The world’s population is increasing rapidly, and more mouths need to be fed every day. But the resources that put healthy food on our tables are shrinking. Fortunately, new farming technologies are making it easier to keep us all securely and sustainably fed. Discover the tools empowering modern farmers to feed our growing world.
About eight years ago, farmer Ned Hancock noticed something strange in his orange groves. A significant portion of his crop had fallen to the ground and piled up underneath the trees. Later, during harvest time at his midsize family farm in Dade City, Florida, as he surveyed the diminished size of his crop, he knew the situation had escalated. “We would say, ‘there’s just got to be more oranges than that,’” said Hancock.
It turns out that Hancock Groves, a fifth-generation citrus farm, had become infected with Huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease. And since 2005, nearly every other citrus grove in Florida has been similarly infected. The microbial disease, spread by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid, causes citrus fruit to shrink and fall off the tree prematurely (and thunderstorms hasten the process).
Researchers are still actively in search of solutions while growers are doing everything possible to keep their farms going. Hancock, for example, is rebuilding soil health with compost, but many others have gone out of business and entire communities are feeling the pinch. “The trickle-down effect has been significant in what we call the heartland of Florida,” said Hancock. Small businesses, whether local mechanics or grocery stores, are struggling. “We’re lagging behind the rest of the state in economic opportunities,” he said.
Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida in September, only made matters worse for farmers like Hancock, whose trees were already under stress. “It looks bad. A lot of groves in the southern part of the state are literally under water,” he said. Some of his efforts to ward off citrus greening disease had been making a difference, but because of Irma, he expected to lose 50 to 60 percent of the year’s crop. “We really felt good about our crop coming into this season, and we have verified that by the number of pieces that are on the ground,” he said. “It’s kind of a tough way to say, ‘yeah, I told you so’.”
Issues like these are a prime concern for the nation’s farmers, because the U.S. is a major global supplier of food. The effectiveness of our farms ties directly to the quality and availability of what many of us eat. When the growing size of the world’s population is factored in, the ability of farmers to produce food is critical. In 2017, the earth’s population is reported to be around 7.5 billion, but it’s predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. And the United Nations estimates we’ll need to nearly double our current agricultural output by then to feed everyone.
A significant part of today’s farmers’ work is successfully facing down big difficulties that can destroy their crop yields. The land they till to provide sufficient food production must be sustainable through extreme weather and dangerous long-term drought—a factor already affecting one in five developing countries—as well as resisting potentially devastating pests and diseases that may be lurking in the fields.
History of Agricultural Transformation
History of Agricultural Transformation
A timeline of big moments in farming
Human beings have relied on the land for food since the dawn of our existence. As a result, agriculture is a sector that has always had to face down biological aggressors and increasing human need to meet one of the world’s most urgent demands: stable access to food. The developments that help meet this need are ongoing and have driven important change for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Scroll to see some of agriculture’s biggest moments of innovation, where creativity and ingenuity made it safer and easier to grow food.
Resisting drought in China
To cope with drought, residents of the lower Yangtze and Huai River regions of China imported fast-maturing, drought-resistant rice seeds from Champa, in modern-day Vietnam. Whereas native rice matured in 150 days and only grew in wet areas, making a second annual harvest difficult, the Champa rice needed only 100 days to mature and required less water. It became a more frequent and reliable food source. More Champa rice varieties, suited to different temperatures and soil types, were subsequently developed, and by the end of the 16th century, Chinese farmers could plant and harvest two or three rice crops on each field annually.
Irrigation advances in India
At this time, in the Mughal Empire of northern India—which relied on monsoon rains to hydrate crops—farmers began using new irrigation techniques, including the capture and storage of rainwater, surface water and well water. This major development helped ensure a water supply for food crops like rice, wheat and millet during times of drought. A network of canals distributed the water to farms, and other new tools made it easier to lift water from storage tanks. The Persian wheel, for instance, featured several leather buckets attached to a rope, which was hitched to oxen.
Late 18th and 19th centuries1800
The plow arrives
A New Jersey blacksmith named Charles Newbold received the first patent for a cast-iron plow in 1797. Initially skeptical, farmers eventually took to the machines, which could easily break up and turn over soil, replacing basic shovels and speeding up planting. Before the plow, farmers struggled to plant crops in places like northwestern Europe and the American prairie, which had especially heavy topsoil. Midwestern soil proved so tough that it inspired John Deere's self-polishing one-piece steel plow in 1837, while horse-drawn wheeled plows helped spread agriculture throughout Europe.
1960s - 1970s1970
New wheat fights famine
American biologist Norman Borlaug used selective breeding to create a disease-resistant wheat. The technique helped double both wheat and rice yields in Asia, ultimately halving that continent’s poverty rate, despite rapid population growth. Borlaug's innovation also helped restore health to famine-threatened countries, including India and Pakistan, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Genetically modified crops are sown
A California-based biotechnology research company called Calgene developed the first genetically engineered crop, known as the Flavr Savr tomato, in 1994. By inhibiting a specific protein-producing gene, the researchers created a tomato that stayed fresh longer, and kicked off a worldwide race to produce crops with consumer- and farmer-preferred traits, such as disease resistance. Today, GM crops are grown in 28 countries and comprise approximately 90 percent of cotton, corn and soybeans in the U.S.
