Science, technology and innovation as enablers for sustainable agricultural

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By Thulasizwe Mkhabela

JOHANNESBURG – It is common knowledge that agriculture by default, as a socio-economic human endeavour, exploits resources as inputs in order to produce food and fibre as outputs.

Thus, the idea that agriculture inherently has been depleting resources faster than they could be replenished has been a subject of intense discussion and debate for time immemorial.

The oft-cited examples of evidence of imbalanced exploitative economic endeavour – including agriculture- are pollution, soil erosion/loss, wildlife population decline/shifts, and general alteration of a natural and native flora and fauna because of human intervention.

It can be contended that agricultural practices are “unnatural”, regardless of scale and size of production. Similarly, the exponential growth in human population can be construed as an equally unnatural and parallel phenomenon with associated demands for both food and shelter, which have often exceeded the natural carrying capacity of land.

Given the above, one would be forgiven to conclude that food shortages would eventually constrain life on earth. However, nothing could be further from the truth as all indications are that food production has been keeping up with pace of population growth. This article makes three assertions regarding the role of science, technology and innovation in sustainable agriculture and food production:

  • Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) have and will continue to increase agricultural productivity
  • STI development has been and will continue to be sustainable
  • STI is, therefore, the basis for sustainable agriculture and food production

Food is a finite resource thus subject to the economic principles of scarcity. Science, technology and innovation have enabled human civilization to move from the hunter-gatherer existence and concentrated labour and land to the sole purpose of food production on an ever-increasing scale. The concept of using science in agriculture has been published as early the mid-19th century and subsequently stimulated the biological basis for modern agriculture.

Soon, science-based institutions in Europe and North America eagerly expanded the application of biological and chemical sciences to agriculture, spawning new technologies and approaches. These early applications of technology have not only increased food production in real terms, but have dramatically reduced the number of individuals directly involved in food production and processing thus enabling the diversification of society to address social issues not directly related to “survival”, but generally seen to increase the quality of life.

Food production, habitat preservation, resource conservation, and farm business management are not mutually exclusive objectives. Production of food via high-yield agriculture techniques can meet the nutrition requirements of the global population. The balance can be achieved through land use planning with a considerate analysis of what parcels of land to employ for high-yield agriculture while retaining marginal or poor land for non-agricultural activities.

Without a concurrent decrease in demand, the amount of land that must be utilised would increase dramatically. In fact, global land in production today would need to be the size of South America and North America if the high yield benefits of technology were not employed. If the motivation of sustainability is optimisation of production and resource conservation objectives, then progress can clearly be achieved.

Sustainability in agriculture relates to the capacity of an agroecosystem to predictably maintain production through time. If the perspective of sustainability is one of bias against the use of biological and chemical technology, and espouses a totally natural ecosystem, then agriculture as a practice is already excluded. If, on the other hand, the perspective of sustainability is one of preservation of non-renewable resources within the scope of the agricultural enterprise, then the objective is not only achievable, but also good business practice and good environmental management.

To a large extent, the rate of technology development and the degree of innovation in future technologies will greatly influence the stability, and certainly the productivity, of agriculture. STI includes the development and use of nutrients, pest control products, crop cultivars, and farm equipment; the vision of genetically modified crops providing greater nutritional efficiency, manipulation of natural pest control agents, and use of farm management techniques that focus on whole-farm productivity over time, not just annual production per hectare.

Short-term objectives will of course focus on yield, quality, and input reduction. In the long term, however, genetically created “transmissions” will focus on creating super-nutritious feed for animals, plants that out-produce the subtractive influence of pests, making “tolerance” a key pest management tactic, physiological adaptation to out-compete adjacent species, drought stress tolerance, and overall improvement in the rate of photosynthesis, leading to any number of industrial applications.

The development and use of agricultural technology is not limited to genetic wizardry. Indeed, the use of computational technology, combined with geographical location devices and remote sensing advancements – precision agriculture, promise to radically change the way all crops will be managed.

The underlying theme is integration of information to create management knowledge as a means to address site-specific production goals. Uncertainty with the environment will always be a key issue with agriculture, but this too will be managed, as environmental modelling, combined with risk management algorithms, will lead to the optimal use of genetics on specific soils within known weather profiles.

Breakthroughs will continue to be seen in the classical technologies that have exponentially increased world food production since the advent of scientific agriculture in the late 1800s. In addition to advances in productivity, technology will be used to remediate land that has been overused or misused through poor agricultural practices.

The concept of Best Management Practices will continue to be a key focus, regardless of the current state of technological offerings. Strategies, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) consider site-specific circumstances, but also the values and business considerations of agricultural producers. IPM has been essential in describing the role and rationale for responsibly managing pests, pointing scientists and practitioners alike to identify future needs in biological information, and placing pest control in perspective with production goals.

Sustainability is indeed an issue of survival, but is far broader than the concept of habitat destruction and soil erosion. Sustainability includes the goal of food production, welfare of the food producers, and preservation of non-renewable resources. To that end, technology of all types has been and will be the enabling man-made component that will link these two overriding objectives. Indeed, history confirms that technology has been essential to agricultural productivity and stability; current breakthroughs in technology confirm that the discovery and development of new technologies is a sustainable endeavour, and common sense directs us to the conclusion that technology will enable Sustainable Agriculture.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is the group executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]


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