Farming’s Brave New Face

It’s a hot, dry night. A farmer wonders if his wheat crop needs watering. But it’s a 10-mile drive away, and he can’t expend all that time and gasoline every time his crop might need attention. So he goes on the Internet to find out the precise weather conditions affecting his plants. If the field is indeed too dry, he can remotely activate the irrigation system.

Today's precision farmer may be armed with a laptop computer and GIS maps.

The wheat field is lined with poles spaced 20 to 60 feet apart, each with tiny sensors that measure temperature, air humidity, wind speed and direction. The poles are attached to a cell phone that sends readings to the Internet every 15 minutes, allowing them to be checked online. The computer can also be programmed to automatically irrigate the field whenever it gets dry enough, or apply pesticides in specific places.

Welcome to the world of precision agriculture. This brave new field "benefits from the emergence and convergence of several technologies, including geographic information systems (GIS), automated machine guidance, infield and remote sensing, mobile computing, telecommunications and advanced information processing," according to GPS World magazine. Global positioning systems (GPS), which provide highly accurate geo-spatial information, are one of precision agriculture’s key technologies.

The list of corporations involved in precision agriculture includes farm equipment manufacturers, agrochemical companies, pharmaceutical/biotech companies, information brokering/data management firms, and even high-tech Pentagon and intelligence community contractors.

Some organic farming advocates and environmentalists remain unimpressed, and suspect that behind the technological optimism and sales pitches of precision agriculture there’s nothing more than corporate control and surveillance. According to social scientists Steven Wolf of the University of California and Fred Buttel of the University of Wisconsin, "Precision farming has less to do with mitigating agricultural pollution than with advancing industrial modes of production."

Hope Shand, research director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, warns that precision agriculture "is about commodification and control of information, and it is among the high-tech tools that are driving the industrialization of agriculture, the loss of local farm knowledge and the erosion of farmers" rights."

Still, some hard-pressed farmers undoubtedly consider precision agriculture a useful tool. Whether precision agriculture will be a boon for struggling family farms and organic agriculture or an extension of corporate agriculture will probably depend on how it’s applied.