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Hands holding soil
Soil erosion is a big problem faced by farmers

Challenges in the field

You now know about the general challenges food production faces. What specific challenges do farmers face in their fields, and how can agricultural technology help them?

Climate change

Climate change is a twofold challenge for agriculture. The agricultural industry contributes to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and the clearing of forests for agricultural land. At the same time, agriculture is impacted by climate change. Increasing weather variability means more frequent droughts and floods, which reduce crop yields. Rising temperatures could also decrease yields if daytime temperatures become too warm.

Soil erosion

Climate change contributes to soil erosion, which is a long-term environmental problem for agriculture.

Soil erosion occurs when the nutrient-rich upper layer of soil is displaced, making the soil less fertile. This is a naturally occurring process caused by rainfall and wind, but it’s intensified by agriculture. Heavy tillage removes natural vegetation, which holds the soil together, and paths made by tractor tyres create channels for water to wash topsoil away.

Technology can be used to reduce soil erosion. John Deere has developed tracks for its machines that have a wider surface area, which spreads the weight of the machine and reduces soil compaction. Many of their tractors also feature an automatic guidance system which uses GPS technology to ensure the tractor follows a set path across the field. This path is calculated to cause as little soil compaction and damage to crops as possible.

Weeds

Weeds are unwanted plants that grow in a certain area and can spread rapidly among crops, competing with them for light, water and nutrients and causing loss of yield and contamination of the food product. Herbicides are often sprayed across the entire field (using a sprayer like the one featured in the last step) to kill weeds, but weed populations can become tolerant of herbicides over time.

There are also concerns about the impact of chemicals such as herbicides on the environment. This is another area where the automatic tractor guidance system can help: satellite guidance enables tractors to drive in a perfectly straight line, meaning they can plough the soil between crop rows to uproot weeds without damaging crops.

Soil nutrients

Intensive farming also causes a decrease in soil fertility. Soil nutrient levels are important to farmers, as plants need a variety of nutrients (such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) to grow properly.

Fertilisers are used to add essential nutrients back into the soil and stimulate plant growth, but this has its own drawbacks. Overuse of fertiliser can cause contamination of run-off, where nutrients unused by plants are carried away by irrigation or rainwater and contaminate waterways. Fertiliser runoff has a negative impact on water supplies, wildlife and human health.

One way of addressing this problem is to use sophisticated soil sensors, which allow farmers to precisely measure the nutrient composition of their soil. This means they can plant certain crops where the soil is most beneficial and add exactly the right amount of additional nutrients required, preventing the need to use excessive amounts of fertiliser.

These are just a few of the challenges facing farmers in their fields. If you’d like to learn more, in the See Also section we’ve linked to a report from the United Nations which outlines some of the trends and challenges in agriculture today.

To discuss

  • Which of these challenges do you feel are the most urgent to address?
  • Which do you think might be the most difficult to overcome and why?

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This article is from the free online course:

Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology

EIT Food