Farming Drives Toward ‘Precision Agriculture’ Technologies

This story originally appeared Not dark and is part of the Climate Table collaboration.

On Midwestern farms, if Girish Chowdhary is successful, farmers will one day release beagle-sized robots in their fields like a pack of dogs dragging the pheasant. Robots, he says, will move in cool shade under a wide variety of plants, weeding, planting cover crops, diagnosing plant infections and collecting data to help farmers optimize their farms.

Chowdhary, a researcher at the University of Illinois, works with corn, one of the world’s most productive monocultures. In the United States, the corn industry was valued at $ 82.6 billion in 2021, but like almost every other segment of the agricultural economy, it faces baffling problems, such as changes in weather patterns. , environmental degradation, severe labor shortages and rising cost of key inputs: herbicides, pesticides and seeds.

The agro-industry as a whole is betting that the world has reached a turning point where the desperate need caused by a growing population, the economic realities of conventional agriculture and the advancement of technology converge to require something called agriculture. precision, which aims to minimize inputs and the costs and environmental problems that accompany them.

No segment of agriculture is without its passionate advocates of robotics and artificial intelligence as solutions, basically, to all the problems that today’s farmers face. The scope of his visions ranges from technology that overlaps existing agricultural practices to a comprehensive rethinking of agriculture that eliminates tractors, soil, sunlight, climate and even being in the air. free as factors of agricultural life.

But the promises of precision agriculture have not yet been fulfilled. Because most of the promised systems are not on the market, few final prices have been set and there is little real-world precious data to show if they work.

“Marketing around precision agriculture, which will have a huge impact, we don’t have the data for that yet,” says Emily Duncan, a researcher in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph in Canada. “Going back to the idea that we want to reduce the use of inputs, precision agriculture does not necessarily say we will make less general use of them.”

However, Chowdhary, co-founder and technical director of Earthsense, the company that makes these beagle-sized robots, hopes that the adoption of its robots will push farmers far beyond precision farming. , to think about the business of agriculture in a whole new way. Right now, he says, most farmers are focusing on yield, defining success as growing more on the same amount of land. The result: horizon to horizon, industrial monocultures saturated with chemicals and cared for by massive and increasingly expensive machinery. With the help of his robots, Chowdhary foresees a future, instead of smaller farms that live more in harmony with nature, cultivating a diversity of higher value crops with fewer chemicals.

“The most important thing we can do is make it easier for farmers to focus on profits, not just yields,” Chowdhary wrote in an email to Undark. “Management tools that help reduce fertilizer and herbicide costs while improving soil quality and maintaining high yields will help farmers reap more benefits through fundamentally more sustainable techniques.”

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