Tuesday, March 28, 2023
It's spring. It is the beginning of the almond blossom. The passenger on the high-speed train contemplates the scenery. He sees the overhead lines, mountains, villages, and fields passing by in a continuous succession that blurs their shapes. He also watches the blades of wind turbines rotate and the glow of light on dozens of solar panels. But at a time when there is so much talk about the effects on society of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and advanced technologies, we forget that last year—according to data from Citi Bank—1 billion people went hungry or went without food for at least one day. It is a far-reaching problem, but it has an answer. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates that finding a solution to food shortages would add $10.5 trillion annually to the Earth's wealth.
Let's go back to the passenger looking out the window. Perhaps the speed hid from him that a large part of the solution had passed in front of his eyes. It is there. Even though, now, he can't touch it. There are two. Wind turbines, those contemporary windmills moving in the north wind, and the golden glowing fields of solar panels.
Like everything else that exists, it has a name, a somewhat jarring one, perhaps: agrovoltaic agriculture. A simple concept behind a complex name. Growing under solar panels. Some foods grow very well under their light and shade. It is to make land use compatible. In this way, we can feed an ever-growing world population. “By 2050, more than 9.6 billion people will live on the planet. Therefore, more food will be needed in the next 50 years than in the last 10,000 years. But only 10% of the land can be used to produce that food,” says Gillian Diesen, a special-interest fund specialist at Pictet AM. At the same time, however, this new way of farming provides sustainable energy. Two problems that could be solved with identical technology. Sometimes solar panels are installed at a height above the ground that allows plants to grow underneath. Another option is to place them on the roofs of greenhouses. Evaporation from nearby surfaces can be reduced due to the shading they provide. And depending on the crop chosen, there would be less need for irrigation water.
"The key lies in placing the panels in the least productive areas of the land," says Juan Luis Ramos, an expert at the Zadín Experimental Station (Granada), which is part of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). This is the path we are on. According to Juan Almansa, general coordinator of the Agricultural Association of Young Farmers (ASAJA), 90% of the panels are being placed on low-quality land. But increasingly, renewable energies are an asset for farmland. Almansa gives the example of slurry (manure), previously unusable and now used to generate biofuels. Ramos says no one thinks of using corn anymore, but only its "stubble, the stalk, the parts that are not used for human food." In addition, the wells extract water from renewable sources and not, as in the past, with diesel engines.
Let's go back to the panels and their reflection. At what stage of development are they? Experts at Chonnam National University (South Korea) have launched a pioneering study. They planted broccoli under the solar panels. And they have found that the taste and nutritional properties are identical. The panels were raised two to three meters and rotated at a 30° angle to provide water and shade for the crops.
Other proposals are just as fascinating. Travel. Africa. Kenya. The idea is to leave a space between the plates and grow there. The initiative, which has local experts' support and New York University's guidance, can be transformative if it comes to light. Fifty-five percent of the population of East Africa still does not have access to safe electricity, and the continent's food problems are well known. Once again, the shadows of the panels protect crops from drought and water loss. Closer to home, in France, in the Haute-Saône region, 5,500 panels have been distributed on a farm in the commune of Amance, and soybeans are already being harvested under their shade. Furthermore, according to the World Economic Forum, greenhouse agriculture produces ten times more food than open fields but requires ten times more energy. This is where the sun's brightness takes root, and the wind blows to respond sustainably to that demand.
This symbiosis between renewable energies and agriculture is a revolution. The International Food Policy Research Institute argues that it is possible to increase global crop yields by 67% by 2050 and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% and fertilizer and pesticide use by 20%. Energy companies are no strangers to this phenomenon.
The sun no longer dazzles or melts Icarus’ wings. "Renewable energies increase the profitability and efficiency of agricultural and livestock activities," stresses Roberto Scholtes, Head of Strategy at Singular Bank. "Wind and solar installations are compatible with most farms and tend to take up the least productive land. Not to mention the electrification of agricultural machinery."
The semantics of the old furrows have also changed. Precision agriculture appears. GPS-guided systems (they can monitor plant mortality and growth and report in real-time on crop status) could save a half-hectare farm about €11 in variable costs, such as energy or fertilizer, per day. Gillian Diesen calculates that if just 10% of U.S. farmers used this guidance in seed planting, they would save 60 million liters of fuel annually. And there with it is regenerative agriculture. "It makes it easier for farmers to improve crop yields and convert cropland and grassland into carbon sinks, reverse forest losses, and optimize the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers," elaborates Gabriel Micheli, manager of Pictet ReGeneration. This combination of technology and renewable energies is the seed of the future and essential food security. "The war in Ukraine has led to a greater use of organic fertilizers, mainly compost, in Spanish fields, where the price, although it has increased due to transportation costs, was not as high as what was seen with minerals," reflects David Canales, country director of Safetykleen International, a multinational company in the application of chemical products, including those for agriculture.
The train does not stop. The passenger can read on a red LED sign that it is going faster than 250 kilometers per hour. In the distance, on the mountain ridges, is a succession of wind turbines. In Italy, a country with similar agriculture to Spain, turbines only occupy 2% of the total wind farm area. Ninety-eight percent is free for cultivation.
Through the window, green fields, spinning turbines, and glowing solar panels blend into the traveler's iris. He may be unaware of it, but he is taking in the future.
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