Regenerative agriculture might help promote local weather safety measures
An aerial view from a drone shows John Duffy planting corn on a farm he works with his father near Dwight, Illinois on April 23, 2020. In mild, dry weather, the state’s farmers endeavor to have their fields planted.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
As a new US president takes office, I remember the words of our first president, George Washington: “I know of no persecution that can provide a country with more real and important services than improving its agriculture.”
This year we expect ambitious new plans to tackle climate change to be launched. On his first day, President Joe Biden reintroduced the United States to the Paris Agreement. He has announced that he will make climate policy a central issue for his administration. Detailed legislative proposals will be presented by the middle of the year to increase the target set by the heads of state and government in the entire 27-country bloc of the EU to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 55% by 2030. China wants to be climate neutral by 2060.
The global agricultural sector must play a key role in making these policy solutions a reality. Today agriculture is responsible for around 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater consumption.
In many communities around the world, particularly in the US where 98% of farms are family owned, mitigating climate change has become a matter of survival. Unpredictable changes in climate patterns, including increasingly severe floods, severe droughts and heat waves, violent storms and early frosts, pose a real and pervasive threat to farmers’ livelihoods and our global food supplies.
However, history shows that agriculture is up to the challenges of climate change. Agriculture was once an extremely inefficient and unpredictable endeavor, shaped by the vagaries of nature. It has been revolutionized by innovations – major advances in crop protection, fertilization and seeds over the past 60 years. This transition from Agriculture 1.0 to Agriculture 2.0 has resulted in skyrocketing agricultural productivity. Compared to 1960, the world now produces 150% more food on only 13% more land, although pesticide use on farmland has decreased by 95% thanks to safer and more effective pest control solutions.
Tools for more sustainability
The truly sustainable future of agriculture – I call it regenerative agriculture – is now taking shape. It’s a future fueled by the improvement of soil health and agriculture through digital technologies, and we’re already glimpsing the benefits these precision tools will bring in the years to come.
Today, farmers can already use these data-intensive tools to analyze their fields and obtain detailed “recipes” for more efficient and responsible treatment of their crops. Thanks to advances in sensors and computer imaging, we can identify high-precision spray areas by considering smaller units. This makes it possible to control the variability within a field and to enable a differentiated application of products and the monitoring of plants. For example, “see-and-spray” technology enables farmers to create autonomous units that are controlled by machine learning to facilitate spraying micro-doses of herbicides exclusively on weeds. Studies have shown that this technique can reduce herbicide use by more than 90%.
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Advanced analytics also provide insights that can tell the difference between the failure and success of a harvest. Huge amounts of data can be analyzed to create a power seed selection algorithm that farmers can use to determine which seeds to plant and where and how deep to plant them. Predictive algorithms can address another key problem – disease and pest intensity.
Additional tools use field scouting records to create optimal management zones. With such computer-aided scouting, images from satellites and drones can be used to assess whether sunlight is being absorbed and reflected by plants at the correct levels. Timely, automated warning enables farmers to intervene before real problems arise.
The latest software for farm management systems offers end-to-end traceability of plants and enables the targeted targeting of consumers who want to buy from farmers who are committed to responsible land use and low emissions. These cutting-edge technological solutions point the way to a better, greener and more sustainable future of agriculture in order to maintain abundant and affordable food supplies.
This is just a start. When farmers put modern technology in their hands to ensure they can make good decisions, such as: For example, by improving the health of their soil and participating in carbon trading markets, they can do well in a highly competitive market. As regenerative agriculture becomes the norm, farmers have access to more in-depth scientific analysis and advice than ever before. Consumers will get more information and more choices in choosing healthy and sustainable foods for their families.
Every US president has recognized the importance of agriculture. President Thomas Jefferson called agriculture “our wisest pursuit”. President Abraham Lincoln called it “the great calling.”
Under President Biden, we look forward to pursuing this noble calling to serve the planet so that we can safely feed the world and care for the environment.
—Erik Fyrwald is the CEO of the Syngenta Group