Growers Can Capitalize on New AgBiotech Technologies
“How do we take advantage of this new world of biotechnology” affecting agriculture, asked Ann Bartuska, Ph.D., vice president of Land, Water, and Nature with Resources for the Future at the 2018 AgBiotech Summit. “There are a lot of opportunities in emerging technologies we have yet to capitalize on.”
She cited many of the leading edge technologies affecting the agriculture industry, including: sensors on farm equipment, mini-robots capturing soil samples, plant genomics and more rapid plant breeding, vast new databases, and management tailored to what’s going on in the soil.
“We are going into areas we haven’t before,” she said, noting that “We have all of this data, but not commensurate data analytics. We still have to work to make it usable information.”
Nevertheless, “We should monetize what we know,” she added. For instance, “We have a lot of information around carbon.” Many researchers at the Summit noted the positive effects that increasing soil carbon content has on improving its structure, water availability, crop yields, and produce quality.
Researchers at the Summit also said methods for increasing soil carbon content such as no till and cover crops have shown significant results over time, including the type of financial advantage needed to convince farmers to adopt new technologies.
Bartuska suggested several approaches to capturing value from emerging technologies. She recommended thinking on a larger scale. There are advantages in “Taking an integrated landscape approach and larger systems such as watersheds.”
Communication is also important to the uptake of new agricultural technologies, she said. “We need to provide accurate, meaningful information to those who want to take-up these new ideas.” In particular, she said, “We need to support the Cooperative Extension system. We need to reverse the trend of under-supporting or ending Extension.”
Other speakers at the event echoed that sentiment and some noted that North Carolina, where agriculture remains the dominant state industry, has continued supporting its Agricultural Extension system.
Finally, Bartuska said, “The lens of soil health propels us forward, bringing us into a new, 21st century model. “How do we get some of this into the looming Farm Bill,” she asked.
In a format adopted at this year’s Summit, Bartuskas' “mini-keynote,” was followed by a panel discussion which she moderated. Participants included Nick Goeser of Soil Health Partnership, Russ Hedrick of JRH Grain Farms, and Roland McReynolds of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
Hedrick, a first-generation farmer in Catawba County, said when he started farming he had no idea of what he was doing, but “I didn’t have that bad habit of wanting to do what my grandpa did.”
JRH Grain Farms operates on eight hundred acres, growing non-GMO corn, non-GMO soybeans, white wheat, black oats, triticale, and barley, and raising pasture cattle, pasture Katahdin sheep, and pasture Berkshire pigs. It operates Southern Seeds and Feeds and partner with Seventeen Twelve Distillery. They make bourbon in NC.
Hedrick used various cover crop and no-till strategies to save tens of thousands of dollars on his operations that improve the quality of his crops, and was named the 2014 North Carolina Innovative Young Farmer of the Year.
Hedrick uses a variety of advanced agricultural technologies to make his acreage profitable. His farm even does x-ray testing to check for nutrient density. “We’re paying attention to macro and micro nutrients,” he said. “As we’ve done that, we've seen better products.”
“For us,” he said, “the consumer does have the ultimate say.”
McReynolds also noted that the “Growth of organic and local food markets has been driven by the consumer.” Consumers want transparency, although they still face “A huge learning curve.”
After the panel, Danesha Seth Carley, Ph.D., of NC State University, discussed the regulatory considerations related to soil health.
Transparency was again a theme: “Future innovation and deployment is slowed by a lack of understanding and fear of agricultural technology,” she said. “We have to make these processes more transparent. We need a framework where we can talk about the technologies and the regulations in a positive way.”
She warned that climate change is something we will have to deal with, noting that since 2000 we have had 16 of the 17 hottest years on record. “Climate change is happening, no matter what your politics,” she said. “Something we have to deal with is heat. We will all be affected.”
Looking 15 years ahead, we are likely to see more extreme drought. “In the future, it will be warm and mostly dry.” That will inevitably lead to water issues, which some regions are already facing. “Water issues will become more and more important in the future,” she said.
As if that were not enough, the exploding world population means we will need to increase agricultural production by 70 percent by 2050.
She said the Center for Regulatory Science in Agriculture at North Carolina State University is intended to create a safe place to talk about where the pitfalls of regulation may occur. It offers classes.
“We need to make the process more transparent so there is less fear and more understanding,” she said.