Drones on the farm
To make farms more sustainable and productive to feed the globe’s rapidly expanding population, the ag-tech sector began focusing on tools to cut waste and enhance yields. Drones have played a major role in this effort by equipping farmers with detailed field imagery that shows disease infestations, pests and weeds. They have even obtained water and soil sample data. The result: farmers can work more precisely with protective chemicals, fertilizers and irrigation.
2017 and beyond2017
AI and robots in ag-tech
Agricultural robots with stereoscopic vision currently being developed in the Netherlands and the U.K. could make automatic fruit and vegetable harvesting widely possible in the next several years. Meanwhile, German engineers have already created a car-sized robot that offers real-time soil quality analysis, and new platforms in development are working with artificial intelligence and machine learning to help drones interpret—and then act on—the data they collect.
Taking Better Aim at the Right Target
Fortunately, creative forces are at work in the agricultural-technology industry to bring more big data and digital innovation into farming. In addressing this urgent need, they’re shaping the future of global food production while also looking out for the planet. With these innovations in hand, American farmers are optimizing the health of their land, improving their crop output and ensuring consumers have safe and fair access to food for their families.
“We have to squeeze out every advantage we can to compete globally,” said Bill Horan, who co-owns and operates a corn and soybean farm outside of Rockwell City, Iowa, and also consults with universities and agribusiness companies. “Digitization has allowed us to generate analytics to fine-tune the operation to make sure we have the healthiest product out there. It's almost a daily digestion of data and information.”
In 2015, the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures reported that nearly a third of the world’s land suitable for growing crops had been lost to erosion and pollution in the previous 40 years. Diminishing resources like that mean agricultural intensification is necessary. In other words, growers need to get the greatest possible output from the land they already have access to, and to do it in a sustainable manner.
In part, this requires mounting a swift and effective defense against any factors like pests, insects and diseases that might jeopardize crop production. Growers often have used protective chemical compounds known as pesticides to repel these threats. But now, “precision-agriculture” tools are helping farmers apply pesticides with much greater accuracy than in the past. Instead of treating fields uniformly, farmers can rely on data-collection sensors and GPS and GIS systems in tractors and aircraft sprayers to pinpoint, map and precisely target pest infestations in the fields. This tech-enabled approach also helps farmers monitor soil health before planting seeds.
Horan uses GPS and satellite technology to divide his 3,500-acre farm into 1,333 “little fields,” as he calls them. The 2.4-acre plots are each assessed individually and treated with a unique prescription of fertilizer and crop protection products. Then, a satellite-guided, computer-equipped machine traverses the farm, distributing precisely what each plot needs for optimum growth. Once the crop has come up, the same plot-by-plot technique is used to apply products that protect crops from weeds and insects.
Robert Schrick is a strategic business lead for North American corn and soy at Bayer, a company that has developed high-tech tools to enable farmers like Horan to make the most of data when it comes to maximizing their crop yields. “With digital information, we feel we can get to a point where we’re only applying our weed-management products to the infected area,” he said. “Or we can anticipate an infestation of, say, insects or disease and save yields by applying product at the appropriate time.”
Water: A steady stream of innovation
Precision agriculture will also be key to preserving water in the future. Currently, 85 percent of global water use is for agricultural irrigation, and as much as 35 percent of that is considered unsustainable. The United Nations predicts that continued use of groundwater, including that for agriculture, could result in a 40 percent worldwide shortfall by 2030.
Some farmers are already taking a proactive approach to irrigation challenges. Hancock installed soil moisture sensors throughout his orange groves that trigger water pumps to irrigate crops only when they need it with just the right amount. "I really like when you can positively impact the environment and use less water while doing it efficiently," he said.
Similar technology is also helping farmers in drought-prone areas. “This is year 19 of a drought out here, and if we did not get ahead of this, at some point we were going to lose our natural resource," said Jay Hill, co-owner of Wholesome Valley Farms, who raises a variety of different crops on his farm in Mesilla Park, New Mexico. His home state has survived a long-term water crisis, and Hill uses a combination of technologies, including soil monitors that offer real-time data on ground moisture levels and a collapsible sprinkler system that has made watering his crop fields a quick and efficient process.
"I'm seeing yields double if not triple with the use of drip systems, where before I was struggling to make enough yield to cover my operating expenses," Hill said. Another key decision has been continuing to water crops using the drip system even when it's raining. "Continuing to irrigate while raining helps to best utilize the rain water for efficient irrigation," he added.
