Agricultural leader envisions industry’s future

Rob Saik says agriculture will have to be “infinitely sustainable” to feed a growing population, including soil health, water-use efficiency, greenhouse gas balance and farm viability. | File photo

Original story published at : https://www.producer.com/crops/agricultural-leader-envisions-industrys-future/

A decade after Rob Saik offered 10 key drivers he believed would shape agriculture in the next 10 years, the agrologist, entrepreneur and author has another list of 10.

During a recent presentation at Canada’s Farm Show, Saik said sustainability in all its forms figures prominently in the future.

To feed a growing population agriculture has to be “infinitely sustainable,” he said, and that includes soil health, water-use efficiency, greenhouse gas balance and farm viability.

Here is his list of things to watch:

Precautionary principle

He began with his concern about the precautionary principle, or “poor political policies based on panic.”

The idea is that if something can’t be proven safe then it shouldn’t be taken to the marketplace.

He said the precautionary principle is gaining popularity in all kinds of areas, most notably the European Union’s stand against genetic modification. “That ignores the whole idea of risk benefit…. Paradoxically the very same technology, messenger RNA, is being used to immunize the world against COVID.”

Yet that same technology inside agriculture is vilified, he said.

Consumer demand

Consumer demand drives change. Saik said this is positive for the most part because there are all types of opportunities if producers listen to consumers and position themselves to produce what they want.

“The rise of alternate proteins is actually a good thing for most of us in Canada,” he said. “While I don’t like some of the marketing that goes into the positioning of plant-based proteins against animal-based proteins… there is opportunity to look at some of these niche and growing consumer areas.”

Non-traditional thinking isn’t necessary negative, he said.

Climate change

Climate change offers positives and negatives for farmers. Saik said the United States Department of Agriculture has already shifted its growing regions map to reflect climate effects and Canadian farmers are adapting, too. The adoption of soybeans in Manitoba is a good example, he said.

“Climate change, weathering the winds of change, is something we’ve always done in Canada,” Saik said.

But he said the challenges can’t be ignored.

“Those challenges will be, how do we farm in the face of higher temperatures or greater weather variance? How do we deal with water shortages or maybe too much water?”

Tricky measurements

Sustainability means different things to everyone, and so measuring it is tricky.

“One of my concerns is that we have a lot of ideologies, and those ideologies may not match exactly in line with what I think would be appropriate, which is outcome-based agriculture,” Saik said.

The carbon conversation overlaps this issue. Agriculture is an emitter, but it also can do a lot to meet global sustainability metrics, he said.

“From a rough standpoint an increase of one percent organic matter is about 12,000 pounds of carbon. That’s about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre on a six-inch slice of soil,” he said, but that has to be measured and farmers have to be paid for it.

Another part of the debate is the pitting of conventional agriculture against other systems like organic.

“Is it worse to use a pop can full of glyphosate, carried with 20 or 30 gallons of water over the size of a football field, or is it better for us to be tilling?” Saik said.

He said he doesn’t buy the argument that cattle are a major cause of greenhouse gases because they could only release more if there were more of them, but the North American herd peaked in 1971.

And, he said initiatives like 4R are helping farmers reduce their footprint and increase sustainability.

“You start farming with four percent organic matter in the soil. You grow crops for 20 or 30 years and at the end of 20 or 30 years you end up with four percent organic matter. I think that’s sustainable.”

Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology, which includes gene editing and biologicals, is a way forward.

Saik said data mining, genomics and new technologies are required to feed the world.

“What if we could take crops that traditionally don’t fix nitrogen and they could start to fix some of their nitrogen? That would be a good thing,” he explained.

He said the future is genetically modified organic farming because no farmers want to use more inputs, but the yield drag from organic farming is too big.

“The only way we could all farm more organically is the utilization of genetic engineering or synthetic biology,” he said.

He added that organic advocates have painted themselves into a corner because they are opposed to gene editing but “paradoxically you can mutate a crop in a laboratory using carcinogenic chemicals or exposure to nuclear radiation in a process called mutagenesis and that’s OK with the organic camp.”

Sensors

Saik said the use of sensor devices and the Internet of Things will rise as broadband service improves and smart farms come into play.

Sensors will include everything from weather stations to soil moisture probes to carbon dioxide monitors in grain bins, he said.

“There is going to be an absolute proliferation of sensor devices on the farm,” he said. “That means that there’s so much information coming at you that you’re going to have to have a way to deal with it.”

Algorithms

That leads to the use of algorithms to turn data into alerts and the ability to make better management decisions. Saik used the example of a farm in Indiana with 70,000 acres on hundreds of fields. Operators use morning alerts from remote field sensors to decide what to do or learn where something needs to be addressed.

“The trick is an algorithm for Western Australia, an algorithm for wheat in Kentucky or the U.K., is not the same as a nitrogen algorithm for Saskatchewan. I think we’re going to have to temper our excitement about algorithms with the ground truthing that’s necessary for them.”

Cryptocurrency

Blockchain and cryptocurrency can eliminate middlemen who currently take a lot of transaction risk. Blockchains track the steps in commodity movement and Saik said that creates trust among those attached to the chain. Cryptocurrency is layered over top of that.

“I think one day we’ll see an agro coin, some sort of an agricultural cryptocurrency, that’s attached to the movement of contracts that ultimately facilitate that transaction and then you can turn it into (hard) currency once the transaction is taken care of,” he said.

Robotics

Saik also predicts more robotics within the industry because of labour constraints.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s just a matter of when,” he said.

On the large broad acre farms of the Prairies it’s difficult to find qualified operators to drive equipment worth $1 million, and robots are coming, he said.

Farm technology integrator

He said managing all these changes on the farm will require high-tech and high touch to merge.

“I think there’s going to be, and there is, a brand new job on the farm and that is called farm technology integrator,” he said.

Colleges are teaching a new generation of farmers about technology integration and remote agriculture. Saik’s company, AGvisorPro, is currently doing a pilot project with Saskatchewan Agriculture to connect those looking for information with those who have it.

He describes it as “a connectivity channel that creates a connection between seekers and experts in real time to put my brain in your field without my body having to be on the farm.”