Between Justus von Liebig's fertilizer trials in 1842 and Gregor Mendel's hybrid experiments of 1856, agriculture has an extensive, and underrated, history in science and technology. Reaching far past pea pods in Punnett squares and up into genetic engineering, PG Economics in the UK found that if science had not advanced yields in crop production from 1996 to 2010, an additional 225 million acres of farmland would have been required to maintain global production levels.
"We have to be more productive in agriculture," says Barney Gordon, agronomist and professor emeritus at Kansas State University. "It's a necessity. Not only is the population growing, but as a result there is less land for planting."
The study of agriculture was formally recognized after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts in 1862 and established the first accredited agricultural science programs. Farming students were proactive with their access to these new institutions and gained more government funding to expand the programs through research. Together the movements funded agricultural experiments, and the conclusions from their findings were brought into rural communities to American farmers who could profit from these developing technologies.
Placing faith in science and in education
"Our farmers are well-educated," Gordon says. "They have college degrees. Many of them have advanced degrees. They're ecologists; they know chemistry; they know a lot about many different areas, and they are very early adopters of new technology."
A dedication to advancing agriculture continues through 2015, where the USDA's Agricultural Research, Education and Economics sector is allotted a $2.9 billion budget to focus on the "discovery, application and dissemination of information and technologies spanning the biological, physical and social sciences through agricultural research, education and economic research statistics."
"In this country we've always placed a lot of faith and credence in science," says Dave White, former chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services from 2008 to 2012. "If we didn't, we'd still be back there behind oxen."
Yield often overlooked, focus is on environmental issues
Achievements of the scientific community are often eclipsed by other environmental issues; however, recent advancements are too great to overlook. "If you think about the period of the 1990s to the present," Gordon says, "there's been a revolution in seed technology. Scientists have been able to take genes from other organisms and move them around, advancing plant seed breeding techniques tremendously."
And, for each facet of the industry that advances, their counterparts forge new innovations to match. "Because the varieties are higher yielding, we have developed different fertilizer techniques and new technologies that keep our fertilizers in place," Gordon adds.
Water quality is important issue in the world today
So, as the world is faced with issues such as hunger, environmental conservation and natural resource sustainability, the reality is this: in 1941, one farmer fed approximately 19 people. By 2011, one farmer could feed around 150 people, but by 2050, all farmers must be able to feed 9.1 billion people.
"The U.S. State Department estimated in the next 40 years, agriculture will have to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years," White says. "That increase will have to come without using any more water: not one more drop of water. How we manage our water is going to be critical in the future; water is going to be the next gold. For as long as I can remember, farmers have always been held in high regard, but I could see that changing if agriculture is perceived as not doing its part for water quality."
Science, used properly, ensures yields and sustainability
While the current water quality discussion would call for some huge changes, Gordon and White agree that technology already has the solution. "Anything that we can do to be proactive is going to be very valuable," White says. "I see a mix of products like nutrient stabilizers, precision agriculture and structural practices (there isn't any one silver bullet) but I think with a combination of those three, we can pretty much solve all of our water quality issues."
Finding the right combination of technological breakthroughs to advance science, preserve the environment and sustain agriculture is a challenge facing the 2.2 million farms currently in the U.S. However, historically speaking, such a rapid growth in technology is possible.
Much of the agricultural industry has found its niche in science and technology and is moving forward with specialized research to create products that increase yields at no harm to the environment. Such a thriving scientific community has presented opportunities for companies like SFP, a Verdesian Life Sciences company, to help growers manage their nutrients for higher yields and stabilize fertilizers in the soil, leaving less to be lost to the environment.
New techniques, technologies can keep fertilizers in place
This approach to fertilizer efficiency is illustrated by the company's AVAIL technology, which reduces phosphorus tie-up in the soil, making more phosphorus available for plant uptake, leaving less of the nutrient at risk to offsite movement through soil erosion and, by White's equation, improving water quality.
"The technology language didn't happen until relatively recent times," Gordon notes. "So, the company's patented polymer technology is a pretty big breakthrough. Nutrient stabilizer technologies have been able to reduce losses of phosphorus and nitrogen, and those things are important to a farmer as he approaches his cost of production, return on investment and social responsibility for helping maintain a clean environment."
Although many farming traditions are passed down from generation to generation, each must overcome new challenges and provide alternate solutions to the same age-old question: how do we continue to grow? With a combination of traditional success, an open-minded approach to new technology and continued research, science will continue to yield sustainability.