Aidan Connolly: Farming's 'Green Revolution' uses new technologies

June 9, 2014 

Aidan Connolly is vice president of corporate accounts for Alltech.

  • At issue: May 21 column by Tom Eblen, "Alltech Symposium has can-do spirit of its founder; Lyons has big plans for Eastern Kentucky"

Farming is in the midst of another Green Revolution.

This was the common thread through the presentations and discussions during Alltech's 30th Symposium, which attracted over 2,000 people from 60 countries to downtown Lexington last month.

That thread continues through social media commentaries and the hashtag #AgFuture.

Today's Green Revolution looks very different from the one that took place in the late 1960s. Today, we're talking about drones. We're talking about precision agriculture that utilizes GPS and unmanned vehicles to plow fields, plant seeds, and deliver fertilizer and minerals exactly where they're needed.

In the not-too-distant future, we will see dairy farms where cows are milked robotically, with computers that can analyze both the health of the animal and the quality of the collected milk, thereby determining which milk should be destined for cheese and which milk should be destined for the fresh market.

By the time this Green Revolution has run its course, Africa will no longer be a basket of challenges but a breadbasket instead.

Today's Africa has the potential to not only feed itself, but also to provide food for the masses on other continents.

We will see a future of agriculture where our food is nutritious and affordable, and also provides us with the vital ingredients for healthy lives, such as DHA and selenium, which are vitally important for prevention of disease, as well as antioxidants that help us live longer lives while maintaining the quality of our later years through cognitive function.

This vision, presented to the more than 2,000 symposium attendees, is in stark contrast with some of the grim warnings about growth of the world's population. Current estimates say that we will exceed 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and that we will close in on 10 billion before leveling off.

In such a scenario, how can we continue to produce enough food to feed all these people?

Agriculture has proven to be effective at improving yield ever since the Malthusian warnings of 1798. Farming over the last 20, 50, and 100 years has continued to increase yields and has ensured that food has become more abundant and not less.

When we examine the projected demands of 2050, we see that agricultural productivity must continue to advance at least 1.6 percent per year. This is not an inconsequential goal, but by historical standards, certainly achievable.

So, what technologies are required to make this happen?

First, there is a need to be able to cultivate land that is not currently cultivated. This includes portions of Europe and the U.S., and large parts of Africa and Brazil. With the potential social and environmental consequences of developing farmland, it's very important for the world to do this in an ecologically sound manner.

Second, we will need to embrace and use new technologies as they advance — things like big data on farms and micro irrigation.

Farmers need access to markets where they can purchase their ingredients as well as sell their produce at a fair price. Finally, finding more and better ways to customize plant and animal feeds to help them achieve their full genetic capacity is another matter of vital importance.

Past generations of farmers worked for very different-minded consumers. But, today's consumers have an increasing desire to know more about where their food is coming from and how it is produced, and they want assurances that it is grown in a safe and environmentally and animal-friendly manner.

These are not unreasonable requests and yet, some food producers have struggled more than others to accept this new reality.

Our fathers and grandfathers would scarcely recognize today's business of food, and we are on the cusp of even more drastic change. One hundred years after the birth of Nobel winner Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, his granddaughter said at the Alltech Symposium that "his one regret was that he did not get to Africa."

It's hard to imagine a nobler, more exciting or challenging career choice for our sons, daughters or grandchildren than agriculture; their jobs will quite literally nourish the world.

In the words of Borlaug, "Take it to the farmer."

Aidan Connolly is vice president of corporate accounts for Alltech.

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