technology applied to farm machinery and cloud-based information is
making farming seem like science fiction in some places. Drones buzz
over the landscape monitoring crop conditions and spotting problems,
like pest infestations or weeds. Farmers receive personalized weather
information which predicts how rainfall will vary from one field to the
next. Soils are mapped at a level of precision unimaginable only a few
years ago, and sensors tell farmers exactly how much water is being used
at thousands of different data points.
The cabins of farm
machinery are filled with GPS systems and drivers no longer drive.
Instead, they sit in the cabin checking screens that control the
appliances, which move across fields delivering precisely measured
quantities of inputs in precisely the best place, at programmed times,
in perfectly straight lines or contoured to the land—whatever the data
determines will give the best yield.
All this innovation goes
under the generic name of precision agriculture, and the results can be
game-changing. Greater precision means water, fertilizer and other
inputs can be reduced with no impact on yield. It is sustainable
intensification in action: output increasing while environmental
impacts, especially around water and fertilizer use, go down. That means
more production, less water used, less nutrient run-off and higher
water quality. In most places, fertilizer run-off is the main factor
behind water pollution and coastal dead zones. What’s not to like?
issue isn’t with the technologies that make up precision agriculture,
but the business model behind them. When it works, it is spectacular,
but it only works in a few places—where farmers can pay for them.
Precision agriculture is sophisticated but it doesn’t come cheap.
companies that sell it recover development costs from farmers with deep
pockets, who make the investment because they work on a scale that
makes it economically viable. Neither is it simple to operate or to
service precision technologies. Farmers need to be well-educated, or
depend on an extensive network of third party providers. None of this
applies to where precision agriculture is actually often most
desperately needed—where resources and inputs are scarce, farmers are
poor, and lives are on the line. How to get the benefits of precision
agriculture spread more broadly around the world is probably the most
important question right now because, just maybe, the future of the
world food system could depend on it.