops. For example, potato yields are expected to increase by 25-30%; wheat yields could increase by as much as 14%.
Aligned with this trend, Norway established the Food Nation Norway Initiative in 2020, a broad political framework for business development and value creation based on safe and healthy Norwegian food and sustainable food production. The initiative looks to increase and promote sustainable food production and reduce food waste by 2030. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the global agriculture industry directly accounts for 17% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with an additional 7-14% of indirect emissions through land use changes. Meanwhile, about a third of all food produced in the world goes to waste, and the producing, transporting, and rotting process together result in about 8-10% of global GHG emissions, as calculated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. So even if Norway’s agriculture industry itself contributes a very small amount to the country’s GHG footprint, developing new methods to improve the nation’s agriculture and tackle food waste can help other countries transition to better practices, making a greater impact.
Norway established the Food Nation Norway Initiative in 2020 with goals to increase and promote sustainable food production and reduce food waste by 2030.
Another piece of the puzzle to emphasize is the small farmer aspect. Smallholder farms represent more than 80% of the world’s farmers. While results vary from studies looking into the environmental impact of small farms compared to larger ones, a recent meta-analysis by Springer Nature found that many studies reported smaller farms having higher yields and greater crop diversity. Crop diversity decreases the smaller the farm is, though, suggesting that a mix of small and medium farm sizes could yield the best crop biodiversity. While there is no evidence supporting any relationship between farm size and use efficiency, GHG emissions, or profitability, smaller farms are more likely to use less pesticides and promote organic management, further promoting regional biodiversity. In addition, promoting smallholder farms can be a powerful tool to improve humanity’s relationship with nature.
Here are some examples of Norwegian homegrown technologies that are benefiting these farmers:
Tech Replaces Traditional Chemical Applications
Scientists have warned against the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962. Pesticides and herbicides have resulted in the mass killing of bugs and mass causalities of bird and other organisms, putting regional ecosystems out of balance. The chemicals seep into groundwater, contaminating drinking water with carcinogens. Meanwhile, the use of nitrogen-based chemicals in fertilizers is responsible for deadly algal blooms like the one that demolished the manatee population in Florida, USA, this past summer.
Several companies are finding alternatives to the prevalent use and application of chemicals. As a replacement for synthetic fertilizers, N2 Applied has developed an on-farm system that lets farmers produce their own fertilizer using locally sourced manure that is turned into fertilizer using solar energy.
For pesticides, Soil Steam International developed mobile and stationary machines that use steam instead of pesticides to remove fungi, weeds, seeds, and nematodes from soil before farmers plant in it. The company reports a 40% larger harvest and that many vegetables grown from the steamed soil can be stored for longer periods of time, reducing food waste.
For herbicides, Kilter Systems developed an autonomous weeding robot that uses a Deep Learning Neural Network to map around weeds and crops to drop an exact amount of herbicide on weeds. The company says the technology reduces herbicide usage by 95% compared to traditional methods.
Another Norwegian agricultural robot, Saga Robotics’s autonomous modular robot, Thorvald, is designed to perform fieldwork tasks such as picking fruit and vegetables, cutting grass, spraying herbicide in specific spots, providing in-field transportation, performing UV treatment, phenotyping, and the collecting and analyzing of data for crop predictions. Thorvald can perform in most environmental conditions, and because the robot is lightweight, it does not compact the soil.
Tech That Keeps Track of Livestock
The company Nofence has created the world’s first virtual fencing system for grazing animals. Similar to virtual fences that are common for containing dogs, every animal wears a collar that beeps when the animal crosses a virtual barrier. Farmers can see where every animal is via an app, and the company says it takes about a week to teach the livestock what the beeping noise means.
A pilot project using Nofence technology began in Norway in 2016 using 850 goats. In 2020, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority approved use of Nofence for goats, sheep, and cattle. The technology can now be found in the UK as well.
Another organization Findmy offers collars that use GPS to track livestock via a smartphone.
Beyond the Farm: Reducing Food Waste
Once crops are grown and sold, the next step is reducing food waste. TotalCtrl and Foodlist have apps that give consumers and businesses better control of food waste by helping them keep track of inventory and expiration dates.
Unlike poorer countries where most smallholder farms are located, Norway has the funds to encourage technological development in the agriculture industry. As the human population continuously adds pressure to the food system, innovations like these will provide a pathway towards sustainably supporting future generations.
*Becky Hoag is a science writer with a special interest in climate change communication. You can find her work on her site https://www.beckyhoag.com or through her YouTube channel Beckisphere at https://www.youtube.com/c/Beckisphere.