Precision Agriculture And Food Issues

The political polarization between liberals and conservatives is well known in the U.S. Each side has their ideology which is bolstered by a few facts and lots of opinions and beliefs.

The same is true in agriculture. There is a polarization between conventional and organic farming. Since more than 90% of the seed planted for corn and soybeans in the U.S. is a genetically-modified organism or GMO, the division is now between GMO and organically grown crops. What is fascinating is that the battle line for GMO vs. organic is not at the point of production but further downstream in the food supply chain. In fact, it is at the point of consumers, whose changing lifestyles are making ripples up and down the chain.

The JAMA Network Journals recently reported that more than two-thirds of adult Americans are either overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity are signs of an unhealthy lifestyle due to eating processed foods high in saturated fats and sugar, consuming oversized meals, no exercise, little sleep and emotional stress. As one ages, an unhealthy lifestyle eventually leads to medical problems, such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea, stroke and diabetes.

Like smoking in the past, when the evidence for poor health becomes overwhelming, people begin to change lifestyles. One of the first changes is usually in their eating habits. People — especially the younger generations — are beginning to judge food not only by its nutritional value, but also by whether it is GMO or organic, locally grown, processed, safely handled, environmentally friendly and sustainability produced. As they seek out better food choices, people are also looking for information to make those choices. This active searching by consumers for new information is impacting vendors throughout the food supply chain.

The division in professional and consumer perceptions about food was recently reported in The Wall Street Journal. In its “Squaring Off” article, the Journal invited advocates on both sides of major food issues to state their positions. Issues included labels required for food containing GMO crops, tax on soda, feedlot vs. open range beef and “deserts” of limited food choices. Each advocate provided facts and arguments to convince the reader of their view on a particular issue.

A Continuing Fight

What immediately becomes apparent when reading competing viewpoints is the biased selection of sources and facts to support a position. For example, in the case of GMO labeling of food, the pro-organic advocate highlighted the presence of novel bacterial, viral and/or other DNA in genetically-engineered crops, while the pro-GMO advocate claimed that organic produce is 10 times more likely to be recalled for bacterial contamination than conventional crops. Given the number of sources, facts and arguments that can be brought to support either position, it is not surprising that an accompanying survey to the Journal article found that 47% of people would avoid eating GMO crops. Like politics, each opposing position is supported by about half the people.

The battle to convince the public to take one side or the other on food issues is far from over. What is an undeniable fact is that obesity has become an epidemic in all age groups and is increasingly contributing to health problems in the U.S. It can be argued that each one of us knows at least one family member or friend who is excessively overweight to the point of needing medical help. This awareness — like the link between cigarettes and cancer — will undoubtedly affect our eating habits and food choices.

And when that awareness sinks in, we will seek out facts about food. It is exactly this point that precision agriculture can contribute valuable data to help consumers make informed choices about food. Precision agriculture is uniquely positioned to provide the facts sought by consumers on how their food is grown. Nearly all precision agriculture software tracks production practices, including the time, types and amounts of materials applied to a field. The same software records the choice of hybrid seed and treatments. Some precision agriculture programs offer a “traceability” service that allows vendors in the food supply chain to be aware of the recorded production practices for a harvested crop. Many of these services offer visual evidence as well as textual records of crop health through a growing season. Additionally, recently-developed online calculators allow growers to enter production practices to determine if their farming systems are environmentally friendly and/or sustainable relative to state, regional and national benchmarks.

Precision agriculture software can do more than account for crop production practices. It can provide precise spatial maps of where a seed is planted or a crop protection product is applied in a field. It can employ water balance models to simulate soil moisture conditions in the field to justify irrigation applications. Software in the form of mobile devise applications or apps can assist a grower in the selection of pest controls based on the intensity of a scouted pest, beneficial organisms, maximum residue limits and environmental regulations.

More Development For Precision Ag

Precision agriculture has all the tools for collecting the crop production data sought by consumers. But these data are not fully integrated into the information flow that originates with the field and ends with the consumer. New programs are needed to facilitate this integration so that downstream vendors can interpret precision agriculture data and pass them on in a language and form understood by consumers. Precision agriculture can expand its role, from providing information to growers for their production decisions to providing data to consumers for their food decisions.

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