The Digital Revolution
In recent decades, agricultural technologies have continued to increase production while addressing new, critical challenges in environmental sustainability, and Canada and the US have remained global leaders in this new wave of agricultural innovation. Genetic engineering has allowed for the development of seed varieties with desirable traits to increase yields while reducing resource inputs and environmental impacts. The year 1994 saw the first Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) food product, the Flavr Savr Tomato, developed and brought to market by California based Calgene Company, though its sale was short lived due to lack of consumer demand.(1) In 1996, herbicide-tolerant canola, developed at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, was sold for the first time to farmers, allowing for the rise of reduced tillage practices and improved soil management.(2)
No-till farming (leaving the previous crop’s stubble in the ground instead of turning up the soil), alongside best practices such as cover cropping (crops grown not for harvesting, but to hold the soil in place and provide nutrients), intercropping, and crop rotation, support soil health by recycling essential organic nutrients, retaining moisture, and preventing run-off and erosion of precious topsoil. Thanks to genetic technologies, by 2003 no-till farming techniques were used on the majority of Canadian Prairie farmland.(3)
Did You Know?
Without GMOs, corn prices could increase by 28% and soybeans by as much as 22%.(4)
Research into agricultural applications for genetic engineering continues to advance our goals of feeding the world sustainably and equitably. Genetically modified sugar beets were first commercialized in 2007 and are now grown on over one million acres between the US and Canada. The most common GMO crops currently produced in North America include soybeans, corn, sugar beets, cotton, canola, and alfalfa. Canada and the US have also approved the AquaAdvantage salmon.(2) The recent discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic editing tool has opened new doors, leading to more precise and efficient trait selection with potential to improve both sustainability and nutritional value.
Feeding more people while conserving resources for future generations is a complex challenge requiring innovative solutions, and perhaps the latest agricultural revolution could be described as The Digital Revolution. Producers now have access to globally developed computer technologies that assist with everything from routine physical tasks to satellite communications and data modelling. Modern application of inputs (like fertilizer and pesticides) and resource conservation have been revolutionized by the best practice of precision agriculture, “a method of farming that uses technological innovations—including GPS guidance, drones, sensors, soil sampling, and precision machinery—in order to grow crops more efficiently. Leveraging the power of the data they can now acquire about their fields gives farmers the ability to use precise applications of inputs, such as pesticides, only where needed within a field, which helps improve the productivity of their operations, reduces waste, and improves environmental sustainability.(5) According to Farmers Edge, founded in Pilot Mound, Manitoba in 2005, they were the first company to bring this technology (called Variable Rate Technology) to farmers in Canada and has since emerged as a world leader in digital agriculture.(6)
Today, local Alberta ag-tech successes, including Decisive Farming, are providing leading precision agriculture solutions, and Verge Ag is developing autonomous (self-driving) farming, using artificial intelligences (AIs) to spur agribusiness success.(7) The ability to collect and analyze data over time allows growers to recognize production patterns and inform future decision making.
Increased globalization among industry leaders, alongside the scarcity of farmable land, has prompted a growing movement throughout Canada and the US to produce food locally, taking advantage of non-traditional spaces to innovate alternative agricultural systems and address food deserts among our vulnerable communities. New agribusiness endeavours addressing these needs are emerging across the continent. Vertical gardens are literally popping up in highly populated regions across the globe. Here in North America, several organizations, such as Carnegie Mellon University, have developed integrated systems for larger scale vertical farming.(8) Canadian and US start ups are leading innovations in aquaponics, making fresh, sustainably produced seafood available to local inland communities. Passive greenhouse designs have been modified to provide more fresh produce to our northern communities, animal waste is being recycled to reduce emissions and harness energy, and still other pioneers are experimenting with new agricultural applications for robotics, agriculture by-products, insects, and even algae! Continued diversification of agricultural production means endless opportunity for innovation and entrepreneurship within the sector.
Did You Know?
Vertical farming allows us to produce crops with 70%–95% less water than normal cultivation.(9)
The face of agriculture across North America has changed drastically, from the first wild seeds gathered and sown, to the emergence of futuristic technologies like robotics and biological engineering. Within this ever-evolving agricultural landscape, one thing has remained constant—the dedication of the agriculture community to sustain and improve lives. As we face pressing and daunting new challenges in our goal to feed the world, the words of The Father of Modern Agriculture still ring true, “Indomitable perseverance in a business, properly understood, always ensures ultimate success.”(10)
For more information, explore the North America issue of our The Culture of Agriculture magazine series here.
1. Wikipedia—Flavr Savr
2. GMO Answers—Welcome to GMO Answers
4. GMO Answers—GMO Myths Vs. GMO Facts
5. CropLife—Field Notes: Precision Agriculture
6. Farmers Edge—About Farmers Edge: The Global Leader in Digital Agriculture
7. Innovating Canada—Digital Transformation Drives Growth in Alberta’s Agribusiness
8. Robotics and Automation News—Top 25 Vertical Farming Companies, 2019
9. The Balance Small Businesses—What You Should Know About Vertical Farming, 2020
10. ThoughtCo.—Biography of Cyrus McCormick, Inventor of the Mechanical Reaper, 2019