Breeding Seeds to Do Better
Agricultural scientists also are looking at technologies implemented at the seed stage of the growing cycle to increase efficiency. With certain crops, scientists can boost productivity by inserting genes that help the plants optimize critical physiological processes like the efficient use of sunlight that, in turn, can improve other traits, such as grain size.
Scientists increasingly are turning their attention to breeding new high-yield wheat seeds. About one-third of the global population depends on wheat as a staple food, but demand is outstripping the growth of yields. Growers working with the Hypercare farm wheat breeding station in Sabin, Minn., are using seed technology to develop hybrid wheat varieties that can produce higher yields while also resisting the temporary drought of the upper Midwest and northern plains. Researchers are also attracting diseases into the breeding process to compare the response of different wheat varieties possessing various genetic traits. The work could lead to the farm’s first hybrid wheat product sometime after 2023.
Other crops, including non-food varieties like cotton, also are being optimized through biotechnology methods, such as the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic modification takes place when the DNA of one organism is merged with that of a different species to achieve desirable traits like disease- and drought-resistance. Crops grown with the assistance of GMOs can be hardy enough to perform well in variable environments and fortified to survive in drought-stricken areas like the American Southwest. “The capacity to develop new varieties is growing all the time,” said David Zilberman, professor and Robinson Chair of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. And in the future, as climate change continues, genetically engineered varieties could potentially be critical. “Temperature will go up about two degrees; you develop a seed variety that can deal with it. You will need tools that are fast and precise, and that’s what GMO can give you,” he said.
The promise of more ag-tech transformation could also be fulfilled by gene editing, a super-precise method of genetic modification that allows scientists to edit the native genome of an organism. Instead of introducing foreign genes from other species, researchers can snip out unwanted genes and attach new ones. Gene editing is being used to develop cancer treatments and fix disease-causing mutations in human embryos, but is also expected to have a major impact on agriculture, giving researchers the tools to produce new and stronger plant varieties, such as drought-resistant corn and allergen-free peanuts.
Boost Your GMO IQ
There’s a lot of information available on GMOs, but how much do you know about their potential to help feed the growing world population safely and fairly?
Studies of GMO safety have revealed:
Choose one of the answers below
B. GMO crops pose no more health risks than conventional crops
GM crops were commercialized in the mid-1990s, and are one of the world’s most researched agricultural products. Groups like the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization have deemed them just as safe as traditional crops. Before being used in commercial food, extensive checks on issues such as toxicity, potential to cause allergies and possible side effects are conducted on new GM crops. It’s a long process that requires an average 13 years and $130 million worth of research and development production.
The benefits of using GMO seed technology to grow crops include:
Choose one of the answers below
D. All of the above
Conventional rice lacks beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. But with GMO technology, scientists have been able to produce beta-carotene-rich Golden Rice, a major advancement helping alleviate a vitamin A deficiency that is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Other GM crops have been developed with virus-resistant traits and are able to keep up yields while warding off insects. They also tolerate herbicides—a type of pesticide farmers spray to eradicate weeds competing with crops for space, water and nutrients. In winemaking, genetically modified yeast strains can help preserve fragrance and taste.
Biotechnology projects currently in development include:
Choose one of the answers below
D. All of the above
All over the world, advances are enabling scientists to investigate methods that could revolutionize how we grow and consume food. Scientists at Rothamstead Research and the University of North Texas recently used genetically-modified camelina plants to produce two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. This is a big step toward offering consumers a healthy fatty-acid product that doesn’t source so heavily from fisheries. With gene editing, a major chemical company began developing drought-resistant corn in 2015. The work of other scientists with this ultra-precise technology could one day make it possible to eliminate the numerous allergy-causing proteins found in peanuts.
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More innovation on the horizon
The next agricultural revolution may not be far off, with agribusinesses, the biotech research community, growers and ag-tech startups all focused on meeting the food needs of the future. Food scarcity is a global threat and their work is needed more than ever. The sense of urgency is reflected by investment in agricultural-technology, which topped $25 billion in 2015, and the digital farming market is growing at a 12 percent average annual rate.
These investments promise significant advances in the U.S. ag-tech sector, but similar work also is going on around the world. Next-generation tools are changing the face of farming in Europe at places like Bayer ForwardFarms, where growers, digital engineers and biotech researchers are collaborating to test new tech-driven efficiency and sustainability methods. Azienda Agricola Moranda, a ForwardFarm in Italy, uses smart digital traps to obtain real-time data on insect population dynamics for more precise interventions. And at Damianshof, a ForwardFarm in Germany, growers know exactly when to apply crop protection thanks to a weather station that monitors temperature, rainfall and leaf surface wetness.
This type of cooperation among international players, in both the lab and the field, is essential to charting the path forward and implementing solutions that will give safe and equitable food access to billions of people. Adopting innovations in a way that benefits the masses is no easy task, but it’s an issue that’s too important to ignore. “Every morning when I get up, my world is 100 percent different than it was the day before,” said Hill. “It is always a challenge, but the greatest part of that challenge is, at the end of the day, I am feeding somebody. So that's what motivates me.”