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June 3, 2021

Faculty voice: Feeding the future sustainably

Bruno Basso is University Foundation Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

In the coming years, agriculture will be called on to feed a growing population, while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and making better use of increasingly scarce resources. To do this, the current agricultural system must adapt.

Over the course of my career, I have pioneered the use of crop simulation models and digital agriculture technologies. This includes the use of drones and satellites to capture images and other data from farms. This information helps us understand and better predict how things like climate and land management affect crop yields and nutrient availability across a farm — information ultimately tied to the sustainability of agricultural systems.

My research, which utilizes vast amounts of data to enhance farm management decisions, has shown that digital agriculture can mitigate the environmental impacts of our current systems.

In a recent article I published in Nature Food, I discuss what can be done with areas of farms that are inefficient or unsustainable for producing food crops. These areas can be restored to native vegetation — for example, wildflower patches to support pollinators — or used to grow bioenergy crops, crops that remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

This approach, commonly referred to as precision conservation, can lead to substantial climate benefits by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in root systems. It also cuts emissions from the nitrogen fertilizers that are no longer needed in these field areas. And, at the same time, farmers can sustainably intensify crop production in high-yielding areas of the same field by using practices supported by digital agriculture data.

Digital agriculture technologies coupled with regenerative management practices can allow agriculture to become the first sector to be net negative emission in the next 15-30 years. Simply put, agriculture would be the first to capture more greenhouse gases than create.

I argue the future of sustainable agriculture is achieved through digital agriculture. And digital agriculture is made possible through a mutual buy in: Farmers, environmentalists, scientists and policymakers must establish consensus policy goals around increasing biodiversity, reducing nitrogen fertilizer use, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and considering more diverse crop rotations including less resource-intensive bioenergy perennials.

We depend on farmers to feed the population. But to feed the future sustainably — that’s on all of us.

 


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