When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.
The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food worldwide .We’ll likely have two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century—more than nine billion people But sheer population growth isn’t the only reason we’ll need more food.
The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.
How can the world double the availability of food while simultaneously cutting the environmental harm caused by agriculture?
For most of history, whenever we’ve needed to produce more food, we’ve simply cut down forests or plowed grasslands to make more farms. We’ve already cleared an area roughly the size of South America to grow crops.
To raise livestock, we’ve taken over even more land, an area roughly the size of Africa. Agriculture’s footprint has caused the loss of whole ecosystems around the globe, including the prairies of North America and the Atlantic forest of Brazil, and tropical forests continue to be cleared at alarming rates. But we can no longer afford to increase food production through agricultural expansion. Trading tropical forest for farmland is one of the most destructive things we do to the environment, and it is rarely done to benefit the 850 million people in the world who are still hungry. Most of the land cleared for agriculture in the tropics does not contribute much to the world’s food security but is instead used to produce cattle, soybeans for livestock, timber, and palm oil. Avoiding further deforestation must be a top priority.
Starting in the 1960s, the green revolution increased yields in Asia and Latin America using better crop varieties and more fertilizer, irrigation, and machines—but with major environmental costs. The world can now turn its attention to increasing yields on less productive farmlands—especially in Africa, Latin America, and eastern Europe—where there are “yield gaps” between current production levels and those possible with improved farming practices. Using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming, we could boost yields in these places several times over.
Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have up to five displays in a tractor cab with a stream of wires hanging out the back window connecting the tractor to the implements it controlled. Today, those monitors have morphed into one screen called a virtual terminal. The wires have combined to form one big cable called a binary unit system (BUS) that plugs into any brand of implement.
The enabling technology is called ISOBUS, a communication protocol based on the agricultural electronics standards ISO 11783 and Controller Area Network or CANBUS technology.
“CANBUS provides a medium for everything to connect together,” explains David Kuhnel, engineer with Dickey-john. “ISOBUS provides the language and protocols for information to be exchanged on the BUS so that you have connectivity between tractor and implement.”
Farm machinery makers agreed to implement this protocol in 2001.
“ISOBUS has been quite successful in achieving its initial goals,” states Matt Darr, ag engineer, Iowa State University. “The virtual terminal is available from many manufacturers and has enhanced tractor and implement compatibility. For example, you can hook a Deere air cart to a Case IH tractor, or a TeeJet spray controller to a Deere tractor.
“For producers, this is a huge step forward,” he continues. “You’re not going to get charged an extra $5,000 for a display when it is likely that you have everything you already need.” – Jodie Wehrspann
Precision agriculture technologies are becoming more robust and more precise, ushering in an era of hyper precision.
The widespread adoption of RTK navigation systems is driving the hyper precision era. This has occurred as the cost of RTK navigation systems continues to fall and radio- and/or cellular-based correction networks have come online practically everywhere in the Corn Belt.
With RTK navigation in hand, precise seeding and fertilizer applications have become a reality. Manufacturers are introducing controllers, drives and shutoff systems with ever-finer resolution and the ability to apply multiple products at variable rates.
Controlled traffic systems, such as strip till, also become a reality. The same goes for on-the-fly installation of drainage tile, and more.
“Accuracy is addictive,” says Matt Darr, Iowa State University precision ag specialist. “It unlocks a lot of new potential — things that really add value back to the farm.
We already have ways to achieve high yields while also dramatically reducing the environmental impacts of conventional farming. Commercial farming has started to make huge strides, finding innovative ways to better target the application of fertilizers and pesticides by using computerized tractors equipped with advanced sensors and GPS. Many growers apply customized blends of fertilizer tailored to their exact soil conditions, which helps minimize the runoff of chemicals into nearby waterways.
Organic farming can also greatly reduce the use of water and chemicals—by incorporating cover crops, mulches, and compost to improve soil quality, conserve water, and build up nutrients. Many farmers have also gotten smarter about water, replacing inefficient irrigation systems with more precise methods, like subsurface drip irrigation. Advances in both conventional and organic farming can give us more “crop per drop” from our water and nutrients.
It would be far easier to feed nine billion people by 2050 if more of the crops we grew ended up in human stomachs. Today only 55 percent of the world’s crop calories feed people directly; the rest are fed to livestock (about 36 percent) or turned into biofuels and industrial products (roughly 9 percent). Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or 3 of beef. Finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets—even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef—could free up substantial amounts of food across the world. Because people in developing countries are unlikely to eat less meat in the near future, given their newfound prosperity, we can first focus on countries that already have meat-rich diets. Curtailing the use of food crops for biofuels could also go a long way toward enhancing food availability.
An estimated 25 percent of the world’s food calories and up to 50 percent of total food weight are lost or wasted before they can be consumed. In rich countries most of that waste occurs in homes, restaurants, or supermarkets. In poor countries food is often lost between the farmer and the market, due to unreliable storage and transportation. Consumers in the developed world could reduce waste by taking such simple steps as serving smaller portions, eating leftovers, and encouraging cafeterias, restaurants, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures. Of all of the options for boosting food availability, tackling waste would be one of the most effective.
Taken together, these five steps could more than double the world’s food supplies and dramatically cut the environmental impact of agriculture worldwide. But it won’t be easy. These solutions require a big shift in thinking. For most of our history we have been blinded by the overzealous imperative of more, more, more in agriculture—clearing more land, growing more crops, using more resources. We need to find a balance between producing more food and sustaining the planet for future generations.