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Precision technology is part of environmental sustainability

Technology and food production have gone hand in hand since humans began using tools for cultivation. But in modern times, agricultural technology’s been demonized, blamed for environmental woes stemming from ills such as chemical misuse, poor management decisions and bad – or lacking – communications.

The criticism caught the industry’s ear. Some accusations were unwarranted, but overall, it knew it had to do better. And it did. Poor rural Internet coverage withstanding, farmers today have access to better information and an improved understanding of technology management. Public trust studies show technology’s way down the list of concerns.

For modern farmers, technology means profitability as well as sustainability. They’re increasingly adopting what’s called precision agriculture techniques on their operations. Precision agriculture employs technology to more efficiently use land and so-called inputs such as water, fuel, fertilizer and crop protection products. Farm equipment manufacturers say farmers who use precision agriculture equipment use appreciably less of almost everything to grow more food.

The association representing these manufacturers has released a study this week they say shows how technology helps farmers improve their environmental stewardship while increasing production. Having those two benefits working in sync is what farmers need going forward, to produce enough food for the planet while not putting an undue strain on natural resources.

The study is a joint effort by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers,  in partnership with the American Soybean Association, CropLife America (representing crop protection companies), and National Corn Growers Association.

They have a symbiotic relationship: manufacturers build the equipment farmers use to plant, grow and harvest their crops; crop protection companies keep disease and pests at bay.

This is expensive. Farmers are the first to pay for it, and ultimately, so do we, when we buy food. And with food prices a constant concern, it warrants understanding where the food dollar goes.

Anyway, the group says that as precision agriculture equipment and technologies are more widely adopted, farmers will realize significant increases in yields and further input savings.

Already, they say, productivity resulting from precise resource use has increased an estimated four per cent and has the potential to rise six per cent more with broader adoption.

More targeting fertilizer placement as a result of improved technology has increased efficiency by an estimated seven per cent, which could double as the technology continues to be adopted.

People will be glad to know that herbicide use has been reduced by about nine per cent, again through targeted, accurate applications, and has the potential to grow to 15 per cent as precision technology adoption continues.

Fossil fuel use has dropped about six per cent and could go down 16 per cent. Precision technology helps farmers monitor exactly where they’ve been in their fields, so they don’t overlap and waste fuel.

And finally, water use has dropped four per cent. It has the potential to further decrease more than other input – as much as 21 per cent, the study estimates – by using technology, in the form of sensors that can tell exactly when something like irrigation is needed, and how much.

These results will be seen mostly in the farming sector. But they really need to be understood more broadly.

Technology is not the people’s enemy. Granted, the authors have a vested interest in winning public support for precision technology use. However, society has a real stake in the matter as well. We say we want farmers to be sustainable and environmentally responsible, while simultaneously producing ample food for us and others. Technology is key. 

So now what? The study sponsors say they’re working together to advance technologies and practices that will bring potential to fruition. That coordinated approach is indeed vital for success.

They also say the infrastructure that makes many aspects of precision agriculture possible needs improving, such as wireless broadband over croplands and rangelands. To what degree they’ll involve themselves in this effort is a question – will they actually put in money to help fund more access?

Such an investment in rural communities would bring many benefits and build a lot of goodwill in technology.

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