It probably could be successfully argued that if genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s) had been named something else, their rising role in influencing what people want to eat and not eat would be less powerful and might not even exist. Yet, because of the stigma attached to the name and therefore to the process, plant breeders are being exceptionally cautious in pursuit of developing modified wheat regardless of what it promises. Even as increasing numbers of people acknowledge the likelihood of severe food shortages in the next several decades and thus the need for crop expansion beyond genetically-modified corn and soybeans, the possibility of having a newly-evolved kind of wheat or other grain is more often than not dismissed if it has any relation to GMO.
Widespread questioning of GMO’s, as scientifically unsound and downright foolish as it definitely is, has led to a search for what may accomplish many of the same positives but without the dreadful public relations. One research area currently enjoying widespread attention has the name “precision agriculture.” Here the focus is on sharply increasing yields, not by changing seed but by electronically-based growing systems related to widely accepted information technology. Thus far, this technology has earned no negatives, and it is increasingly being hailed as the way that crop production could be increased enough to achieve the 50% output rise that is deemed needed as global population climbs from the current 6.3 billion to 9 billion at the middle of the 21st century.
Precision agriculture is hugely different from genetic modification. The latter modifies the seed itself, as done with corn and soybeans, by applying modern science to change the plant to produce a sharply increased yield. Precision agriculture allows farmers to maximize the outturn of each seed planted. This is achieved by using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that help farmers follow directions as to how much fertilizer should be used on specific areas to bolster yields to the absolute maximum. By matching the quantity of fertilizer applied to carefully defined needs in specific areas, significant yield gains have been achieved using this technology. Rather than testing entire fields to gauge maximum applications, success has been reached by systems measuring plant nutrient needs related to leaf color.
Embracing precision agriculture requires that farmers learn about yield monitoring, understand how different areas vary in productivity and develop statistical techniques built into systems to guide tractors used to apply fertilizers. Automated guidance is already being used for field delivery of fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals, but what precision agriculture offers can only be attained by combining GPS with intense knowledge about the capacity of fields. Drones offer an opportunity to capture images that could guide irrigation, chemical applications and harvesting. A step further relates to robotics and the use of GPS guiding driverless tractors. Excitement builds to the day when farmers will be able to start fertilizer applications by pushing a button.
Peanut farmers in America are taking the lead in engaging in precision agriculture. Data just released indicate that more than 40% of peanut farmers, a sign of rapid adoption of this new technology, use auto-steer or related guidance systems. Yield monitors and yield maps, which were not found in the first decade of this century, are being rapidly accepted, allowing peanut farmers to identify within-field yield variations and to adjust fertilizer applications accordingly. The result is reduced peanut farm operating costs. It also offers more environmentally friendly fertilizer and chemical use along with good yield gains.
As promising as precision agriculture appears, its importance lies not just in these great advantages, but also in the way this tool is itself exceptionally well suited to production of small grain like wheat. These advantages, contrary to corn’s advantage in GMO, go hand-in-hand with benefits of precision agriculture as a good name versus GMO. This path ought to make consumers smile and hopefully want to eat more and more wonderful wheat-based and grain-based foods.