Precision agriculture a good name

by Josh Sosland
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It probably could be successfully argued that if genetically-modified organisms (G.M.O.s) had been named something else, their rising role in influencing what people want to eat and not eat would be less powerful and might not even exist. Yet, because of the stigma attached to the name and therefore to the process, plant breeders are being exceptionally cautious in pursuit of developing modified wheat regardless of what it promises. Even as increasing numbers of people acknowledge the likelihood of severe food shortages facing the world in the next several decades, the possibility of having a newly-evolved kind of wheat that would be a significant contributor to boosting food production around the world is more often than not dismissed if it has any relation to G.M.O.

Widespread questioning of G.M.O.s, as scientifically unsound and downright foolish as it definitely is, has led to a search for what may accomplish many of the same positives but without the dreadful public relations. One research area currently enjoying widespread attention has the name “precision agriculture.” Here the focus is on sharply increasing yields by using electronically-based systems related to the category of information technology. Thus far, this technology has earned no known negatives, and it is increasingly being hailed as the way that crop production could be increased enough to achieve the 50% output rise that is claimed as needed by the time global population rises from the current 6.3 billion to 9 billion at the middle of the 21st century.

Rather than modifying the seed itself through the application of modern science that changes the plant to produce a sharply increased yield, precision agriculture allows farmers to maximize the outturn of each seed planted. This is attained by using Global Positioning Systems (G.P.S.) that help farmers follow directions as to how much fertilizer should be applied to specific areas to bolster yields to the absolute maximum. By matching the quantity of fertilizer applied to carefully defined needs in specific areas as small as an acre or less, significant yield gains have been achieved using this technology. Rather than testing fields to determine maximum applications, success also has been achieved by using systems reflecting plant nutrient needs measured by the color of leaves.

Embracing precision agriculture requires that farmers learn about yield monitoring, understand how different areas vary in productivity and develop statistical techniques built into systems to guide tractors used to apply fertilizers. Automated guidance already is being used for fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals, but what precision agriculture offers can only be attained by combining G.P.S. with intense knowledge about the capacity of fields. Drones offer an opportunity to capture images that could guide irrigation, chemical application levels and harvesting. A step further relates to robotics and the use of G.P.S. guidance to direct driverless tractors. Excitement builds to the day when farmers will be able to start fertilizer applications by pushing a button.

Peanut farmers are taking the lead in engaging in precision agriculture. Data just released by the Economic Research Service indicate that more than 40% of peanut farmers, a sign of rapid adoption of this new technology, used auto-steer or related guidance systems. Yield monitors and yield maps, which were not found in the first decade of this century, have been rapidly accepted, allowing peanut farmers to identify within-field yield variations and to adjust fertilizer applications accordingly. The result already has reduced peanut farm operating costs. It also offers more environmentally friendly fertilizer and chemical use and good yield gains.

As promising as precision agriculture appears to be, its importance for wheat lies not just in these same great advantages, but also in the way this tool is itself exceptionally well suited to production of small grain like wheat. These advantages go hand-in-hand with the benefits of precision agriculture as a good name instead of G.M.O. This path ought to make consumers smile and hopefully want to eat more and more wonderful wheat-based foods.

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