Precision & Efficiency: Key Pillars of Global Agricultural Sustainability!

Using technology to precisely measure and place seeds, fertilizer, water and chemicals allowing for less use of these resources while maximizing yield.  Taking advantage of the latest genetically-enhanced seeds to increase grow more while using less.

One of the most amazing recent farming breakthroughs is something along the lines of “iFarming.”  New technology in tractors – such as onboard equipment and software like that shown to the left, that allows farmers to apply seeds, fertilizer and other inputs with great precision.  This technology has the capability of reducing environmental impact and economic costs to farmers since only the exact amount of resources that the seed or soil needs are applied at the time when they are most needed – thereby reducing wasteful over-application or runoff.  In a technical paper on the subject, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defined precision agriculture as, “A management system that is information and technology based, is site specific and uses one or more of the following sources of data: soils, crops, nutrients, pests, moisture, or yield, for optimum profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment.”[1]

Precision technology allows farmers to save on fuel, optimize time and labor and reduce costs while improving production.  Researchers estimate that precision agriculture is saving farmers in the United States millions of dollars a year by avoiding over-application.[2]  And, while the farmer sees a direct economic benefit from this technology, all consumers get the benefit of lessened environmental impacts and the ability to avoid the destruction of highly sensitive ecosystems which would otherwise be required if agriculture as a whole were employing less efficient models of production.  Some examples of this type of technology include:

  • Satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) technology and auto-pilot type guidance systems for tractors and equipment allow for very specific timing and placement of seeds and inputs.  This means that farmers can avoid the wasteful process of double application when turning around at the end of a field.  Experts estimate that satellite-assisted steering alone can improve farm efficiency by 2-5%.[3]
  • Precise Pesticide Applications can be achieved by combining pest scouting technology or trips through the field with precise spraying systems.[4]  Guidance systems can be used to apply small amounts of pesticide only upon the stalks of plants without getting any on the leaves.[5]  This type of application – on the right spot and at the exact time the plant needs it – is much more practical than hand labor or multiple applications to accomplish the same task and has the additional benefit of less chemicals and runoff into the environment.[6]
  • Variable Rate Technology (VRT) is another high-tech example of technology that allows for precision application of seed and inputs.  By controlling the type, timing, method and rate of application, farmers can reduce the amount of inputs like fertilizer applied.  VRT systems vary the rate of application of seed, fertilizer, pesticide or inputs over a field based on site-specific information such as soil quality or plant yield.  VRT allows farmers to apply only what is needed when it is needed.  Sensors can also help detect the needs of the field or plants; for example, sensors can determine the rate of nitrogen uptake based on the greenness of the crop canopy.[7]   

Precision technology can be used in combination with tests on soil composition, or, corn stalk nitrogen levels can be sampled to ensure that the right amount of nutrients are being taken up by crops.

Precision farming also offers farmers a better understanding of their operation’s potential and limitations by providing significantly more data to the farmer about their soil types and which practices work best for their specific area.  This has enabled farmers to improve less productive areas, or in some cases, to take marginally productive areas out of production.[8]  Fewer, repeatable paths of travel through the field – made possible by the technology discussed above – also mean less soil compaction and erosion, and better soil quality.[9]

It is worth re-emphasizing that, because precision technology can reduce application of fertilizer and pesticides, its use also means less chemical runoff and better water quality.

Finally, soil and fertilizer also produce nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas; reducing fertilizer application lowers nitrous oxide emissions while maintaining productivity.  A recent synthesis of literature on the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of agricultural land management in the United States estimates that changing nitrogen fertilizer placement using practices like precision agriculture could reduce emissions an average of .33 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (per hectare per year or t CO2e ha–1 yr–1) which translates into .134 metric tons of CO2e/ACRE/year.[10]  The report found that changing nitrogen fertilizer timing could reduce an average of .35 tons of CO2 equivalent (t CO2e ha–1 yr–1) which translates into .142 tons per acre/year.[11]  While

Water Conservation / Precision Irrigation

Technology has made great advances in irrigation and water use efficiency in agriculture.  Examples of technology that increase efficiency and can be used to monitor irrigation include:

  • Center-pivot irrigation systems that apply less water than flooded irrigation (which runs across an entire field)
  • GPS units, monitors and remote controls that can shut-off sprinklers and alert the farmer if there is an issue or overlap with the sprinkler system
  • Systems or sensors that monitor water availability, weather, or soil moisture and plan irrigation based on water needs
  • Technology that delivers ability to vary water system or application across a farm or field based on the water requirements of different soil types or ecosystems

The use of technology has allowed farmers to use water more efficiently – producing more yield with less resources.  Precision irrigation can reduce water over-application, resulting in less water runoff and pollution as well as preserving water quantity in a region.  It can also save energy, which also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  A recent report projected that precision irrigation could save water usage on the order of 10-20% and energy usage on the order of 20%.[12]

Water can also be reused on the farm – such as the capture of wastewater from onsite operations or processing – and later applied to fields for irrigation purposes.  In this way, water is used most efficiently for production.  Water used in associated plant operations can also be recycled or heated and cooled using the principles of heat exchange which conserves energy at the same time water is used twice – for cooling a plant and as water for livestock or crops.

High-Yield Varieties

There have been many advances in the varieties of crops and livestock available to producers that have allowed farmers to produce an ever higher yield using less resources.  

