The road to the sustainable intensification of arable farming

Sustainable farming is a driving principle for the development of AgroIntelli’s products, that’s why they offer radical innovation within farming automation, vision and navigation.

In modern agriculture, heavy farming equipment is used with limited consideration of soil types and traffic conditions. This leads to soil compaction which reduces crop yields and is damaging to the environment and to natural life in the soil. However, there are alternatives and new opportunities for improving farming practices. In this article we wish to shortly describe challenges that Europe is encountering as a result of present farming practices. We will also suggest solutions that can improve farming yields, decrease farming’s impact on the environment, reduce climate change and can contribute to reaching some of The UN Global Goals for sustainable development.

We believe that future farming practices should produce soil with increased value and improved topsoil. Drawing a parallel to the building industry, maintaining the soil and keeping its value corresponds to maintaining a building and thereby keeping its value. While it is normal to maintain buildings, the maintenance of topsoil has been neglected for many years.

Yields should increase

A large part of the European arable land is affected by a significant decrease in soil organic matter and a stagnation or a decline in yields. The EU-FP7 project RECARE addressed these threats. See RECARE’s webpage for more information about European soil status. Present strategies, such as the improvement of plant varieties, increased production efficiency, the development of novel technologies and increasing research in the area, theoretically should have produced significant yield increases that we are not seeing today.

A key issue is that we are lacking an understanding of soil compaction, soil biostructure and their effect on plant growth. Farming can improve and there are reasons to pay attention to experts recommending a reduction of soil tillage. A meta study concludes that conservation tillage practices and no-tillage have positive effects on many soil physical properties.1 For example, no-tillage with residue retention increased soil available water capacity by 10.2% compared to conventional tillage.

Europe is dragging its feet

Canada is specifically working with soil compaction as a limiting growth factor in agriculture. Europe is dragging its feet and using heavier and heavier agricultural machines without paying attention to their negative effects on soil compaction.

Although it is difficult to bring this research area to the top of the European agenda, it is of great societal importance to deal with farming practices and the condition of European farming land. The production of protein, starch and sugars is a necessity for our societies. Furthermore, the condition of the soil and farming practices can affect the environment, climate change and the consequences of the changing climate as exemplified below.

Compacted soil, with low absorbing abilities, can increase the risk of floods, erosion and nutrient wash-out, and reduce the soil’s water filtering properties. An increase in nutrient wash-out can affect crop yields and increase water pollution. A reduction of the soil filtering abilities can reduce ground water levels. The soil has a great potential of binding carbon in organic matter and thereby reduce the level of atmospheric CO2. Inappropriate farming practices can reduce the soil’s organic matter and increase the release of CO2.

Soil conditions have an impact on climate change

Soil is the basis for the production of crops that meet society’s needs for nutrition and commodities. Climate changes, with increasing heavy rainfall and soil erosion, reduce soil stability and can lead to high nutrient discharges and the washing-out of pesticides. This soil degradation can cause the loss of farming land.

Soil erosion can be partially prevented by continuous plant growth. Avoiding compaction will contribute to the porosity of the soil. Airy soil acts like a sponge and counteracts dewatering and erosion. Soil with higher water storing abilities will reduce the drought stress of plants in dry periods. With a more unstable climate, the importance of increasing the porosity of the soil is eminent.

The energy use per farmed area is increasing

A reduction of tillage can also contribute to increasing soil organic matter and reducing CO2 release. Moreover, this approach will also reduce energy consumption.2 Modern farming practices include the intensification of tillage which increases energy consumption. An English study concluded that 70% of the energy that a farmer uses during production goes to loosen the land that he has compacted the year before through the use of heavy machinery.

Industrial farming can affect the environment by polluting with pesticides and fertilisers. Precision farming can be used to reduce farming’s environmental pollution by applying the appropriate amounts of pesticides and fertilisers. Using automation, it is possible to optimise the timing for seeding, treating and harvesting plants and reduce the risk of plant diseases. Infected plants and plants at risk can be treated earlier and the damage from pathogens and pests can be reduced or prevented.

Healthy foods

An exciting development in automation in the Netherlands is ‘Pixelfarming’. An example was the use of pixelfarming for intercropping very different crops, such as potatoes and wheat.

Smaller machines can be designed to work on specific soil types and conditions. Novel intercropping approaches where different plant species support each other can be introduced. Automation and artificial intelligence will make it possible to follow individual plants, compare their growth and predict diseases. It will also be possible to increase traceability for all the production processes and bring the data to the end users. This novel technology will allow the separation of batches depending on the crop quality. The farmer could for example optimise earnings by harvesting the lower quality products for energy, middle quality for feed and high quality for food instead of mixing different qualities and being paid a lower price. AgroIntelli participates in a Finnish smart farming project. The goal of this project is to harvest malting barley using a detailed digital map and dividing the harvest areas in three batches depending on their quality.

It’s time to grow differently

Precision farming has the potential of reducing the application of chemicals, improving the control of plant diseases, increasing traceability, and reducing energy consumption. It can increase export opportunities by meeting the demand for quality, sustainability and food safety. The novel technology must expand globally to improve the climate and environmental effects. This is part of the necessary agricultural revolution.

Historically, farming systems and technologies have been developed to be universal, however this approach is still not optimal. There are great differences between farmlands and farming practices in different parts of the world. Farming equipment needs to be differentially developed and adapted to optimise production practices for different soil types and weather conditions.

Improving farming and reducing workload

Modern farmers are already skilled at adjusting pesticide allocation, however there is still room for improvement. Precision farming can significantly reduce pesticide usage without compromising plant health. Robotics and automation can replace heavy farming equipment and reduce soil compaction. The precision of modern technology, together with detection systems and data registration can significantly improve documentation and traceability without increasing the farmer’s workload. Moreover, it is important to preserve soil quality. Wetlands will often emit methane and the emissions are increased by increased mechanical pressures. Small robots, due to their small sizes and weight, will reduce emissions.

AgroIntelli strongly believes that we can change the way that we grow our crops and that changes are necessary to reach sustainability and improve the condition of farmlands and biodiversity. At AgroIntelli, we wish to be part of changing agriculture in a more sustainable direction by designing high technology tools that can assist farmers in making the change.

About AgroIntelli

AgroIntelli is a growing company with more than 40 permanent employees working with navigation, automation, camera technology and robotics. The company’s goal is to transform new agricultural knowledge and scientific results into products and technology platforms that can be used directly in the field. The focus of the company is the development of new smart solutions that raise agricultural standards to improve the profitability and sustainability of plant production.

References

  1. Li, Y., Li, Z., and Cui, S et al. 2019. Residue retention and minimum tillage improve physical environment of the soil in croplands: A global meta-analysis. Soil and Tillage Research. 2019 (194) 104292
  2. Woods, J., Williams, A., and Hughes, J. K et al.2010. Energy and the food system. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2010) 365, 2991–3006

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