By Robb Fraley
From communications and finance to entertainment, transportation and nearly every other industry, the data revolution has been rapidly reshaping the way we live. And now, it has come to the farm.
Its arrival could turn out to be among the most significant of all. Because the data revolution in agriculture will do more than reshape the way we live – it will help us to grow food more sustainably.
That’s because it will help us deal with the very serious threat posed to the global environment and farmers all over the world by greenhouse gas emissions. As scientists have firmly established, reducing these emissions is critical if we are going to minimize the damage climate change is going to inflict on the environment – and agriculture. Warmer weather with too much precipitation in some places and not enough in others is already punishing global harvests and only threatens to get worse unless we act urgently.
What many people do not recognize, however, is that agriculture is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, estimates are that agriculture accounts for 13 percent of them globally. Two of the main causes are soil management practices that result in large releases of nitrous oxide and carbon, and livestock digestion, which results in methane emissions.
Recently, Monsanto announced a commitment to address agricultural greenhouse gas emissions as far our own operations are concerned. We announced that by 2021, we will bring our operations to a carbon-neutral position. By that we actually mean that all our greenhouse gas emissions – including non-carbon-based ones like nitrous oxide – will either be eliminated or offset so that our footprint will effectively be zero.
To understand how it will work, think of two concentric circles. The inner circle is our seed-growing business, which we operate partly on our own but mostly through partnerships with contract farmers. By working with our partners in this business to adopt certain agricultural practices, we’ll take our seed business to carbon neutrality.
The outer and much larger circle is commercial farmers. We’re working to develop a program to provide incentives to farmer customers who adopt or expand carbon neutral crop production methods – in exchange for part of their carbon reduction value. We will use those reductions as offsets to neutralize our remaining carbon footprint.
One obvious question, of course, is what specific practices we’ll be encouraging.
Some are well-established, like planting cover crops and reducing tillage. Both of these enhance soil health, reduce water erosion and pollution, and help keep carbon stored in the soil.
But the newest piece of the puzzle is precision agriculture, which is going to be facilitated by the data revolution.
One little appreciated aspect of that revolution is measurement. Because of advances in sensor and information technology, farmers today can understand their greenhouse gas emissions with far greater precision than was possible only a few years ago. Their farms, in effect, can be hooked up to a Fitbit.
Then they can use the data revolution in a way that’s been better appreciated – the part that delivers greater precision in their farming. They can have every part of their fields mapped with GPS. Then their tractors can be programmed to know where to plant, what to plant and in what density to plant. Sensors can tell them how much fertilizer to use and where to use it, and when to water and when not to water.
Consider how this can play out in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen applications:
Today, farmers seeking the best harvests sometimes over-apply nitrogen or apply it in places where it may not be needed. This can lead to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions to the air and nutrient loss to waterways. With the new digital technology, however, farmers can make more informed decisions, and thereby apply nitrogen more efficiently.
The upshot? Greater average nutrient uptake, higher total yield, and reduced emissions and runoff.
These improvements deliver exactly what we need in agriculture today – sustainable intensification. They give us more with less – more food on an equal or reduced footprint with fewer inputs.
In short, they help us feed the world while preserving the environment.