New technology in agriculture

New Technology in Agriculture
New Technology in Agriculture

March 20, 2013
By Hira Anwaar

The raging debate now engaging the scientific and community is centred on the role and efficacy of foods derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Scientific and technological advances in genetics, cytogenetics, microbial genetics, microbiology, microtechniques, cell physiology and material science have unlocked the secrets of action,  reaction and expression of genes, the proteins and the activities that they control. Whereas these technologies were initially viewed as beneficial to
humans, especially in the areas of health, the agricultural sector has also benefited tremendously from these new discoveries.

Micro-propagation, of course, is not new in agriculture. As far back as the 1950s vegetative propagation of plants was a well established practice in the region, with leaf cuttings replacing stem cutting as rooting material in cocoa, coffee and other plants, which itself replaced the seed. These smaller cuttings were then replaced by tissue culture that allowed for rapid multiplication of plantlets as planting material.

The advantage of tissue culture over these earlier forms of propagation lies in the fact that not only can the planting materials be replicated quickly, but also the properties of these materials can be fixed and assured. Properties such as resistance to diseases, responses to fertilizer application and other growing conditions and product quality can be predetermined and fixed. It is that property of the technology that makes it so useful in the agricultural sector. The banana industry, especially in the French Caribbean islands, has benefited from this technology though its use is not as widespread as in the Windward Islands.

The ability to manipulate the properties of plants and other species is viewed with misgivings and is responsible for the concern with regard to GMOs. It is not that modifications have not taken place in the past. Gene manipul ation that brought about the new varieties of wheat and corn, for example, during the “greenrevolution” of the 1960s did not provoke the debate now sparked by GMOs. This is so because the variations arising from the manipulations took place over a long period of time through selective crossing and breeding that occur naturally in populations. Even before the green revolution, selection of characteristics and manipulation of
types were being undertaken. For example, it is not generally known that the North American apple so common on Caribbean streets, particularly at Christmas, is not the original fruit. The buffalypso, new varieties of pigeon peas and sorrel, as well as new varieties of cashew 2 that bear fruit within six to nine months are all the result of work done by regional researchers.

Irrigation also represents another area of new technology in the agricultural sector. It has long been demonstrated that sprinkler irrigation is not only wasteful and inefficient but also harmful to some crops. Flooding or furrow irrigation has not been demonstrated to be any more suitable for crop physiology or more efficient in water conservation and, particularly in small farms can cause erosion. Research into these problems has developed new methods of irrigation, notably drip irrigation, that addresses the problems of water-use efficiency, water pressure, soil modification and in addition facilitates increased uptake of fertilizer by the plants. The design of the technology takes into consideration the existence of a finite supply of water resources, the need to monitor micro-environments that do not promote the rowth of harmful insects and pests, and the need to lower the cost of production by creating efficiencies in the application of inputs. The range of application is wide, from a simple system to a more one that can require initial capital injection that may be beyond the reach of small farmers.

In the animal sector new technologies are also being introduced. Artificial insemination and bloodless castration are used throughout the region. However, the debate over GMOs also has implications for that sector. Cloning is now possible and raises issues of ethics and of animal gene variability loss that is vital to the preservation of biodiversity.

New hormonal applications and treatments can increase growth rates, reduce the incidence of disease and enhance the appearance and nutritive values of meat and fish products, as well as increase shelf life. Genesplicing can be used to treat a number of animal health problems and new techniques in aquaculture, veterinary and animal science have helped increase the livestock and fish populations. Genetic manipulations have helped develop breeds of animals that are more suitable to local conditions. These new advances are, however, not without risks, as is evidenced by the outbreak of “mad cow disease”, which was triggered by the use of infected products in the animal feed. The new technologies in the plant sector have also benefited the livestock sector as new varieties of grass, augmented by new irrigation technologies, have produced feeds for animals resulting in improved quality meat.

GPS-based technology that allows farmers to more accurately target irrigation needs, reducing water consumption by an average of 15 percent.

Most of our water use worldwide goes to agriculture, so reducing that amount will be critical as our population grows and climate change makes water supplies less predictable.

The rising global population (estimated to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by mid-century) together with economic growth in emerging markets will mean burgeoning demand for both potable water and food. Agriculture now accounts for roughly 70 percent of global water use, but as dietary changes in developing countries raise demand for water-intensive foods such as meat and dairy, this proportion will grow yet higher. Without efficiency gains, agricultural water demand is expected to grow by 45 percent — or an additional annual 1,400 billion cubic meters of water per year — by 2030.

While historically wet, the Southeast United States have seen persistent drought conditions over the past decade and legal conflicts over water. That makes Georgia’s Flint River basin, where farmers grow thirsty cotton, corn, peanuts, and pecans, a good proving ground for this technology.

