Ingenuity is a trait that has been with farmers since the beginning. When people realized they could herd rather than hunt and plant instead of gather, they no longer needed to migrate with their food. They could build permanent settlements and trade with neighboring societies whose farmers also produced more than they needed.
Civilizations were born when innovative people became farmers, and innovation and technology in agriculture will continue to play critical roles in meeting the needs of 21st century global society. Though our challenges are different from those of our ancestors, today’s technologies are built on all we’ve learned in the past and bring to life our ideas for a better future.
Agricultural innovations and technologies today help farmers:
- Do more with less land, time, labor, energy and inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides.
- Make more precise, data-based decisions and actions that benefit their economics and the environment.
- Create a circular economy, one in which waste is reduced and/or used to create value on or off the farm as the farm produces nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy and healthy ecosystem services.
Agriculture is only at the beginning of what is possible, and a recent example of a technological breakthrough first envisioned by SfL Co-Chair Howard-Yana Shapiro portends what is to come.
Howard is a plant scientist who has been involved in sustainable agricultural and agroforestry systems, plant breeding, molecular biology and genetics for more than 50 years.
In 1980, Shapiro observed maize (corn) that grew 5-6 meters tall without the use of nitrogen fertilizer. After seeing its unique roots and the sticky substance that seemed to promote growth, Shapiro believed the maize must be nitrogen-fixing. It was an unbelievable prospect, as only legumes, like soybeans, were known to form the symbiotic relationships with soil microbes that allow the plant to fix its own dinner of nitrogen from the atmosphere. Thirty-eight years later, in 2018, Shapiro’s observation was proven in a landmark paper he co-authored that showed the maize, grown in nitrogen-depleted fields near Oaxaca, Mexico, derived up to 82% of its nitrogen from the atmosphere. Howards work in this space is spotlighted in the following docuseries.
Imagine the potential for farmers to grow corn, or other non-legume crops, without nitrogen fertilizer on such a scale that production is not sacrificed. Plant breeding partners are already at work to make this happen, and Shapiro sees such advanced plant breeding techniques and technologies playing critical roles in combating the two major challenges of our time: climate change and chronic hunger.
More than 30% of the world’s population goes without regular, adequate access to food. In rural Africa, malnutrition has stunted the growth of 37% of children under the age of 5. To combat this issue, Shapiro launched the African Orphan Crops Consortium in 2011. The consortium is developing genomic resources for 101 under-researched but nutritious, traditional African crops, aiming to make them more productive and profitable for African farmers to grow and easier for African consumers to use.
The African Orphan Crops Consortium keeps real-world farmer concerns at the heart of its mission, and so too must the development of any technology for agriculture. When farmers are engaged in the process and invited to help troubleshoot and guide technology, everyone wins.
Thanks to farmers willing to share their experiences, Solutions from the Land has demonstrated success in carrying agricultural innovation and technology forward at global conferences. Our work has grown from simply attending meetings and interjecting farmer perspectives where we could to earning accreditation status in four United Nations platforms (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Water Conference, and UN Environment Program). We now have a three-year strategy for championing agriculture’s ability and current work to not just grow food but provide cleaner water, air and other land-based solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
Going forward, we will continue to position farmers at the center of all discussions and collaborate with our growing global network of farmers, farm organizations and value chain partners to secure support for agriculture from international leaders tasked with addressing climate change and other global challenges. We invite all who share our view of the importance of innovation and technology to join us in the global forums where the future of agriculture is being shaped. Without successful agriculture, humankind cannot thrive.