A stunning technological leap that many consider of greater impact to human welfare than the transistor or computer has been called the Green Revolution. The “green revolution” describes the advances in agriculture and productivity that started mid-20th century in large part due to the creation of high-yield crop varieties.

For example, hybridization and genetic modification have been used to create crop and livestock varieties that have higher rates of growth with lower resource requirements.  Hybridization is a form of genetic modification that involves crossing the genes of one variety with a related breed or species.  Plants and animals have been hybridized or selectively bred for certain traits for thousands of years.  Another form of genetic modification is called genetic engineering.  Unlike hybrids, this type of genetic modification is done by altering a gene or splicing genes from unrelated breeds or species.  Crops are often genetically modified so that they are more resistant to pesticides and herbicides, more tolerant to extremes, or produce a higher yield.

Agricultural sustainability discussions often intentionally exclude genetic modification out of a sense that the precise manipulation of genes is to be distrusted, and from fears of potential ill effects.  Yet this is an issue that must be re-evaluated in order to meet the global sustainability challenges ahead.

As long as products are rigorously evaluated for their potential impacts to human health and the environment – and this is currently required by several laws and regulations in the United States – then these products should be acceptable.  Noted environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand points out in his book Whole Earth Discipline:

“The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of scie

nce, representing the views of the world’s leading experts — the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue — has confirmed this.

In 2001 the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself — not by private industry—conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or the environment.”[13]

Hybridization and genetic modification can create varieties that produce more yield with less need for water, energy and chemical inputs because of traits like enhanced resistance to drought, disease or pests.  New technologies are also exploring crop varieties that can promote the sequestration of carbon or the fixation of nitrogen, improving plant growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Higher yields are also desirable in livestock production.  Beef or hogs have been bred to create stock with better genetics that gain weight faster on fewer resources.  Now, with better genetics, producers can achieve a higher yielding, better quality product on fewer resources resulting in the production of fewer emissions.

Intensive Efficiency

Not every location is appropriate to grow wheat – or oranges.  Growing a crop under the best conditions for that particular plant type lowers the need for water, energy, and inputs like fertilizer and pesticides.  Crops grown in the right location under the right conditions reduce the potential for weather-related loss or damage and lower need for energy and input usage.  Furthermore, when crops are intensively grown in limited and preferable conditions, it reduces the need for converting natural ecosystems into agricultural use.[14]  All of these things should be considered – conditions, growing efficiency, harvesting, processing, and transportation – when considering the footprint of a particular crop or product.

Large-scale, efficient agriculture can play an important role in reducing the environmental impact of crop production.  As an article questioning the sustainability of ‘locavores’ pointed out in the New York Times,  “ . . . Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.”[15]

Intensive agriculture can be more efficient and result in fewer emissions.  For example, a recent study by Stanford found that high-yield agriculture has avoided the production of more than 590 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the latter-half of the 20th century.[16]  As Robert Paarlberg’s book, Food Politics: What Every One Needs to Know states, “Agricultural scientists often believe there will be less harm done to nature overall by highly capitalized and specialized high-yield farming systems employing the latest technology. Increasing the yield on lands already farmed allows more of the remaining land to be saved for nature.”[17]


[1] USDA NRCS (June 2007) Agronomy Technical Note No. 1. Retrieved at: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/management/files/agy_1.pdf

 

[2] Langcuster, James, University of Alabama. "Precision Agriculture Saving Farmers Tremendous Expense." Western Farm Press. November 24, 2010. http://westernfarmpress.com/management/precision-agriculture-saving-farmers-tremendous-expense.

 

[3]O'Driscoll, Cath. "Extra Precision Agriculture." Chemistry & Industry, July 26, 2010: 18-21.

 

[4] USDA NRCS (June 2007) Agronomy Technical Note No. 1. Retrieved at: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/management/files/agy_1.pdf

 

[5] Roberson, Roy. "GPS guidance systems expand capabilities for a broad spectrum of farming operations." Western Farm Press, December 2007: 17, 20.

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] O'Driscoll, Cath. "Extra Precision Agriculture." Chemistry & Industry, July 26, 2010: 18-21.

 

[8] Langcuster, James, University of Alabama. "Precision Agriculture Saving Farmers Tremendous Expense." Western Farm Press. November 24, 2010. http://westernfarmpress.com/management/precision-agriculture-saving-farmers-tremendous-expense.

 

[9] Ibid.

 

[10] Alison, J. Eagle, R. Lucy Henry, P. Lydia Olander, Karen Haugen-Kozyra, Neville Millar, and Philip G. Robertson. Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Land Management in the United States: A Synthesis of the Literature. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, 2010.

 

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Marks, Gary. "Precision Irrigation: A Method to Save Water and Energy While Increasing Crop Yield." March 2010. http://www.slideshare.net/GaryMarks/precision-irrigation-a-method-to-save-water-and-energy-while-increasing-crop-yield-a-targeted-approach-for-california-agriculture.

 

[13] Brand, Stewart. (2009). Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Viking Adult.

 

[14] Tilman, David. Kenneth G. Cassman, Pamela A. Matson, Rosamond Naylor & Stephen Polasky.  Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices.  Nature. Aug. 8, 2002.  Vol. 418.

 

[15] Budiansky, Stephen. (2010, Aug. 19). Math Lessons for Locavores. The New York Times.

 

[16] Burney, Jennifer, Steven Davis, and David Lobell. "Greenhouse Gas Mitigation by Agricultural Intensification." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 15, 2010.

 

[17] Paarlberg, Robert. (2010). Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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