13 Dec 2018
Written by David Green, The U.S. Sustainability Alliance
By the time you read this sentence, ten more people will have joined the growing world population. Perhaps that fact might be easier to grasp than the often-quoted 10 billion people by 2050, a mind-numbing statistic, years into the future. But those additional ten people – sorry, it’s now twenty – want to be able to do the most basic human function – to eat.
The world’s agriculture faces a huge task. It must feed a growing world population by producing more food in the next thirty years than has been produced in the last 10,000 years. This production will need to be sustainable, avoiding unnecessary waste and respecting and improving the environment by growing more food on less land, using fewer inputs, respecting water quality and quantity, improving soil health and working to mitigate climate change.
As impossible as it sounds, we can do more with less. And technology holds the key. In farming, as in so many other industries, digital tools and innovations are transforming traditional approaches, creating efficiencies and providing sustainable solutions.
The U.S. has been an early adopter of agricultural technology (AgTech), from big data and IoT to GPS and GM. This readiness to adopt, experts say, has led to tremendous productivity gains. Total agricultural output tripled between 1948 and 2015 - even as the amount of labour and land used for farming declined by 75 percent and 24 percent, respectively. In 1970, one farmer could on average produce food to feed 72 people. Today, that one farmer can feed 155 people. Most of this is down to the adoption of new technologies.
Precision technologies have been a driver of innovation in farming, enabled by the arrival of GPS and GNSS. As the name suggests, precision agriculture makes farming practices more accurate. It uses a wide range of tools including GPS, sensors and even drones to collect, measure and analyse data to help famers better understand their land and what each individual crop needs for optimal yield.
Thanks to precision technology, U.S. farmers can manage the inputs for their crops more accurately than ever before. Using the data gathered, they can vary and adapt their seeding and application rates to ensure that they are applying just the right amount of seed, fertilizer and crop protection products to each area of their fields. Nothing is wasted. This is resource efficiency at its best.
Micro-irrigation is another area where precision agriculture is making a difference. Californian vineyards use a technical solution based on weather reports and remote sensor data to deliver precise amounts of water to each vine. As the weather changes, the irrigation methods react to ensure vines only receive water when needed.
Staying in drought-prone California, the Almond Board of California is continually researching new ways to conserve water. Just last week (4th December, 2018) it announced a $6.8 million investment in 75 independent research projects exploring next-generation farming practices in areas such as water. One innovation currently under development is an on-leaf water sensor technology. Sensors collect information from magnetic leaf clamps that are wired to sending units fastened to the tree. The clamps measure turgor pressure (rigidity due to absorption of fluid) to provide information on when and where water is needed in the orchard.
Genetic modification (GM) technology first came into commercial use in the 1990s and today the most common GM crops grown are corn, soya and cotton. More than 17 million farmers across 24 countries (19 of which are developing countries), use this safe and tested technology. Why? Because it works. Take for instance herbicide tolerant corn and soya, which allows for ‘over the top’ spraying that targets broad-leaved weeds - the bane of every farmer - without harming the crop itself.
The productivity benefits of GM technology are undeniable. In 2015, GMOs enabled farmers to grow the same amount of crops while using less land - 48.2 million hectares less. The environmental benefits are pretty compelling, too. Less herbicide and insecticide are needed with GM herbicide tolerant crops; less diesel fuel is used as farmers no longer need to deep plough (to control weeds) but direct drill their seeds without disturbing the soil, which in turn retains more moisture and less carbon is released into the atmosphere. Another key if unusual benefit is that less soil disruption means more earthworms – and earthworm tunnels allow moisture and rain to flow more easily into the soil. Earthworms also help break down crop stubble into humus, helping to improve soil health and build topsoil. GM technology is also helping in the fight against food waste. GM potatoes are less prone to bruising and black spots, while GM apples are non-browning, which saves food from being thrown away.
Technology is advancing all the time. We will see more widespread uptake of robotics and of drones – for tasks such as analysing the soil, aerial spraying and even scanning crops to check on their health. Precision agriculture is likely to become even more precise, thanks to nanotechnology. Artificial Intelligence and blockchain also promise great things – and as global investment in AgTech continues to grow at pace, the ‘next big thing’ could be just around the corner.
A clear message for the future is laid out in a report from the World Resources Institute published last week (5th December 2018), which lists a set of strategies that “could allow farmers and ranchers to grow far more food on existing agricultural lands while cutting emissions, a feat that would require a major shift in farming practices worldwide and rapid advances in technology.”
Farming is said to date back some 10,000 years when our hunter-gatherer ancestors began trying their hand at growing crops. Since then, farmers the world over work to improve their land, raise better crops and livestock, make more sustainable use of natural resources. From that early farmer who first used ‘the miracle’ of a wooden plough to till the soil to today’s counterpart who uses a drone to check his crops, innovation has been crucial to agricultural production.
Now more than ever, farmers need to be able to use the best tools and technologies available if they are to keep doing what they are good at – putting food on the table.
About The U.S. Sustainability Alliance
The U.S. Sustainability Alliance (USSA) comprising American farmers, fishermen and foresters was formed by recognizing that sustainability is not an arbitrary threshold, but rather a commitment to continuous improvement and innovation. A goal of the Alliance is to share U.S. stewardship and sustainability practices with colleagues and counterparts across the world for greater mutual understanding of resource management practices.
For more information please visit the website at: https://thesustainabilityalliance.us/