Book Excerpt from How to Feed the World

In chapter 5, “The Technology Ticket,” contributing author Uris Baldos urges acceptance and investment in “precision agriculture” to provide for a burgeoning global population.

Feb 11, 2018
Uris Baldos

ISLAND PRESS, MARCH 2018For the modern farmer, a plot of land is no longer just a piece of land. It is a library of information ranging from soil moisture and fertility to weeds and pests. Making the most out of this “big data” is at the center of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture emerged in the mid-1980s when experts began to understand how different growing conditions can be, even within a single field itself. By looking at specific needs with precision, farmers can take a targeted approach to applying farm inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. This doesn’t just reduce costs and wastage, it also limits environmental emissions and reduces risks to human and environmental health.

Precision agriculture runs contrary to current practices in which farm inputs are broadly applied, resulting in environmentally damaging chemical runoffs. Computers, global positioning systems, geographic information systems, as well as sensors all provide the data necessary to give each tiny parcel of the field exactly what it needs. And with the cost of technology going down, most farm equipment in wealthy countries is now outfitted with sensors that can measure just about anything.

Imagine that your tractor can track crop growth, weeds, diseases, and even nitrogen levels and moisture in the soil as you drive around your fields (or possibly as your tractor drives itself). During harvest time, the combines measure grain quality and map yields for each patch of land. All this information can be collected and stored to help in the next planting season, or it can be uploaded automatically via wireless network to software or an app that determines how much pesticides, fertilizer, and water to apply in any part of your field. More recently, drones are being used to collect higher-resolution field maps and to monitor water stress and yield performance.

Despite the huge potential with precision agriculture, it is still quite costly and requires technological infrastructure. In the United States, there is still a long way to go before precision agricultural technologies are fully adopted. As of 2006, yield monitoring systems were applied to around 35 percent of soybean and 42 percent of corn acreages, nationally. When it comes to technologies that allow targeted application of chemical inputs, adoption rates are lower still. Yet, despite these slow adoption rates, we can hope that more farmers will be quick to adopt precision agriculture in order to better manage their resources, lower their operating costs, and improve the sustainability of agricultural production, all at the same time.

Yet we can go much smaller in our measurements with the emergence of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology really drives home the adage that small things can have big impacts. This technology can even further enhance the gains from precision agriculture. Aside from making field sensors smaller and more compact, nanotechnologies can also help improve how fertilizers and pesticides are released. By putting chemical inputs into tiny capsules or in gels, it is possible to control when and how these inputs are released to make them more effective and at the same time reduce chemical emissions and runoff. Nanotechnology also makes it relatively safer and easier to apply and handle these chemicals. There is growing evidence for other useful applications of this technology, such as the nanoparticles in plants that enhance nutrient absorption and plant growth. Some can even be used as insecticides. Nanotechnology is at its early stages and its risks are yet unknown. It might take awhile before the impacts are felt in our food production systems, but it is an area with huge potential to both increase yield and protect our environment.

There is a last technology to mention here. Although extremely controversial in public dialogue, genetically engineered (GE) crops are here—and all indications are that they are here to stay. Since GE’s development in 1973, several GE crops have been created and commercialized. For example, Bt crops containing the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (hence Bt) were developed to prevent crop damage from insects, and they have been adopted worldwide. There are ongoing efforts to roll out GE versions of fruits, oilseeds, as well as root crops. Aside from pest and herbicide resistance, plant breeders are also looking to incorporate useful agronomic traits, such as drought and cold tolerance, virus resistance, as well as enhanced nutrient content. Some plant breeding programs offer even more ambitious goals. There is an effort to completely supercharge the photosynthetic process of rice to overcome its current yield limit. Rather than applying nitrogen fertilizer, some plant breeders are looking to incorporate nitrogen fixation in cereals. In the advent of more efficient and precise genetic editing techniques, it is likely that any plans to feed the world will involve the use of GE crops.

Finally, it is important to note that we cannot just rely on new technologies alone to help us solve the problem of feeding the world sustainably. Ultimately these are just tools, and if we do not use our tools properly we may end up repeating history. Information from precision farming will be useless if farmers still choose to overapply fertilizers and pesticides. Although GE crops hold promise, they are not without disadvantages. Like any technological breakthroughs, current GE varieties are becoming less effective as some pests become more resistant. But if combined with proper pest management practices, we can make the most of GE varieties. Not all farmers can afford new technologies, and it is important for governments to foster policies that provide fair access to these innovations. 

Innovating, Investing, and Accepting

We face a different set of problems today than we have in prior agricultural revolutions. While a rise in global population is the same, there is also a rise in global incomes driving demand for grains, greens, and meats. At the same time, food production must be balanced with care for our endangered ecosystems and natural habitats. With history as our guide, innovations and technologies are key to ushering in another agricultural revolution. But this time, the revolution must confront the challenge of feeding the world in a sustainable manner.

With the abundance of food we have today, combined with a slow (but often irreversible) degradation of the environment, it is easier to ignore the warnings. It is tempting to abstain from action and take things for granted. Yet we must not be complacent. We do not want to risk the well-being of future generations and our planet.

The past has shown us that the metaphorical and literal fruits of agricultural revolutions are often uncertain. They take time to mature and are dependent upon proper planning and sufficient investments in agricultural sciences. Yet, if we hope to discover useful innovations to achieve a more sustainable food system in the near future, we must plan and invest today. What is more, new technology alone is not enough. We will need cooperation and technological exchanges across countries, along with socioeconomic conditions that are both profitable to farmers and affordable for consumers so that the agricultural sector as a whole becomes more environmentally friendly.

Agriculture has changed from the romantic vision often entertained in pop culture, with a horse-pulled plow or a simple red tractor, to something highly mechanized and technologically advanced in many parts of the world. But it must change further still. To protect our environment and grow food sustainably, we must innovate. This demands investment in and support for new farm inputs and crop varieties as well as proper fertilizer and pesticide management. We often wrongly assume that sustainable means going back to the way it was done before. Yet the way it was done before will not feed our world. We can reinvent sustainability through technology with planning and investment, and we have the power and capacity to launch a Greener Green Revolution. We simply have to reach out and make it happen.

Excerpted from How to Feed the World, edited by Jessica Eise and Ken Foster. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Eise and Ken Foster. Used with permission of the publisher, Island Press. All rights reserved.