Many current farming practices inflict damage on the environment. For decades, agriculture practices have relied on applying the primary plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, often in excess, to ensure an optimized crop. Since the early 1960s, the amount of nitrogen used to grow crops has increased fourfold. Fertilizer from farm fields washes into surface waters and contributes to the problem of high nitrate levels in the water. Excess nitrogen in surface waters overstimulates plant and algae growth, reducing dissolved oxygen and affecting water quality.
The good news is that new technologies provide farmers with improved practices that lead to more sustainable farming and less environmental harm. A new company called Ninja Ag uses aerial imagery to assist farmers in applying fertilizers only where needed and in appropriate amounts. Another company has developed nitrogen sensors that are attached to irrigation sprinklers. To reduce herbicide use, new technologies consist of sophisticated cameras and computers for applying herbicides to just the weeds in the farm fields. Special drones can precisely identify weeds and apply herbicides to the nuisance plants. In trials using this technology, 70% less herbicide was required.
Other technologies allow farmers to accurately map their fields and minimize vehicle damage to the soil from tractors and other farm equipment. To conserve water, micro drip irrigation systems are implemented; these allow water to drip slowly to plants’ roots and can, reduce water usage by up to 50% and improve crop quality. Technology is beginning to provide farmers with tools for more sustainable farming practices, which benefits everyone.
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.