January 18, 2021
International Congress Berlin
Farm & Food 4.0

31. December 2019

Sustainability does not come for free

Interview Prof. Dr. Thomas Herlitzius, TU Dresden

On the way to sustainable agriculture, it must transform itself from within, but society must also play its part, says Dr. Thomas Herlitzius, Professor of Agricultural Systems Engineering. The greater effort, better quality and the sustainability of the production processes inherent in the product must be rewarded by the consumer.

By Sarah Liebigt

Farm & Food: sustainability, climate targets, extinction of species: Must agriculture transform itself or must we (consumers, stakeholders in the production chain from harvest onwards) transform it?

Herlitzius: Both are necessary. Agriculture has to transform itself from within and at the same time society has to look at it differently than before. Sustainability does not come for free, that must be clear to everyone. This means that if processes can be made truly sustainable, this will involve greater expenditure, which must ultimately be reflected in the value chain.

Smart farming with its sub-area-specific processing principle is one approach, and there is a lot of potential for sustainability here. We are currently in the process of exploiting potential, especially in those areas where this can be done in a cost-neutral way. But overall, it must be clear to everyone that sustainability will cost money.

How sustainable can technology be?

Traditionally, technology is always developed according to existing requirements. Our problem today is that sustainability is not a requirement with high priority. Sustainability is not a requirement for the development of machines at all.

Wherever sustainability causes or would cause costs that are not absorbed in the production chain, it will not be a feature/demand on the machine.

Why are we only talking about sustainable agriculture today and how can it be rewarded?

We are not only talking about sustainable agriculture today. Since the 1990s, when the sustainability triangle as a balance between ecology, economy and social issues was first published, it has been discussed in all areas of society. So it has now naturally arrived in agriculture as well, as problems become visible, as awareness of how to deal with nature and the consumption of resources increases. So it is a very long process to rethink sustainability. As long as the focus in the triangle in question is on the economy, it will be difficult to actually implement sustainable processes. We must therefore not only strike this balance, but also ensure that there is an understanding of the effort required to close loops in all areas of society.

You train the young people who will be indispensable for the agriculture of tomorrow. What will agriculture look like in ten years?

That is of course the most exciting question. Nobody knows exactly. Especially since everyone assumes that we are indeed facing major upheavals. Our position is that we will see a paradigm shift: Away from ever larger machines whose productivity is scaled with size, weight and performance to smaller machines that are highly automated. Their operator will be part of the system, but not every single small machine will actually have an operator. By 2030, this will not be possible on a broad scale, because we are not yet at that stage of development. However, we will see such developments in individual niches. In horticulture, in fruit growing, in smaller farms, in organic farms, where higher word creation can be pursued.

There will be a long transition phase and not all machines as we know them today will disappear. Rather, a new world of smaller intelligent machines capable of cooperating and interacting with the big machines will emerge.

What influence do new technologies have on agriculture?

New technologies that appear on the horizon have always had an impact on agricultural engineering and agriculture. In principle, agricultural engineering is a field of application for known technologies, because purely due to the size of the industry there is little room to develop completely proprietary technologies. We see this increasingly in digitization. Technology here comes from completely different areas of industry. Sensor technology is a good example here. Here we have started to develop our own technology because the sensor technology we need does not exist, because it is not needed elsewhere.

This is never a question of competence, but always a question of economic efficiency.

What influence can new value creation networks have on a new sustainable agriculture?

I think that agriculture will only be able to transform itself into sustainable processes if value creation networks are also presented in a different way. If the higher effort, better quality and the sustainability of the production processes inherent in the product is rewarded by the consumer.

In today’s value chains, which are dominated by the global food industry, this is difficult to imagine

How do high-tech and ecology go together?

What is high tech? By high tech we understand completely new, at best disruptive technologies that can change our world. How well ecology and technology fit together is up to us. Whether high-tech is economically profitable or ecological is a question of goals and existing requirements.

How will agriculture become an agriculture driven by demand instead of supply?

The world market for today’s food production is saturated. The oversupply always puts high price pressure on producers in the value chain. It will be a few decades before the much-discussed figure of ten or eleven billion people to feed will be reached. Until then we can and must differentiate ourselves from conventional production. A new market is already emerging here that is deliberately regional and sustainable. We do not yet know exactly to what extent this market is prepared to bear the higher costs of sustainable agriculture.

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