As momentum behind the tools and concepts of precision agriculture continues to grow, one of the most exciting — but least talked about — opportunities is their ability to improve farming’s environmental footprint.
That’s a shame, because that’s one attribute of this latest revolution in agriculture that is most likely to resonate with an increasingly skeptical public.
Much has been said about the new digital technologies’ ability to increase productivity and efficiency in farming through more strategic application of fertilizers and pesticides.
Some even continue to trot out the worn rhetoric about feeding the world, even though there is growing recognition that the productivity increases needed to accomplish that will have more to do with building roads and storage facilities in developing nations than variable-rate applications of fertilizer in North America.
But few, at least so far, have taken the premise of better precision to the logical next step of articulating how these tools might be used to protect the environment, rather than simply furthering the interests of Big Ag.
That point is not lost on Robb Fraley, the executive vice-president of Monsanto and the company’s chief technology officer.
As one of the founders of genetically modified crops, he knows all too well the fallacy of thinking the science can operate independently from the public engagement. Even though genetically modified crops were the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture and are now grown in 30 countries worldwide, the technology remains mired in controversy 25 years after its introduction.
“We did a great job on the science and we did a miserable job on the communication,” Fraley said in a recent interview. “The good news is that we have the opportunity to tell that story differently and better.”
Monsanto subsidiary ClimateCorp recently had its western Canadian rollout of FieldView, a digital data management platform designed to improve farmers’ ability to collect and analyze data generated by their farms.
While smartphones have paved the way for public acceptance of new digital technologies in food production, Fraley is keenly aware that the benefits they bring by way of environmental performance and improved traceability must be spelled out.
The intersection between the data management and biology allows scientists and farmers to make decisions faster and more accurately. It also allows them to measure what’s working or not on their land with precision.
Clarence Swanton, a weed scientist with the University of Guelph, outlined how that might play out on the landscape recently at the Canadian Weed Science Society meeting in Saskatoon.
He believes precision agriculture offers a way to convince farmers that environmental protection and profitability go hand in hand.
Most farmers equate conservation with lower profits.
However, Swanton says there are acres on most farms that are actually costing farmers more than they earn to farm. Those pieces could be mapped and diverted back to habitat that increases biodiversity, which stabilizes the ecosystem.
Swanton says the key to this approach is to shift farmers’ focus from commonly used yield maps to building profitability maps of their fields. Farmers look at yield maps with a view to what they need to do to fix areas where yields are low. But some of those areas aren’t fixable.
He showed examples of one Ontario farm where the farmer spent more than he earned on small sections of the field in three years out of four.
“Why are we farming that? Can I use that land for something to benefit ecosystem services to build diversity in the landscape?” he said. “These profitability maps can be used to help identify areas in our landscape that we can convert back to a natural habitat.”
That opens the door to creating a brand for Canadian agriculture that is sustainable, verifiable, and socially responsible — attributes that could well give Canadian farm exports a competitive edge in an increasingly environmentally conscious global marketplace.
However, Swanton acknowledges his hypothesis goes against the prevailing psyche in agriculture. Farmers might need tax breaks or other incentives under proposed environmental goods and services programs to make the change.