Restoring and preserving the core elements like water, air and land has to be at the heart of the new agricultural production models, with the sights always focused on the well-being of populations. Feeding more people while ensuring a balanced diet for all and greater respect for the environment requires an agriculture that consumes less energy and water, preserves soil quality more effectively and recovers more of its co-products.
To meet these challenges, we will rely on farmers, who will play a key role in the transition towards a global circular economy. As said by Juan Antonio Guijarro, CEO of SUEZ Agriculture “It is essential to deploy models and circular solutions. At SUEZ Agriculture, our objective is to take into account the expectations and needs of farmers in order to achieve better productivity levels while respecting the environment, biodiversity, soil and water in the context of demographic growth.”
Technology to enhance irrigation
Food security depends first and foremost on the availability of water resources essential for agricultural production. However, agriculture currently accounts for 70% of the world’s water consumption. The figure is as high as 90% in some countries. While many of them are facing increasingly severe water stress, more efficient use of water for irrigation is an urgent requirement.
“Only 20% of the world’s land is irrigated,” explains Juan Antonio Guijarro. “Of this 20%, 80% is flooded, which is a very inefficient technique. Of the remaining 20%, only 5% uses technology, which enables optimum water use. The total amount of water wasted is enormous. There is huge potential for improvement in this area.”
According to the expert, the most important way to really improve irrigation systems is to work closely with farmers. Indeed, to him, they have little economic incentive to save water due to its low cost. “Farmers are aware of the need to protect the environment, but production imperatives often take priority. We need to prove to them that better irrigation techniques not only protect the environment; but also and above all, increase yields efficiency.” To this end, SUEZ has developed a smart irrigation technology based on the use of meteorological, cartographic and hydrological data.Expert algorithms enable farmers to optimise their water, energy and fertiliser consumption while maintaining or increasing production levels.
However, more rational water resource management, though crucial, will not be enough to combat water stress, which could affect 40% of the world’s population by 2035. It will be necessary to increase wastewater recycling for agricultural use, which currently accounts for only 2% of the wastewater collected worldwide.
This is an area where SUEZ is in the vanguard, with 800 million m2 of wastewater recycled every year and the target to triple its supply of alternative water (recycled wastewater, desalination) by 2030, which has already been achieved. Thanks to treatment techniques such as ultraviolet light, reverse osmosis and membrane filtration, the group can now recycle wastewater with a quality level suited to each use. Ultrafiltration membranes are particularly effective for providing water suitable for the needs of agriculture and industry. Today, only 2% of the collected wastewater is reused.
The circular economy, the keystone of sustainable agriculture
“There will be no sustainable human food without a circular economy. Water is not the only resource for which SUEZ solutions can accelerate the agricultural transition towards more virtuous circuits,” as Pierre Achard, Agriculture Project Director France, reminds us.
“We have to start by working on fertilisers,” replies Laurent Galtier, Organic Activity Manager in the Innovation, Marketing and Industrial Performance Department. “The vast majority of fertilisers—nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.—are currently produced from non-renewable resources (mining, atmospheric nitrogen conversion plants, etc.). We must offer fertilisers arising from the circular economy, from recycling.” This is the case with Phosphogreen, a SUEZ process that recovers phosphorus from wastewater as a fertiliser. This is fundamental to preserve phosphate reserves, which are heading for exhaustion and constantly increasing in price. Twenty percent of today’s global demand for phosphorus could be fulfilled by recovering it from wastewater.
Regarding the treatment of organic waste (urban and industrial sewage sludge, biowaste, etc.), “returning organic matter to the soil provides a virtuous soil conditioner that reduces the production of chemical inputs and guarantees 100% recycling of organic waste,” declares Laurent Galtier. Thus, to remain at the forefront of the organic waste recovery market, SUEZ Organique, a Group subsidiary, has partnered with the Avril group in the Terrial joint venture to become a leading player in the fertiliser and organic soil improvers market in France. “Our sector makes it possible to produce organic soil conditioners, commonly known as compost, but it contains a paradox: there are soil conditioning seasons for farmers, but waste is produced all year round, so supply and demand are not continuously balanced,” explains Anne-Valérie Goulard, CEO of SUEZ Organique. “Thanks to the expertise of the Avril group, the partnership will help us facilitate market access to our composts and better understand the needs of farmers and agricultural cooperatives. The challenges for this partnership are to balance demand and develop the value of compost through a wider range of enriched organic soil conditioners.” It also addresses the growing challenge of sustainable production and exploitation of food resources, while limiting chemical and artificial inputs.
Aside from the composting sector and the successful marketing of compost, our links with the agricultural world are intensifying with the development of anaerobic digestion. “We are working more and more with farmers, both to supply their biogas plants and to find opportunities to use their co-products, cereal residues, straw, corn husks, etc. in our own anaerobic digestion plants. Finally, cooperation with the farming community is essential to ensure a long-term success for soil conditioning with organic matter while strengthening the traceability of spreading still further,” continues Mrs Goulard.
Digital technology at the heart of the agricultural transition
Among the solutions for recovering organic waste, SUEZ has developed Organix, the first digital marketplace for biomass. Producers of organic waste—including farmers—can use Organix to contact users and anaerobic digestion plant operators, who transform the waste into energy. “It’s like a kind of Gumtree or eBay for organic waste. This is a first step towards using digital technology to monetise the ecosystem services provided by various farming activities,” summarises Pierre Achard.
Rural areas are beginning to work with SUEZ to support the agricultural transition. Last year, the API project emerged in the Lyon city region (France) to develop short food supply chains. The next step after “smart cities” is to develop local digital platforms supporting “smart rural areas”. The core features (quantifying environmental impact, traceability and logistical optimisation) are already available from SUEZ, at our “Visio” centres or through our “On Connect” solutions for example.
China and the United States, new frontiers
“Once all these solutions are mature in Europe, we aim to develop them in the rest of the world,” Pierre Achard forecasts. SUEZ is eyeing two markets in particular, North America and China. “The United States is already the world’s biggest producer of agricultural products.
With climates similar to our Mediterranean climate in Florida and California, we can contribute our expertise to this market,” explains Juan Antonio Guijarro. “Meanwhile, China does not produce enough food for its population and has to import on a huge scale. There is a great need to improve the efficiency of agriculture. We therefore wish to bring our expertise to modernise and develop the market.”
 Rain-fed agriculture accounts for the remaining 80%.
The efficiency of flooding is about 45%, according to figures from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. By comparison, micro-irrigation is about 90% efficient.
Avril is an agro-industrial and finance player in the oil and protein crop sectors. It is present in France and internationally in sectors as diverse as human foods, animal feeds and expertise, renewable energy and chemistry.
API (Agriculture Périurbaine Innovante, or innovative peri-urban innovation) is a project supported by the Chambre d’agriculture du Rhône, the syndicat mixte hydraulique agricole du Rhône, Blue Line Logistics, SUEZ and Eiffage. The Chambers of Agriculture represent and support the development of farmers. The Mixed Hydraulic Union supervises the preliminary investigations for the implementation of irrigation projects in the department. It also supports farmers in their irrigation projects.
This article was published in the seventh issue of open_resource magazine: "Sustainable food, sustainable planet"