Agricultural techniques and technologies have changed vastly over the last several decades contributing to significant improvements in productivity. Today, farming has become a knowledge intensive practice with more than 90% of the farmers across the world using scientific farming methods to minimize their cost and improve their yield. . The cost savings effected in terms of efficient use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides under precision farming are providing great profits for farmers who invest in such scientific methods. Genetic engineering and the emergence of GM farming have drastically improved crop yields across the world. There is no question of doubt that technology has had a significant positive impact on agriculture. Precision farming, no till farming, integrated farming and GM farming have all contributed to this positive impact.
Global agricultural production has increased significantly over the last 50 years. The economic growth in U.S. agriculture is propelled by the increased yield per unit of land. This consistently increased agricultural productivity due to technological advances could be garnered from the fact that the total agricultural output in 2008 stood at 158% higher than the total farm output in 1948 suggesting an annual growth rate of 1.58%. [USDA, 2010] Technological innovations including the rapidly growing field of biotechnology, precision-farming approaches using satellite-based GPS guidance systems, inventive methods of soil fertility retention such as the low / no till approaches have fundamentally revolutionized agronomy. In particular, genetic engineering and GM crops have created a paradigm shift in agricultural practices greatly improving productivity and nutritional value of the crops. Advancements in GM farming and the development of pest resistant and herbicide resistant crops have considerably boosted agricultural productivity and minimized the need for the use of these toxic substances. Farms investing in these new technologies have benefited immensely in terms of increased yield and return on investment in so much that the average household income for farm households is now higher than the national average for non-farm households. Our knowledge-based farming has significantly improved the quality and quantity of the agricultural produce. A brief overview of these technological advancements and their impact on modern agronomy is discussed in this paper.
Agricultural developments over the last 50 years have lead to literally doubling the production. However, the growing population of the world which is slated to reach a staggering nine billion by 2050 has created more pressure on agricultural scientists to create new and innovative approaches and on farmers to apply the scientific research recommendations into their farming practices. Today, more than 90% of the farmers use the scientific knowledge based approaches. As the United Nations Food and Agricultural organization predicts, agricultural production has to be doubled by 2050 to cater to the needs of the population explosion. Over 70% of this need, the UN predicts, could only be achieved by applying scientific production approaches, as the area of arable land is likely to remain the same. [Croplife, (2010) ]
Innovation, safety and sustainability are the key pillars of this modern agricultural philosophy. By applying innovative tools and techniques, farmers increase their yield significantly which not only provides them financial security but also keeps the food costs under control for the consumers. Also the safety of agricultural practices is critical as billions of lives depend on safe food production techniques. Farms have to ensure that their agricultural practices do not leave significant environmental imprints and for this they have to be abreast of the latest scientific solutions. Agricultural industry focuses on farmer education programs precisely to make sure that the latest in research reaches the farmers. Sustainable practices such as conservative tillage or low till farming, integrated farming and crop biotechnology are some of these innovative technologies that help farmers achieve these goals. [Croplife, (2010)]
Precision Farming (GPS guided systems)
Just as industrial manufacturing process has changed so much, the field of farming has also witnessed some dramatic changes. Particularly in the last decade, a new approach to farming known as precision farming has become popular. Today's farms are large and it becomes increasingly difficult for farmers to manage the entire region uniformly. For instance, the different activities from tilling to spraying and harvesting have to be evenly done across the entire farm in order to maximize crop yield. Satellite-based GPS guidance products are today available for the farmer to achieve this farming precision. GPS guidance can auto steer a farmer's tractor or tilling machine so that the entire farm is precisely tilled and precisely sprayed. From farm preparation to spraying of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., the GPS guided systems can automate the process to great precision. This is done by using soil sensors and GPS information. Soil sensors can calibrate a variety of soil parameters including moisture level, fertility, soil erosion, etc., that constitute important input for soil preparation. The information gathered by these soil sensors is then used by a computer system that auto regulates the spraying of fertilizers and herbicides, delivering them in the required quantity in the required places of the land. [SAITC] Not to mention, these automated GPS-based farming systems also vastly reduce the farmer's fatigue.
(Subrata Kr Mandal, 2006)
This results in reduced wastage, reduced expenditure on spraying and it is also environmentally friendly as reducing toxic sprays is good for the environment. Also, precision tilling maintains the fertility of the land by avoiding redundant tilling which will invariably happen when a human does it. GPS guided precision farming increases yield, decreases input (reduction in herbicides, pesticides, etc.) and contributes positively to the environment by limiting the use of toxic chemicals. Thus precision agriculture helps the farmer harness the full benefits of large-scale mechanization. Given the fact that even a 1% increase in farm production is equal to $2 billion, the productivity improvement gained by precision agriculture promise huge economic benefits. [Rickman et.al, 2003]
No Till Farming
As mentioned earlier, sustainable agricultural practices are the key to the future of the world food demands. While industrial agricultural technologies and tools are really helpful in maximizing production, care should also be taken to ensure that such scientific approach does not leave costly ecological footprints. By facilitating carbon sequestration, no-till practices also help to control greenhouse gas emissions significantly. As Shelly Feldman, a Cornel University Sociology professor says, "We're going to continue to work with less labor; less water; less arable land; increasing land policy conflicts; the loss of biodiversity, genetic species, and ecosystems; increasing levels of pollution; and as we all know, climate change." [Pat McGrane, (2010)] No till farming or Low till farming is one such sustainable farming technique that is gaining acceptance among today's farmers. One of the important advantages of No till farming is that it helps the soil conserve the moisture and prevent erosion and improve the overall fertility of the land. Particularly for farmlands in regions of scanty rainfall, 'No till' farming is very good for rotation cropping.
In the U.S., No- till farming is slowly becoming popular. According to the USDA statistics, almost 35.5% of the land used for cultivation of the 8 major crops use no-till approach. That is roughly 88 million hectares of cultivation land. [Horowitz et.al, 2010] In Nebraska for instance the amount of corn planted in No-till farms increased from a meager 8% in 1990 to more than 36% in 2006. Similarly, soybeans planted in no-till farms also increased from 3.5% in 1990 to 39%. Besides the moisture retention properties, no-till practice that essentially leaves the residue from the previous crops cultivation behind, also helps to maintain the soil nutrition and hence the fertility. As NRCS Soil scientist John Kimble says, "farmers need to know the nutrients in crop residue if they are removing it from the field and not just look at the dollars for the bales. Removing 5 or 6-1,200 pound bales would take about $60 -- 80 dollars in nutrients (depending on fertilizer prices) in the residues that would go into the soil." [Pat McGrane, (2010)]
Biotechnology and GM Crops
Arguably, one of the significant developments in the agricultural field is ascribed to the science of biotechnology. Biotechnology has made it possible for scientists to infuse new agronomical traits in crops. By producing crops with built in pest resistance, herbicide tolerance and with the possibility of improving the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, the growing field of biotechnology is greatly contributing to our agricultural productivity. Since the first genetically modified crops came to market in 1996, they have grown significantly in terms of the hectares of cultivation land allotted for GM farming. The United States continues to lead the biotech revolution. Soybean is the most cultivated GM crop with almost 90% of our national soybean production obtained from GM Soya crops. Similarly cotton is another plant that enjoys a significant share in the GM market with over 60% of all U.S. cotton production coming from GM farming. [USDA, (2010)]
Global Cultivation of GM crops (Statistics)
GM farming is increasingly being practiced by farmers around the…