Drone point of view of crops in a field.
An ecosystem scientist and an agricultural economist have outlined how agriculture needs to develop a more sustainable land management system through the integration of big data into crop and farmland usage, which they are calling digital agriculture.
In a paper released in Nature Sustainability in April 2020, Michigan State University professor Bruno Basso, a professor in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University, and John Antle, professor of Applied Economics at Oregon State University, posit that digital agriculture can pave the road to agricultural sustainability.
Basso, who is the co-author of the research paper, says the integration of sensors, AI (artificial intelligence), and predictive modeling is reaching a level of accuracy that can be used to design pathways to sustainability in agriculture. But, he cautions that the challenges in adopting these systems won’t change unless there are incentives that demonstrate the positive impacts on communities, the economics of the communities, and the environment.
According to Basso, digital agriculture is where agriculture, science, policy, and education intersect.
“Putting that data to use requires an effective balancing of competing for economic and social interests while minimizing trade-offs,” said Basso in a statement.
“The agricultural sector remains the Cinderella compared to other primary sectors when it comes to digitalization,” said Basso. “Digital Agriculture is a combination of technologies which span from devices sensing the environment from a close distance or thousands of miles in the skies to chips monitoring food systems.”
Basso adds that along with sensors, new ways of analyzing big-data and predicting outcomes through validated simulation models and AI systems are beginning to have positive impacts for farmers and the environment.
“To increase the adoption of these technologies, farmers, environmentalists, scientists, policymakers need to sit down and listen to each other to put aside competing for interests for the well being of the land that we are certainly not looking after,” said Basso.
Basso says that if the objective is to increase biodiversity, to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, or to grow less resource-intensive bioenergy perennials, incentivization is critical.
According to a press release for the paper, the researchers’ analysis showed that if nitrogen fertilizer applications were based on demand and yield stability instead of uniform application, usage in the Midwest could be reduced by 36% with significant reductions in groundwater contamination and carbon dioxide emissions.
Basso wants these decisions to be made as a society and have society bear those costs.
“What farmers do on their land today will affect their neighbor’s grandchildren in 30 years,” said Basso.