A common method of irrigation is the center pivot, which projects water 360 degrees, creating the crop circles obvious from an airplane. The Flint River basin has 6,250 center-pivot systems. The problem with this technology is that it sprays water blindly, even across areas too wet to plant, such as grass waterways, seasonal wetlands, permanent ponds, a lake on the edge of a field.

Around 2004, University of Georgia faculty Calvin Perry, Stuart Pocknee, and Craig Kvien, developed variable rate irrigation (VRI), which allows farmers to selectively turn off specific nozzles as the pivot crawls over patches that don’t need water.

This year, they made the system easier for farmers to use. The previous version required a farmer to develop a water application map on a computer, upload that map to a thumb drive, and transfer it to the irrigation controller. Using the new push-button version, “he would just walk his irrigation system to one of these areas he wishes to not apply water … push the button to tell the controller, ‘this is where this anomaly starts.’ He then walks the system to the far edge of the anomaly, pushes another button, which says, ‘this is where that ends,’” said Perry, who works in the university’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The VRI equipment, sold by vendor Advanced Ag Systems out of Dothan, Ala., is expensive: about $5,000 for a modular, limited system and up to $30,000 for a large, full system, according to Perry, who acknowledged that most farmers can’t afford it.

But a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, the University of Georgia and the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District are working to bring down the cost for Flint River farmers by supplementing their contributions with a variety of grants and federal funding sources, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The hope is that future economies of scale will put the systems within reach for other farmers.

“The equipment and technologies continue to be refined and improved with cost reduction as one goal,” said David Reckford, Flint River basin project director for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. “Major irrigation equipment providers are beginning to mass produce this equipment so that it can be offered more broadly, further bringing down the cost.”

That could be soon. “The patent is expiring in December for the general concept for VRI,” said Perry. “That means more players can get into the game.”

Still, he said he expects an ongoing need for subsidies, an uncertain prospect in the current budget climate.

The partnership is also working with farmers to reduce water consumption in other ways:

Reducing water pressure and capping irrigation lines. Farmers use lower water pressure and distribute moisture closer to the soil to reduce wind drift. They also cap the ends of irrigation lines so water is not broadcast beyond the fields.

Advanced irrigation scheduling. A system of soil sensors, monitored through a wireless broadband network and powered by solar panels, allows farmers to monitor soil conditions on a daily or hourly basis and to selectively target areas for irrigation. For example, a farmer could hold off watering when it’s raining.

Conservation tillage. By using a cover crop and leaving plant residue in the field, farmers can modify plant root structure to improve the soil’s capacity to hold water and reduce soil temperature, thereby reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation.

Sod-based rotation. Farmers plant a warm-season perennial grass and fallow the field for two years, improving soil quality and water-holding capacity. However, only farmers who both plant row crops and graze cattle can afford to do this, said Perry.

In spite of the cost, reducing agriculture’s water consumption in Georgia’s Flint River Basin (and beyond) isn’t an abstract exercise: Water scarcity in the Southeast has lowered water flows in the lower Flint River system, threatening its extreme biodiversity, including endangered species. Leaving water in the river protects these species — and the future of farming. The region’s agricultural industry is worth $2 billion in revenue annually, and irrigation is central to production, said The Nature Conservancy.

The western United States operates under very different water laws than the East, which encourages water waste. Others farmers are selling or leasing their water rights to burgeoning cities, taking cropland out of production.

Water and food costs are likely to rise worldwide due to increased demand — accompanied by growing anxiety about food and water security — which would make technologies like VRI more economic. Until then, Perry, his partners, and the Flint River basin farmers may be just a bit ahead of their time.

Caribbean agriculture in the future

Caribbean agriculture, if it is to be a contributing sector to regional development, will have to, inter alia:
(a) Radically transform itself to place more emphasis on agro-processing;
(b) Adopt a more integrated approach to pest control and management;
(c) Reduce post harvest losses;
(d) Reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers and promote the use of organic manure;
(e) develop and utilize soil enhancing crops, on a larger scale.

Caribbean agriculture must be linked to food production and food security, therefore, the necessary research in home economics, food preparation, nutrition and agri-business must be undertaken with a view to satisfy the tastes of the various sectors of the population, rich and poor, foreign and local. It must also establish linkages with the tourism industry to take advantage of the higher earnings associated with this sector, as well as reduce the food import bill of the region.

In order to bring about that transformation, the traditional precepts of agricultural production for export purposes must be replaced by the new concept of processed products for export. Only pointed injections of technology can bring about that transformation and the application of renewable energy to agriculture can play an important role in that process. Policies must be established to provide for independent producers of energy when the national grid does cater to the needs of farmers. Incentives must be provided to persons and institutions interested in doing research, especially on product development and transformation. Such incentives can take the form of tax holidays, or tax credits.

