Sustainability starts in the field

By Ty Higgins, Ohio Ag Net

In early June BASF, industry leaders, growers and media met in Chicago to discuss “Innovation as the path to sustainability.”

This year’s event included discussions with BASF global agricultural leaders and a moderated dialogue titled “A growing conversation: Innovation and sustainability within the business of modern agriculture,” covering the challenges facing growers today.

Paul Rea

Paul Rea is BASF’s vice president of crop protection for the U.S. and he said that the company’s definition of sustainability has been set. In its simplest form, sustainability is insuring that the resources used in agriculture such as land, water, nutrients and the like are there for future generations so that food can continue to be provided for an ever-growing world population.

“Growers are a great example of sustainability,” Rea said. “When the farm passes from generation to generation it often is in better shape than it was in the first place. Farmers are always looking for ways to improve their practices and that is what really encourages us about the future. We have to keep going down the path to really continue to be sustainable and bring in the best practices that we can that will help increase productivity with a clear long-term sustainable view.”

By 2050, the world population is projected to be close to 9 billion. Rea is very optimistic about the challenges facing agriculture when it comes to remaining sustainable while needing to increase productivity. He says that dietary change will also be a necessity in the overall equation. When those two factors are coupled together, it is estimated that agriculture will have to produce twice as much food in the next 30 to 40 years.

Technology and innovation will also be keys in meeting the goals of feeding more people. Some of the new technologies introduced over the past decade have already made a big impact on sustainability.

“Biotechnology has enabled growers to do more with less, increase their yields and change their cropping practices,” Rea said. “Conservation no-till is another great example of improving water conservation and overall soil management and we need to do more. We have a huge commitment to ag as we spend about $2 million a day in agricultural research, so we have a big role to play in terms of bringing new tools that will help growers manage their enterprises more effectively.”

Looking ahead 50 years isn’t an easy task and a crystal ball would come in handy, but Rea said the best way to envision where you are going is to remember where you’ve been. Between 1987 and 2007, growers in North America grew 40% more corn, 30% more soybeans and 19% more wheat all the same amount of land.

“Growers are doing a lot of the right things today,” Rea said. “We need to keep pushing the envelope further and further because we know the demand will be there in the future.”

One question raised at the event was whether BASF viewed sustainability as continuing to get more yield with the same amount of chemistry, or maintaining the same yield as today with less chemistry. Rea emphasized that the path for sustainability will have to be a targeted approach.

“There are some geographies where yield still has a lot of upside and the genetics are there,” Rea said. “There will be other areas of the country where that yield improvement isn’t quite as obvious and we’ll need to manage for that particular situation so one size fits all may not be what we’re after.”

Along those same lines, there is not one size of an operation. A farmer with 18,000 acres will have more funds to invest in the latest technology than a farmer with 500 acres. How much of a challenge will it be for those smaller operations to figure out where they are in the sustainability equation? Rea said it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

“When a farmer looks at his budget on an annual basis, there are some pretty large drivers of resources like fuel, fertilizers, crop protection, seed and man hours,” Rea said. “I think there are new solutions and technologies out there that can really help growers optimize their operation even further. Anything that reduces the waste and is more precise in application such as auto-track steering and GPS guided seeding can greatly reduce application wastage which is a good thing.”

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