A multidimensional view of ag tech’s impacts

New research from Environmental Defense Fund, “Agriculture Technology Discovery Report,” provides a high-level overview of how four technology fields — artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, biologicals and genetics — can be valuable tools in agricultural operations and contribute to four agroecological goals: reducing water use, supporting soil and plant health, controlling pests and diseases, and reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

This multidimensional lens is uncommon. Industry reports often focus on maximizing yield, and not the entire agroecological picture. Yet, using technology as a vehicle to drive both yield and ecological benefits is essential as society works to increase food production in a changing climate without increasing environmental impacts.

Here are several intersections between technology and agroecology that EDF will be exploring further.

Advanced precision agriculture

Current technologies and those under development that are expected to come to market within the next three years will enable an age of advanced precision agriculture where farmers are able to move from managing by field to managing by individual plant.

AI tools will be critical to managing and interpreting the vast data sets that are created by precision agriculture technology, including advanced sensors and improved satellite analysis.

Though less developed, the same approach will apply to livestock production to manage nutrition, animal health and manure.

Biological vs. synthetic inputs

Recent products and research around biological inputs have the potential to transform how farmers manage plant fertility, pest pressure and disease.

Academia is just scratching the surface in the understanding of how to manage functional communities of soil microbes. As the efficacy of these products improves, they will present farmers with alternatives to current synthetic inputs and improve sustainability.

Robotics and labor

Robotics have the potential to alleviate persistent labor shortages, especially in the specialty crop sector, which includes fruits and vegetables.

Recent applications have also been shown to improve working conditions by reducing heavy, repetitive motions and reducing exposure to harmful agriculture chemicals. And as climate change increases the frequency and severity of heatwaves, robots could help keep farmworkers out of dangerously high temperatures.

Realizing the full potential of ag tech

This potential for climate and environmental gains from ag technology may not be realized if technology is deployed for production gains alone.

EDF and partners can facilitate the deployment of ag technologies in ways that achieve agroecological goals by developing partnerships to enable landscape-scale experiments with innovative technology, and then publishing the resulting impacts on yield, profit, input reduction and off-farm environmental effect. Multidisciplinary field experiments using technology stacks — or a suite of technology applications used together — are needed to measure the water soil, and plant nutrition benefits that are possible with emerging technology.

Additional challenges include issues around marketing claim verification and equitable access to these products. Ag tech start-ups often are not transparent in how they make environmental claims, so EDF encourages start-ups to partner with university scientists that commit to transparency in publishing the results of using a given technology.

Many of these technologies will initially be expensive and may not be accessible to small farms with limited resources. Conservation policy, including the 2023 farm bill, could help overcome these challenges and bring about the equitable transformation that is needed.

Public policy and investments can also spur ag tech research and innovation. The public sector has a particularly important role to play in jump starting the development of higher-risk technologies and finding ways to make measuring agroecological impacts easier and more accurate.

Partnerships and collaborative efforts can help society realize the potential for technology stacks to improve the cumulative impact of farming on the environment, while providing income and production growth to famer’s both large and small.

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