GROWTH FACTOR - JSE MAGAZINE

GROWTH FACTOR

By adopting new technology, farmers have the opportunity to tackle food insecurity issues

GROWTH FACTOR

The next 30 to 40 years will be very challenging for farmers who need to find ways of producing more food using less resources.

By 2050, the global population is expected to peak at around 9.1 billion people, up from 7 billion at present. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, on a per capita basis, the amount of arable land available will decline steadily over the next few decades, from 0.218 ha per person to 0.181 ha per person in 2050.

By contrast, the global demand for food is projected to increase by one-and-a-half to twice the amount needed, due to the combined effects of a growing population and the growing demand for a more protein-rich diet from the world’s emerging middle class.

Meanwhile, farmers are also facing increased volatility in commodity prices and the cost of agricultural inputs. To produce enough food in a sustainable and profitable way, farmers will have little choice but to embrace new technologies that can help increase crop yield per hectare, reduce production costs, and lesson the amount of inputs required, which will help improve soil health.

DuPont Pioneer, a developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics, says that by accessing new seed technology and planting conventional hybrid varieties instead of open pollinated ones, farmers in Africa could double or treble their yields.

New irrigation technology that includes the use of continuous logging probes to measure soil moisture allows farmers to implement irrigation scheduling, thus avoiding over-irrigation. This results in improved yields, often with the use of less water. Apart from these developments, one of the most important recent advancements in farming technology is precision agriculture.

‘Over the years, technological advances from several industries have contributed significantly to agricultural production systems. The industrial age provided agriculture with mechanisation and synthetic fertilisers, while the technology age presented genetic engineering and automation.

‘Most recently, the information age added the prospective of integrating technological advances into precision agriculture,’ writes Joseph Hendriks.

Hendriks’ thesis, titled An Analysis of Precision Agriculture in the South African Summer Grain Producing Areas, provides some insight into what is still a relatively new development in SA farming. Although precision farming is not a very new concept, many technological developments that go hand in hand with this approach have only recently been introduced in SA.

Hendriks states that precision agriculture can be explained as ‘the techniques that enable the application of variable-rate inputs to crops in order to satisfy the actual needs of parts of field rather than average need of the whole field’. It is a process, he says, ‘where a large field is divided into a finite number of sub-fields, allowing variation of inputs in accordance with collected data [grid soil sampling]’.

The aim of precision farming, according to Hendriks, is ‘to restructure the total system of agriculture towards low-input, high-efficiency and sustainable farming’. The economic advantages of this method, he says, includes an increase in the economic margin of crop production due to improvements in yield and/or reduction in inputs.

There are also environmental benefits, including a reduction in soil erosion, improved water usage and less pollution from the over-application of agrochemicals.

Thinus Enslin, a manager at Technifarm, a firm in SA that specialises in providing and applying precision farming equipment and models, says this method has been practiced in SA for about 15 years. However, adoption has been uneven and slow.

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‘More training and information sharing is needed to convince more farmers of the advantage [of this] technology’

THINUS ENSLIN, MANAGER, TECHNIFARM

Many farmers have embraced its technology, but local implementation rates lag far behind when compared to the US and some European countries. ‘I think more training and information sharing is needed to convince more farmers of the advantage that the use of this technology holds for them.’

Hendriks’ study looked at the adoption rate and overall state of precision agriculture in SA’s summer grain-producing areas in the North West and Free State provinces.

The survey shows that roughly half of summer grain farmers in these two regions implement precision agriculture. It also revealed that those who practiced the method are mostly above 40 years old, have been farming for at least 16 years, are well educated, cultivate more than 1 000 ha and use little irrigation.

The group of farmers who participated in the survey who have, Hendriks said, ‘correctly implemented precision agriculture’ indicated that their operations benefited greatly from the new technology. They experienced a ‘reduction in input costs, increased outputs and improved management skills’.

On the other hand, those farmers who did not implement this method said the cost of using it was too high and that the technologies did not provide enough benefits to warrant the costs.

‘The perception among most of the farmers was that precision technologies are not very affordable, not easily available and that they lack proper testing with regard to efficiency,’ said Hendriks.

This type of agriculture system cannot be effectively implemented without using technology. Some of the equipment used during operations include sensors that measure and collect information about yield, variable-rate technology; soil and field data; agrochemical applicators; and automatic guidance systems that incorporate global positioning systems as well as geographic information systems technology. Hendriks’ research showed that grid soil sampling and the use of yield monitors were  the most widely used precision-farming tools.

Enslin explains that grid sampling subdivides a field into a systematic arrangement of small areas or cells. Soil samples are taken based on the grid division. By testing these a farmer can then apply fertiliser and other inputs at a variable rate according to the needs of every small parcel (cell) of soil.

One of the most important features of precision agriculture is yield monitoring. According to Hendriks, modern yield monitors use sensors in the combine harvester that continuously log or record the flow of the grain harvested and the speed of the combine. Using this technology a farmer can determine the exact yield for each hectare in a field, says Enslin.

Measuring yield is a good indicator of soil health. Parcels of land that achieve below-average yields can be isolated and tested to check for nutrient deficiencies in the soil, he says. It also indicates whether variable fertiliser application delivered the desired results. Precision agriculture has greatly benefited from the development of automated chemical sprayers that use variable rate technology. These sprayers allow farmers to use the variable rate of application of agrochemicals, which has seen the conventional practice of the whole-field application of chemicals replaced by site-specific treatments.

Regardless of the benefits derived from using better technologies, small-scale farmers are hesitant to invest in them

‘Data obtained from crop scouting and analysis of field conditions are used to programme these sprayers to deliver the exact amount of a specific chemical according to the field requirement,’ said Hendriks.

Remote sensors (devices that can collect data from a distance, typically an aircraft or satellite) are used to provide data about crop health. Farmers use this type of technology ‘to reveal in-season variability that affects crop yield’. They then use this to make certain crop management decisions that can ultimately help increase yield and profitability.

Although the development of new technology provided a lifeline to many farmers, these advancements are often geared more towards the needs of large-scale commercial farmers rather than their small-scale counterparts.

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Johnnie van der Berg, a professor at the school of environmental sciences and development at North-West University, says in an article that the ‘failure of the Green Revolution in Africa may be ascribed to the application of new technologies within unsuitable and often unstable contexts, resulting in these improved technologies not being adopted or not being functional’.

The article, titled Socio-economic Factors Affecting Adoption of Improved Agricultural Practices by Small-Scale Farmers in South Africa, further points out that regardless of the benefits derived from using better technologies, small-scale farmers are hesitant to invest in them because of the cost involved. In some cases a lack of knowledge or expertise is also a deciding factor.

Van der Berg points out in his article the importance of ‘appreciating the complexity of agricultural systems into which development agencies and researchers want to introduce improved technologies’.

For this reason, making farming technology accessible to small-holder farmers is an important step towards improving household food security in SA.

By Alida van Heerden
Image: Mr.Xerty © www.nomastaprod.com