Technology grows fields of hope

Precision agriculture is helping farmers get the most from their land, writes Jim McClelland

“The key statistic is that we are producing 260 per cent more food with 2 per cent less inputs versus 20 years ago,” declares Rich Kottmeyer, global agriculture and food production leader at Accenture. “No other industry I can think of can almost triple production and decrease inputs at the same time.”

The first response such a bullish statement prompts is obvious: how is this level of growth being achieved and is it sustainable? Not surprisingly, there is no simple answer. Farming comes in many forms and so do ideas of what constitutes best practice.

There are many different techniques and technologies that can be applied to farming. They include crop improvement, biotechnology (including genetically modified organisms), GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographic information systems), planting, picking and spacing technology, water management, and irrigation. Then there is agro-ecology, agro-forestry, soil conservation, enhanced grazing, integrated pest management, compost and organics, as well as fertilisers and pesticides, aquaponics, hydroponics, and the system of root intensification (SRI).

Precision agriculture describes a suite of information and communications technology-based (ICT) tools that allow farmers to monitor soil and crop conditions electronically, and analyse treatment options, targeting delivery and minimising waste.

ICT in 21st-century farming is all about decision-making impacts, says Mr Kottmeyer. “Think of a seed as having a maximum potential yield,” he says. “As a farmer, decisions you make, if incorrect, reduce that potential. Data allows you to create better decisions. Its importance can be seen as a five to ten bushels an acre advantage minimally on a large commercial corn operation or a pork producer getting $6 to $11 per head more.”

ICT-based tools allow farmers to monitor soil and crop conditions electronically, and analyse treatment options, targeting delivery and minimising waste

The case for smallholders to make use of data is arguably even more dramatic. Recent World Bank studies found yields increased by up to 50 per cent in some cases through the use of innovations, such as livestock traceability systems rolled out across African countries, utilising radio-frequency identification (RFID) on plastic ear tags for automated data input, coupled with provision of computer tablets and mobile phones.

Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to discuss changing trends in farming and the relative merits of best-practice approaches without talking about scale; to put it crudely, size matters. Andrew Wraith, head of agribusiness at Savills UK, assesses the implications for existing business models. “It is probably safe to say that the ability to invest in technology advances is a function of size of business. The cost of equipment is significant and to spread it over a larger area is generally important, to justify investment,” he says.

“Typically, the scope for a business to take on additional land through contracting or alternative joint ventures can create the opportunity to reinvest, to the benefit of both parties in an agreement. There continues to be a reduction in the number of farms and farmers, as smaller units find it uneconomic to own or reinvest in equipment.”

While this redrawing of the agricultural map is largely driven by economics at large, rather than the particulars of technology demands, there is a knock-on effect in evidence.

Promoting “appropriate-scale” farming using rather different best-practice principles is the agro-ecology approach, which is centred on simple techniques that increase yield through the inter-relationship between soil, nutrients, crops, pollinators, trees and livestock.

In the UK, agro-ecology remained a relatively unknown and unused approach until only a few years ago, but is now rapidly rising up the mainstream farming agenda. It is currently more widespread in less industrialised regions of the world, where comparative costs of chemicals and labour create a strong business case.

“Agro-ecological approaches have been shown to triple yields over traditional farming methods. As well as yield increases, production costs are reduced because of the high costs of chemicals compared to lower costs of human labour, which is the converse in industrialised countries,” says Dr Julia Wright, deputy director at the Centre for Agro-ecology and Food Security at Coventry University.

“One of the key barriers to wider uptake of best practice in agro-ecology is the disconnect from nature of industrial societies and the reductionist mindset. We focus only on yield maximisation without realising this comes at a very high cost – this is like working a donkey to death.”

Harnessing the power of biology, rather than chemistry, is also the driver for Gloucestershire dairy farmer Rob Richmond, who explains why his research into soil carbon supports creation of diverse pastures for enhanced grazing. “Crops, microbes, animals and humans need about 60 nutrients in balance. As a consequence of the last half century of NPK – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – the key ingredients in fertiliser, soil organic matter has been lost, resulting in a lack of many minor minerals, which gives rise to hidden hungers, leading to disease,” says Mr Richmond.

“Humus, the stable form of soil carbon, acts as the soil’s flywheel, absorbing water and nutrients when present in excess and giving them up to the plant when required. The use of compost to restore microbes to the soil and biodiverse pastures to allow these populations to get established and rebuild soil carbon under a mob-grazed system, are the most important criteria. Ruminants should be outside grazing grass – not in a shed eating grain.”

Few would argue against the urgent need for systemic change, from farm to fork, if countries are to find ways together to feed nine billion people a day by 2050. However, best practice in sustainable agriculture is out there in many shapes and sizes, as illustrated by the recent “rice revolution” in Darveshpura, India, where a young village farmer shattered the world crop record for rice.

Using only manure, no herbicide and a system of root intensification, which involves fewer seeds, less water, more spacing and better husbandry, he produced a bumper one-hectare rice crop of 22.4 tonnes. By comparison, average yields for India as a whole are relatively low at just 2.3t/ha, against a global mean of 4.374t/ha. For world farming, this achievement serves as a spectacular reminder that there is still success to be unearthed, with simple lessons learnt.