Farmers tend to get a bad rap; people think they’re dumb hicks who don’t know what they’re doing, who pour pesticides into the earth, who have been swindled into using GMO seed by big corporations, who are out of touch with climate change, and who run simplistic and unsophisticated operations.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since man began farming, farmers have had to constantly make decisions based on ever-changing environments and circumstances. If there’s a drought, they’ve got to think about watering; how much to water, where to get the water from, and how not to waste the water they have. In dryland broad-acre agriculture, there is no water except what falls from the sky, so farmers are constantly thinking about how to stretch the water they are given to grow the most per acre.
If there’s too much rain, and a fungus begins to grow on the leaves and the ground is so soaked that there’s risk of the roots rotting, they’ve got to address those problems too.
Farmers also think about the day-to-day choices around crop selection, breeding, and growing techniques. They’ve had to evolve as the world has changed and have often been on the forefront of technological and scientific developments. Very few industries in the world are more studied than agriculture because it’s an industry that impacts everyone on the planet—we all have to eat.
If you look at the iterations of agriculture, it has evolved through four prior eras from when humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer society to today. We’re moving into the fifth era, and I’ve seen all five in my lifetime.
Agriculture 1.0 utilized muscle to grow food; a man (usually) stood behind a plow that was pulled by oxen, or a horse, or other men (or women). That era lasted for ten thousand years.
Agriculture 2.0 happened in the 1800s when tractors began to emerge. We moved from manual food production to mechanized food production.
The shift to Agriculture 3.0, the era of chemistry, really took off between World War I and World War II. Although the use of organic pesticides such as Bordeaux mixture and copper sulfate with slaked lime goes back to the 1800s, and organic elemental sulfur dates back to 4,000 BC Mesopotamia, it was the chemistry created during the early 1900s that profoundly changed agriculture.
Agriculture 4.0 was the era of biotechnology, which includes genetic engineering and the subcategories in genetic engineering that allow plant breeders to do what they’ve always done—search for better characteristics in crops to deal with abiotic (weather) or biotic (pest) stress and to provide characteristics that are beneficial from those crops. I would also argue that the era of genetic engineering was the era of de-chemicalization (there is a brain stretch for you).
It should be noted that there is no 4.0 in Europe. They are still largely in Agriculture 3.0, using far more chemistry per acre to grow crops because of the EU’s rejection of modern scientific techniques employed by plant breeders.
Agriculture 5.0, which we’re entering today, is the result of technological advances such as smartphones, telecommunication, data management, computing power, GPS, and robotics. Agriculture is embracing technology at a rapid pace, and we’re seeing a convergence of all the iterations that came before, together with today’s technological advances.
We read about the broader context of technological advances in our world, but it’s coming together on the farm at a break-neck speed. These technologies are going to influence food production as we look to 2050 and beyond.
When we talk about infinitely sustainable agriculture, we must ask: • What does the future of food look like? • How do we ensure all future generations are fed?
The last question is the most important and one which we as a race are failing to answer.