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Digital agriculture can help make farming more environmentally friendly

By Jordan Strickler
Kentucky Correspondent

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The modern food system is a monument to human ingenuity and innovation. Technologies like genetic modification and crop production automation have given us the ability to help feed the world, but modern agriculture still has its negative environmental side effects. However, a research duo from Michigan State University (MSU) and Oregon State University (OSU) are working to combat this through digital technology. 
“Agriculture’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and biodiversity loss show that major agricultural systems are on a largely unsustainable trajectory,” says Bruno Basso, professor in the College of Natural Science at MSU. “And as the population increases, energy demands and pollution will scale accordingly.”
One specific area the researchers are looking at is the reduction of fertilizers. Basso thinks that a reduction of nitrogen fertilizers is key to increasing biodiversity. A recent analysis by the team 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 percent with significant reductions in groundwater contamination and carbon dioxide emissions. 
Basso says that new technology can help farmers maximize crop growth and limit the loss of nutrients through what he calls the “four Rs”–placing the right kind of fertilizer at the right rate in the right place at the right time.
In an MSU editorial, Basso explains some of his new ideas and what he hopes the new technologies can bring to the table. “Digital agriculture includes the use of state-of-the-art technology to identify different management zones on cultivated fields. We use drones equipped with cameras and sensors to evaluate crop growth throughout the growing season and determine locations within fields where growth varies. Even if a farmer applies fertilizers at a uniform rate throughout a field, the amount may be too much for one area of the field, but too little for another.
“Understanding variability is one of the core goals of the project in order to help farmers make better decisions with water and nutrient management,” he wrote. “The combination of remotely sensed data and new algorithms has allowed us to quantify nitrogen losses from U.S. corn fields. In addition, we have developed modeling software that farmers can use to digitally evaluate various fertilizer application strategies in response to the observed variability. The crop growth model includes detailed calculations on nutrient, water and carbon balances of the crop system and is coupled with other databases.”
Using this technology, producers will be able to use models to simulate crop growth under a variety of nitrogen management levels to understand the risk associated with any given nitrogen rate and the potential impact of that choice on yield, profit and the environment. He says that the scalability of the approach will allow any farmer in the country to better manage their field and to keep nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil rather than run off into rivers.
Basso — who says he became an agricultural scientist to make our planet a better place to live — explains that digital technology is the spot where agriculture, science, policy and education intersect. Unfortunately though, those groups are not always listening to each other. Putting data learned through digital technology to use requires an effective balancing of competing economic and social interests while minimizing trade-offs.
“There are too many barriers, too many competing interests,” he says. “We need to bring people to the table and design a system that works for everyone — farmers, lawmakers, society and future generations.” 
Basso, and his scientific partner, John Antle — professor of Applied Economics at OSU — believe they may have found the perfect way to walk that tightrope through a two-stop process. The initial step focuses on the design of a sustainable framework guided and quantified by digital agriculture technologies. Implementation, the second step, involves increased public-private investment in technologies like digital agriculture, and a focus on applicable, effective policy. Some of these policies involve targeted tax incentives and subsidies to support farmers who work toward advancing a more sustainable system. 
“It does no good to design a policy that the farmer will ignore,” Basso says. “Policymakers must make use of digital agriculture to help drive policy. Go to the farmers and say, ‘we will help you make these transitions, and we will help you transform your poorly performing and unstable field areas with financial support.’” 
Basso says that these changes of practice cannot be made though, solely on an individual level, but as a society and what farmers do on their land today will affect their neighbor’s grandchildren in 30 years. “Making use of digital agriculture is about breaking bread and creating a sustainable agricultural system. Let’s bring everyone together.”