For city slickers who believe that the bulk of U.S. farmers are illiterate hicks who don’t have the brains to make it in the real world, they are themselves ignorant of the tremendous technological advancements made ‘down on the farm’ over the last few decades.

It’s really not surprising that most big city kids think their food magically appears on the store shelves of their local grocery store and haven’t an inkling what goes into its production. And many adults have never had the pleasure and opportunity to pick a peach from a fruit orchard, or walk down a field row planted in cucumbers. The truth is that the stereotypic images of yesteryear – of fields filled with cotton pickers and rusty old tractors pulling heavy plows partially hidden in a dust cloud – have been replaced by complicated and sophisticated machinery that in actuality take a lot of smarts to operate.

Suffice it to say that modern agriculture has turned the corner in eliminating a lot of the back-breaking toil many of us associate with farming. These achievements in state-of-the-art farming methods have been developed over decades by growers, academic researchers, Extension agents, and technology companies.  Put simply, if growers could use one word to describe the future of agriculture it would be “precision.”

To describe the almost unbelievable aspects of modern farming technology, consider a tractor pulling a fertilizer/planter that needs no driver. The equipment is controlled by a sophisticated computer guidance system called Real-Time Kinetics. It uses satellite GPS but also receives signals from a nearby tower. The path it follows is “auto-steered” to the inch so that it achieves “controlled wheel traffic.” This means that a large percentage of this field is never driven over or compressed by the weight of the equipment. The lack of overlap pays for the system, but the lack of soil compression dramatically lowers emissions of the potent, ozone destroying and greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide from the field.

Found in the tractor cab is a display unit showing how the rate of fertilizer being applied is adjusted foot-by-foot according to site-specific yield history and soil sampling maps. The fertilizer is “knifed in” just the right distance below the seed so that the developing crop roots will efficiently absorb it. This “precision, variable-rate fertilization” pays for itself in lower fertilizer rates overall, but it greatly reduces the amount of nitrogen that could potentially leach into groundwater.

Precision pays for itself

A combination of global positioning systems, aerial imaging, field mapping and soil sampling can achieve two important main goals: fewer input costs and better yields. The precision approach results in less runoff, so ditches and waterways don’t receive as much fertilizer, meaning less pollution. This precision equipment is now one-fifth the cost it was when it was released about eight years ago.
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, American producers can save significant quantities of energy by implementing precision agriculture practices on their land. For example, if guidance systems were used by 10 percent of the planted acres in the U.S., fuel use would be cut by 16 million gallons, herbicide use by 2 million quarts, and insecticide use by 4 million pounds per year. Less fuel, natural gas, herbicide, and insecticide used on the farm results in financial savings for the producer.

Lastly, using a guidance system on a 1,000-acre farm with a continuous corn crop would reduce overlap from 24 inches to 2 inches, and result in savings of roughly $13,000 a year. Producers find that a guidance system can pay for itself in just two to three years.

You can be impressed by ag’s high-tech advancements which represent American innovation at its finest, but farming innovation doesn’t stop there. With the scientific breakthroughs in plant biotechnology the innovation can be found in the very seeds that farmers plant and in the products they use to protect their crops. Here the “precision” is in the gene splicing. The facts are that more farmers now plant insect-resistant seeds that require far fewer chemical inputs than conventional varieties. These biotech plant innovations mean that farmers can increase productivity per acre and reduce the need for pesticides. In addition, the adoption of biotechnology has encouraged the use of no-till cultivation, which reduces both herbicide use and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, biotechnology ensures a more affordable and reliable supply of food and fiber for the consuming public.

I realize that the promotion of plant biotech seeds is a sore spot among certain environmental groups, who, if given their choice, would like to see it disappear. But, the evidence is clear that the biotech crops currently on the market are safe to eat and pose no environmental harm. In testimony over the summer delivered to a House Agriculture subcommittee, Roger Beachy, president emeritus of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., said as much.

“Since regulations were first put in place for the products of agricultural biotechnology in 1987, more than 2 billion acres of crops have been grown and harvested in at least 29 countries around the world,” Beachy testified.

“These crops have been grown by 15.4 million farmers, 14.4 million of whom are small, resource-poor farmers in developing countries. The harvests of these crops have been consumed in billions upon billions of meals by humans and livestock around the world for the better part of two decades now. In all this vast experience, we have not a single consequence of a novel, negative consequence for health or the environment – not one.”

Considering the fact that the world’s population will climb to 9 billion by 2050, the potential for feeding a hungry world through innovations such as precision ag and plant biotech research are nearly limitless. These scientific advancements are safe, sustainable and serve consumers by ensuring an abundant and affordable food supply. And given the global food challenges in the future, no one will argue that they will be desperately needed.