The Promise of Precision Agriculture

Opinion by Graciela Watrous
May 23, 2013, 2:13 p.m.

No matter where it is practiced in the world, agriculture relies heavily on water and soil quality. We are in the process of exhausting both.

The collapse of water and soil quality takes many forms globally: over-fertilization in Asia, nutrient depletion in American soil, exorbitant draining from the Ogallala aquifer in the western US and high salinity of water in Africa. Climate change is surely exacerbating this problem, shifting weight in the ever-precarious balancing act between what man does and what man can sustain. As most people know, the United States suffered a severe drought this past year that may end up costing this country more taxpayer dollars than any other natural disaster in the history of America. More of these sorts of events are on their way.

Around the globe, climate change will upset traditional forms of agriculture. For example, increasing temperatures will affect developing nations in which the majority of agriculture is rain-fed. Adaptation to a more sporadic and extreme weather system will almost certainly be necessary. CGIAR, for instance, released a 2012 study stating that agriculture was responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from developed nations.

In order to combat these changes, agriculture (especially in developed nations) should bring itself up to date technologically, taking advantage of the internet and advancements in weather-tracking technology and positioning monitors. Luckily, this form of agriculture already exists: it’s called “precision agriculture.”

Precision agriculture is the use of modern technology to create a more efficient and site-specific form of agriculture. It aims to optimize farm inputs, improve efficiency and reduce pollution destructive to the environment. Technologies traditionally used in this form of agriculture include GPS, GIS and Variable Rate Treatment (VRT).

This technology takes several forms and serves many different purposes. Most improve efficiency and therefore have the potential to reduce the use of exhaustible resources and greenhouse gas emissions. Forms of precision agriculture technology can communicate when and which fields need to be watered and when they don’t, as well as when fields need to be fertilized or not. It can categorize soil with a level of detail that allows a farmer to plant certain crops in certain areas that, given this new information, he knows will grow well there. These technologies can monitor crop yields and space the seeds efficiently in fields to grow as much food per acre as possible for a given plant. All this can lead to less water and pesticide use, which, in turn, can reduce things like the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2006, 45 percent of corn and soy acres in the US used yield monitors, which are often the first form of precision technology that farmers adopt. A USDA-initiated study showed that corn and soy yields were significantly higher for farmers that adopted this technology and that, overall, these same farmers had reduced fuel costs and use for these acres. The United States uses almost all of its available arable land for crop production, and the rest of the world is increasingly doing the same. Forest is being converted to cropland to meet food demand and that demand will only increase as the world population grows to over 9 billion people in the next 40 years. While it is true that out current agricultural system produces enough food to feed the people of the planet, and that hunger is in many ways a distribution issue, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned with using land area as efficiently as possible, which precision agriculture can help us do.

But of course there are some costs to implementing this technology, both in the U.S. and abroad. The first is that capital costs are high. The technology, given that it is all relatively new, can be extremely expensive and does not necessarily pay itself off right away. For technologies that monitor input-to-output ratios, it may take years for the machines to collect enough data before a farmer can change his practices to more efficient ones.

Furthermore, these technologies are not always the most user-friendly, and it may be hard for farmers to understand the implications of the data. Implementing this technology can only be part of the answer; it can only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by so much and it can only save so much of these limited resources. While precision agriculture should be part of the answer, it does not solve these problems completely.

No matter the strength of the sustainable agricultural movement in the U.S., which often advocates for a more localized agriculture system, it is likely that large-scale, industrial farming will continue to make up the majority of agriculture in this country. Given that fact, I think it’s important that we make this system as sustainable as possible. Precision agriculture seems to be on the right track.

Graciela would love to hear your thoughts on precision agriculture at [email protected]

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