In my previous article, I presented several advances in urban agriculture with innovative ways of producing agricultural goods in a more environmentally and socially responsible manner. Is rural agriculture experiencing similar innovations? To answer this question, it is important to explore why changing practices may not be so simple due to the highly interdependent complex nature of the agricultural system. Subsequently, this article explores some interesting cases where new technologies, ecological knowledge, and inclusive ideas have been implemented to improve rural farming operations.
The adoption of sustainable practices in large-scale agriculture faces many challenges that span the financial, market, educational, cultural, technical, and political realms. For instance, flower farmers provides a scenario that involves financial and market challenges because they fear that after putting time, energy, and resources into new practices to become a certified sustainable grower, they will not make their money back due to the limited demand from retailers, end consumers, and landscapers. From a cultural perspective, farmers may perceive adopting new practices as risky and demanding as such practices require more time and management. Also when adequate education and training is not easily accessible, farmers cannot have the instruments to adopt better practices. Like any other business, large commercial growers are discouraged to act against their productivity yields. One technical challenge associated with using less nitrogen fertilization is lower productivity, and therefore, a reduction in profits or the capability to meet a specific market demand. Another concern related to smaller yields is global hunger because agriculture will need to produce more food to feed 9.1 billion people in 2050. Additionally, if a policy measure provides more incentives to increase production of specific agricultural goods, “the greater is the incentive towards monoculture, intensification, or bringing marginal land into production…[therefore] the higher is the pressure on the environment.” A major challenge then is to find the right way to increase production without degrading the environment.
Despite all the current challenges, conventional large-scale farms are finding ways to incorporate more environmentally friendly practices through the implementation of new technologies. The progress made in GPS and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies, sensor systems, computational techniques, and control-systems has made a significant contribution to the recent development of smart-precision agriculture. In fact, the use of precision agriculture techniques as a management tool allows farms to use their own information like mapping of soils, weather, air quality, terrain, slopes, and records of the amounts of chemicals used in the field, to optimize the use of resources like water or agricultural inputs like seeds. Similarly, the use of real time data in smart farming help growers make better decisions for planting, fertilizing, and harvesting. Through the implementation of precision agriculture, farms can increase the retention of water in soils, improve soil structure from controlling traffic, and mitigate the proliferation of algae in nearby waterways by reducing the use of fertilizer. A report completed by the European Union lists several benefits of precision agriculture including the reduction in the carbon footprint from lower fuel use and increased oxygen levels in water resources due to reduced nitrogen fertilization. There were two important conclusions from the EU report. First was the fact that some farms do not obtain significant economic benefits from the reduction of nitrogen fertilization farms, potentially explained by farms reaching an optimum application rate. Second was that profitability and costs were critical for European farmers to adopt precision agriculture techniques. Highlighting the latter conclusion is important especially in contexts where farmers have restricted access to technology or financial resources and may need to implement other farming practices like those ones that are based on ecological approaches.
For farms where precision agricultural is impractical, agro-ecology practices may provide a complementary, or alternative, way to protect the environment. Agro-ecology is most commonly defined as “the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems.” Some of the practices in this type of agricultural production include, but are not limited to, conservation tillage that leads to improvements in soil structure and reduced soil erosion, integrated nutrient management to reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers, and biological management of pests through the chemical inhibition of one organism by another or the use of natural enemies (for instance inhibiting the development of rice moth larvae by exposure to volatile oils from eucalyptus). Using agro-ecology based practices, researchers have found significant yield increases by 50 to 100% for black beans, and 100 and 300% for corn. But can agro-ecology methods scale up? Although some industrial farms with systems aiming to reduce the use of chemicals and energy have been able to adopt agro-ecology principles to large-scale operations, there is limited information to determine if agro-ecology practices have the capability to be applied in large-scale farming operations on a global scale. In fact, one of the main challenges is the restricted public agricultural research and extension services, which are fundamental to developing a greater understanding of the potential to scale up. Another concern is that negative short-term effects in productivity and profits discourage farmers from pursuing a transition from current practices to agro-ecology.
Some commercial farms go beyond the protection of the environment, and they are adopting more socially responsible practices as well. In 2014, a large dairy group agreed to increase their awareness of human rights when entering new foreign markets in Africa. Another example involves the efforts that a large distributor of fruits made to advance social benefits for growers through the implementation of better business practices including, but not limited to, the creation of long-term contracts, strengthening the relationship between the agribusiness and growers by eliminating the ‘middle-men’, and by providing technical assistance to farmers. In some countries many farm workers are immigrants who do not speak the native language, so, some agricultural operations provide farmers with training in their native language to achieve improvements in health and safety conditions. A novel, and fun, approach to creating positive economic impacts on rural communities is to add value to rural farming through tourism; a few examples include theme parks for organic mango and coffee farms, or a dairy farm – bed and breakfast. As consumers and producers maintain their concern for the environment and social issues, a growing number of stakeholders who have close relationships with farmers, such as food industries, non-governmental organizations, and local governments are key allies to promote changes in the production of agricultural goods.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on April 21, 2017.