According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture is directly or indirectly responsible for over a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is also bad for the soil, wetlands, coastal waters, forests, wild habitat, and biodiversity. To make matters worse, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is predicting a future characterized by increasing scarcity, diminishing quality of land and water resources, and persistent food insecurity – if food and agricultural systems remain on their current path.
Before anyone says “organic is the answer”, consider the findings of a recent meta-analysis comparing the environmental impact of conventional versus organic agricultural systems:
“…ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems. Organic systems had lower energy requirements, but higher land use, eutrophication [a type of water pollution] potential and acidification potential per product unit.” - Clark, M., & Tilman, D. (2017). "Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice" Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 12, No. 6.
We have to go beyond categorical, either/or thinking to solve the problem of agriculture. It’s not about organic versus conventional. It’s about how to grow more food on less land while reducing negative externalities - otherwise known as the sustainable intensification of agriculture. And the path to sustainable intensification begins with an understanding of the economics of farming. Basically, it’s a low margin, high-risk affair. Here’s the situation in the US:
Over half the farms in the US lose money every year - especially small farms. A lot of US farmers keep going because they have off-farm sources of income, such as Social Security benefits or wages. Now consider that sustainable technologies require time and money, often involving high initial investment with uncertain payoff. If you were a farmer teetering on the edge, would you just go for it, because it’s the right thing to do?
Plus, sustainable practices sometimes come with undesirable side-effects. In the case of corn-soybean farmers in Michigan, winter cover crops can delay or complicate spring planting; land that is not tilled for years might be invaded by difficult-to-control weeds; reducing fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide use may sacrifice crop yield and boost the risk of herbicide-resistant insects and weeds. These are real concerns in a low-margin business.
Given the risk, initial cost, and uncertainty associated with sustainable practices, it’s usually the large farms that are early adopters of technologies designed to reduce the negative environmental effects of farming, especially the spillover effects of fertilizer and pesticide use. The market for these technologies has taken off over the last few years, mainly because they are increasingly effective and save farmers money without reducing yield. As a result, fertilizer and insecticide use in the US have been steadily declining for years. Unfortunately, herbicide use is trending slightly upward as a response to emerging herbicide-resistance due in part to the over-application of a few dominant herbicides (e.g., glyphosate). The solution to herbicide resistance will involve a more varied approach to weed control and the use of precision technologies to reduce herbicide use.
Luckily, “smart sprayers” have arrived! These sprayers use machine-vision technology that enables weed recognition and the targeting of individual weeds. According to a recent survey, 20% of precision technology dealers indicated they were already offering the sprayers, and half the dealers foresaw offering the sprayers in the near future, given farmer interest and product improvements. Precision spraying means less herbicide residue outside the target. Good for the soil, good for the water, and good for endangered species everywhere.
2019 Precision Agriculture Dealership Survey: More Moves toward Decision Agriculture by Bruce Erickson and James Lowenberg-DeBoer/CropLife Magazine July 21, 2019
Partel, V., S. Charan Kakarla, et al. (2019). "Development and evaluation of a low-cost and smart technology for precision weed management utilizing artificial intelligence." Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 157: 339-350. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compag.2018.12.048
Swinton, S. M., N. Rector, G. P. Robertson, C. B. Jolejole-Foreman, and F. Lupi. 2015. Farmer decisions about adopting environmentally beneficial practices. Pages 340-359 in S. K. Hamilton, J. E. Doll, and G. P. Robertson, editors. The Ecology of Agricultural Landscapes: Long-Term Research on the Path to Sustainability. Oxford University Press, New York, New York, USA. https://lter.msu.edu/citations/3453/download/Swinton-2015b-Ecology-Agric-Landscapes.pdf
USDA Economic Research Service. America’s Diverse Family Farms (2018) https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/90985/eib-203.pdf?v=6080