The world is facing various challenges, among which one of the most urgent is the sustainable development of food production and environmental protection. As food demand continues to rise amid a growing population and global climate change, calls for advanced technologies and innovations to minimize agriculture’s environmental footprint and ensure a safe and abundant food supply are more important than ever.

Representatives from Swedish vegan milk producer Oatly and XAG, a Chinese agricultural drone developer, talked about how plant-based foods and drones could help improve biodiversity and, more broadly, how businesses leverage technology to address sustainability challenges at the BEYOND Expo 2022 tech conference, held online at BEYOND Metaverse.

The text below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Michelle Yu, associate director of sustainability at Oatly (bottom), Dr. Tong Wei, head of branding and global affairs at XAG (top right), and Jiao Yu, director of ChinaEU (top left and moderator), discussed at the BEYOND Expo. Credit: BEYOND Expo

Michelle Yu, associate director of sustainability at Oatly

Oatly is the first oat drink company globally, and we focus on people and the planet, which is how our company was initiated. Sustainability is one of our core values, and it’s very well incorporated into the straight decision-making process in the company. Our vision is to be a company that leads a global plant-based movement to reduce cow milk products by half. We also aim to produce sustainable oat-based products, maximize nutritional value and minimize environmental impact.

We have developed four ambitions in our sustainability plan. The first one: We want to give back to nature and communities where we source by improving biodiversity and boosting farmers’ income. The second ambition is to reduce our climate footprint caused by Oatly’s production by 70 % in a decade.

The third one is that we are producing in facilities that we wish to meet our future factory criteria, which include being safe and inclusive in the working environment. We also source 100% renewable energy in our operation, from a supply chain that uses 100% sustainable transportation. The last but not the least ambition is about leading a shift from dairy to a plant-based diet.

When we compare oat milk with cow milk in the same volume, Oatly uses 90% less water in the life cycle of producing oat milk and, generally, there is 70% less greenhouse gas emission from oat milk. This shows how different food options can have different environmental impacts.

Oatly is growing very fast in China, which draws attention to our climate and environmental footprints. Because global transportation creates a lot of gas emissions, we’ve already started our in-house production in Asia, with one factory in Singapore and the other in Ma’anshan, China. The local-for-local strategy not only contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also makes us closer to our consumers so that we can provide fresh, localized products with nutrition.

Dr. Tong Wei, head of branding and global affairs at XAG

As an agri-tech company, XAG has been in 50 countries and regions, especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America. In the agricultural space, we face a common challenge: an aging society and labor shortages. Agriculture is an ancient industry. With the development of technology, fewer and fewer people would like to get involved in the industry. Talented teenagers and young people would like to stay in the city because of urbanization. They can enjoy a very nice and fancy lifestyle, rather than living in the countryside.

Here’s an example of how we guarantee efficiency and help farmers grow enough food to feed the world: Traditionally, you have to spray pesticides and raise crops hydroponically, which means you push all the liquid into the soil. Now we can purely use the chemicals and save 90% of the water needed using a highly precise method of spraying. This benefits hundreds and millions of people around the world.

Drones can not only spray liquids but also spread granular fertilizer and seeds, so the drone’s function is expanded for environmental protection. Let me give you an impressive example: There was a bush fire in the state of Victoria in Australia before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, in which around 90% of the forest was burned and destroyed in the natural disaster.

The state government found it difficult to make a recovery and do anything for reforestation after the fire because it was hard for human beings, or any other vehicles, to get into the core areas of the forest. Our local partners provided a comprehensive solution, including using drones to seed from the air, and several weeks after seeding, the trees grew up fast in that area. We got a thank you letter from Victoria state.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen