Like the purported Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times,’ precision agriculture today is faced with many hurdles, twists and turns. These challenges I would argue are partly due to the “globalization” of precision agriculture.
This globalization is happening on several fronts. The first and foremost is economic. The world is once again in financial turmoil even while recovering from the Great Recession of 2008. There are new fears that some industrialized Western Countries will default on their loans and other debts. With each new round of borrowing, the credit ratings of these countries will suffer and even the safest of investments may be viewed as risky. In this bleak economic picture, the agricultural community, including both private and government entities, may become very conservative financially and may not be inclined to invest in new innovations. Precision agriculture as a nascent technical field strives on innovation and therefore could be negatively affected by this conservative fiscal posture.
The second front is the worldwide agricultural land rush. This investment in land is an off-shoot of the troubled economic picture. Global hedge funds, leery of erratic stock market performance, are turning to agriculture property as a “safe bet.” The logic is simple for this investment strategy. There are currently about seven billion people in the world with a projected population increase to about nine billion by 2040. This increase means there will be 28% more mouths to feed in just 30 years. Undoubtedly, the price for commodities will continue to be high with the increasing demand for food stocks. Even with technical advances, which will be discussed later, more land will certainly need to be cultivated to ensure an adequate food supply for future populations. Therefore, investment in arable land is an investment in food, which will be in greater demand with a growing population in the decades ahead. This rush for agricultural land by investment firms requires management tools for guiding efficient and cost-effective production. These tools will increasingly rely on precision agriculture technology.
The GMO Factor
The worldwide distribution of crops as genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) is the third front in the globalization of precision agriculture. GMO seed, with its many stacked traits that deliver desirable plant qualities and embed resistance to pests, chemicals and drought, are replacing conventional hybrids on every continent. While grains have been the popular target for genetic enhancements, other crops are being considered to increase yield and quality. The success of genomic crops relies on their proper selection for geography and practices and for their seeding population. GPS-guided planters, with their ability to precisely place seed, are able to ensure proper plant populations. Precision seed planting is, of course, on outgrowth of precision agriculture.
The movement towards larger farms supported by universal equipment and production practices is the fourth front in the globalization of precision agriculture. Like GMO seed, this global movement towards similar equipment and practices is almost exclusively with grain crops. As corporations invest in large-acreage farms, there is a tendency to gain efficiency by streamlining operations through the employment of large equipment, such as tractors, and the implementation of time-tested practices. With the aid of guidance systems, controllers and software, these tractors can carry out variable-rate seed and chemical applications in favorable environmental windows at all hours of the day. This trend in the use of universal equipment and practices is ideal for the proliferation of precision agriculture technologies worldwide.
Piggybacking on the use of universal equipment and production practices is the desire for global industry standards, which is the fifth front in the globalization of precision agriculture. Initially spearheaded by the International Organization of Standardization out of Europe, countries around the world are beginning to move towards national standards in the design of equipment, the conversion of data between devices, the communication of data between computers and in the look and feel of decision-support software. These standards include the building of a glossary of terms, data dictionaries, data transfer formats and communication protocols. The AgGateway organization in the U.S. has recently expanded its role as a clearinghouse for standards in the agricultural community. Standards are absolutely critical to the long-term success of any technology. In the case of precision agriculture, standards eliminate the need for many organizations to populate and maintain the same kinds of databases. They foster the exchange of proprietary data between equipment in mixed fleets and ensure the proper sharing of data between different software programs. Most importantly, standards make life easier and simpler for growers as end users of precision agriculture technology.
The globalization of precision ag has special relevance to this PrecisionAg Special Reports issue, which looks at “Top Tech Trends.” The more worldwide exposure there is to the new precision ag technologies, the more likely these technologies will be adopted in all corners of the globe. This exposure is especially important in difficult economic times. Like the technology it represents, precision agriculture will meet its challenges as it moves out globally and into the future.