For Caribbean agriculture to contribute significantly to development, it must be able to inter alia, satisfy the food and nutrition needs of the region, as well as export excess produce. Previous agricultural policy has not been that direction. Agriculture in the Caribbean has always been regarded an export activity for the generation of foreign exchange and agricultural policy has been developed to support that objective. Thus, when another activity is perceived to be able to provide foreign exchange to the region, policy is quickly changed to favour that new enterprise at the expense of agriculture. Such is the situation in the region that agriculture has to compete with tourism, with export processing zones or electronic assembly plants for scarce State resources and the attention of policy makers. A more rational policy would have been for agriculture to provide the platform for manufacturing to and complement the resources that these other activities could bring to the State. This would require a view of agriculture that places it at the centre of economic activity whose first and foremost responsibility would be the provision of food and fibre to the population. In that context the necessary research and development for product transformation, for post harvest research and for marketing of products could be undertaken, as is done for tourism.

It is interesting to note that in the developed countries domestic farm policy takes precedence over international policy, macroeconomic policy and resource policy. In fact, in one country it has been noted that domestic farm policy is the bread and butter of agricultural and food policy. Seen in that context, a more holistic approach to planning for the sector would, of necessity, be the norm. Concerns for nutrition, healthcare, farm amenities and for the farm family to adequately house, feed and educate itself would drive the policy agenda. This is where technology would be an important component of farm policy. The emphasis would be on farm income rather than on commodity prices. Therefore, the total operations of the farm and the total products that can be derived from them in order to increase income would drive the research agenda for new products and the capturing of the upscale market products.

A serious deficiency in Caribbean agriculture is the lack of research and technology institutions that are mandated and supported by public funds to carry out research and development work. Most ministries of agriculture in the region are under funded with the larger percentage of their funding allocated to salaries and maintenance. The Produce Chemist Laboratories in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Caribbean Agricultural Research Institute (CARIRI) in Trinidad and Tobago, the Scientific Research Council (SRC) in Jamaica and the Institute of Agriculture, Science and Technology (IAST) in Guyana have as their mandates the undertaking of research and development. However, these institutions are under funded and under staffed. Some effort is being undertaken at the University of the West Indies, but the University projects itself more as a teaching institution rather than as a generator of knowledge and products. That may be so because, too of funding problems. For example, there is no division of Home Economics at the University and the work being done in agro-processing is not under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture of the University. This is, of course, the complete opposite of what obtains in developed or even some developing countries where university research work sets the pace for development. The State Colleges and Agriculture and Manufacturing (A&M) universities play that role in the individual States of the United States of America, and the Institute of Food Technology and Applied Sciences in Costa Rica plays a similar role.

Another weak component of agriculture in the region is the extension service. With a weak research and development base to support extension and with extension concentrating on the agronomy/cultivation of the export crop, much of the time is spent advising on production technologies which, of course, do not change quickly. Extension work is not seen as necessary for the promotion of the development of the farm family. Instead it is seen as a necessity for the production of the crop. There is no link between food and nutrition, between marketing and post-harvest concerns and between crop production and cost accounting and book keeping. Farm management and family income management have no complementarity under the present extension ethos. That disjointed approach to the farm and the farm family is a serious threat to modernization and to the sustainability of agriculture in the region.

From the above then it would seem that the solution to sustainable growth and development of the agricultural sector is simple. It suggests that emphasis needs to be placed on product development in the agricultural sector, equal to the corresponding emphasis that now exists on crop production. New thinking on the role of local and regional agriculture in meeting the nutritional needs of the region must inform the policy choices, rather than generation of foreign exchange from the primary product approach, now prevalent in the region. This would require the establishment or maintenance of institutions of research to transform crops into products. The farm energy needs would also be addressed and the introduction of technologies that are appropriate to the farm setting would be promoted. Hence new technologies in energy, and related farm inputs would be promoted to increase the efficiency of operations and levels of farm incomes. This new dynamism would be supported by the educational system at all levels and the corresponding linkages would be made with the other sectors such as tourism and manufacturing to promote and enhance the industrial development efforts of the region. With these supporting systems in place and a revitalization of the industry, policy makers in individual States will have greater latitude of action to meet the needs of their respective countries and to take decisions that appropriate to their constituents within the framework of regional complementarity, cooperation and collaboration.

The extension service must be strengthened and integrated to be attentive to farm family issues and concerns and not only to crop or livestock production. The agricultural officer must work hand in hand with the home economics officer, the Health Officer and the Community Development Officer, each one promoting his role where and when necessary. Local farmers, too, will be able to participate in the decision-making and implementation processes, where they can appreciate and note a direct relationship between their activities, their governments policies and the income and other benefits that accrue to them in the process. This new approach will require a transformation of minds as well as that of the education system. Unless this is undertaken, the agricultural sector will contribute even less to the national and regional economies than at present, and should be a major cause for concern by policy makers.

Model Farming

Published:  Zarai Media Team

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