In the last few decades, humanity has seen a dramatic increase in agricultural yields. This development is almost singlehandedly to thank for the fact that the human population looks to crest 7 billion and yet we have mostly managed to avoid a Mad Max-esque dystopia. But what is behind these dramatic yield increase? And can they be sustained?
The first “Green Revolution” came about as a result of the pioneering work of Dr. Fritz Haber, who discovered a process to extract nitrogen out of free air. This was quite amazing, since nitrogen is absolutely essential for healthy plant growth, yet is relatively rare in soil. Nitrogenating soil requires crop rotation, since only a few kind of plants can fix their own nitrogen. This means that many fields must lie fallow and, while that might sound cute and old-timey, it’s actually not. Industrial nitrogen production means that we can apply nitrogen directly to the plant and thus drastically improve yields and not lose time in crop rotation. The downside of this, of course, is that the Haber process is energy-intensive and excessive nitrogen application deposits an unhealthy amount of nitrogen into the environment.
The second “Green Revolution” came about as a result of breeding, a tradition which continues with the genetic work being done at Monsanto and Pioneer-Dupont. Their work in creating hybrid seeds allows for the development of drastically higher yield plants that are also more robust to environmental variables like droughts, pests and humidity. Creating plants that will yield high and yield consistently is the holy grail of agriculture and has been, for the most part, realized. The downside here is that these hybrids can be too successful, increasing a tendency towards monoculture. Monoculture is not only an issue of squishy environmentalism, it also makes the food system more brittle, since a single disease can wipe out a huge portion of the planted crops.
So, the two successive green revolutions that have created the extraordinary abundance that we live with now were chemical and genetic, respectively. They both have downsides which need to be alleviated, as well.
Future yield increases will be brought about by the extension of the ongoing data revolution to agriculture. We call this third agricultural revolution “Precision Agriculture.”
Precision agriculture can best be thought of as the use of ubiquitous sensing, cloud computing and mobile connectivity to generalize best practices in cultivation. This stems from the observation that there exists a huge range of yields for even the same crop hybrid. The methods of cultivation¬—watering patterns, nitrogen application, harvest time—vary substantially between farmers in the same environmental circumstances and can have a huge effect on the yield.
While this insight has existed for some time, there were barriers to its ability to affect yields. The first is that there didn’t exist an easy way to quantify the agricultural process, analyze it and disseminate the results to farmers. These are all tasks that today’s IT infrastructure can address. The second barrier was the lack of equipment with sufficient precision to act on this information. For example, if an algorithm said that I should nitrogenate an elliptical area of my field differently than the rest, there didn’t exist equipment to do so on the scale necessary for contemporary agriculture. This is another area of active development and is sure to increase in the future, as autonomous farm equipment becomes the norm.
If the best practices in these areas can be generalized, and supplemented by new insights that were previously impossible such as high-precision soil moisture, then yields in general can be increased without further changes to the chemistry or the genetics of the crops. This final revolution in agriculture could go a long way towards realizing greater yields while preserving crop diversity. It also offers the possibility of growing more food with less water and nitrogen, ultimately decreasing the overall ecological footprint of agriculture. All while feeding an ever-growing human family.