With the world’s population burgeoning to 9.8 billion by 2050 and the Earth experiencing unprecedented global warming, the agricultural sector is tasked with doubling food production, while reducing the use of emission generating chemicals that fuel crop productivity.1, 2 Though improvements in crop yields are widely viewed as the most attainable way to fulfill this increased food demand, climate change and the dilapidated state of arable lands have begun to challenge agricultural yields.2 According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a quarter of the world’s farmland is currently highly degraded from soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and water degradation due to current land management practices.3 Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that each increase in the mean global temperature of 1˚ Celsius results in yield reductions of 7.4% for corn, 3.1% for soybeans, 3.2% for rice, and 6% for wheat—the four crops that collectively account for two-thirds of caloric intake.4 For the agricultural community to solve these conflicting obligations of needing to increase output while using less of the inputs required to do so, leadership in promoting environmentally friendly innovation will be required.
Farm Equipment… with a side of Environmental Leadership
Understanding the gravity of the challenges facing the agriculture sector, John Deere, the world’s largest manufacturer of agricultural equipment, has sought to become a leader in environmental stewardship. Focusing initially on its own operations, John Deere is in the midst of a 7-year project to achieve 15% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, and water usage by 2018.5 While these initiatives are admirable progress, John Deere has also realized the opportunity that it has to make a much larger impact through offering environmentally friendly and innovative products to its worldwide customer base of farmers. Emphasizing sustainability during the development phase, John Deere is currently testing prototypes for the first zero-emission electric tractor, while also introducing smart tractor systems that accumulate data ranging from watering quantities to wind patterns.5,6 John Deere has helped usher in the era of big data in farming, and it will need to continue to play an active role as farmer-partners seek to synthesize and apply this new information into their decision-making processes.7
Longer Term: A River of Opportunity
Entrenching itself further into the world of precision agriculture and eco-friendly innovation, John Deere’s recent purchase of Blue River Technology highlights a new area of opportunity for a large environmental and economic impact. Under current practices, agriculture accounts for 90% of total ground and surface water usage in the Western United States.8 In addition, fertilizer production has increased by over 400% since 1961, which has contributed to agriculture currently producing one-fifth of total global greenhouse gas emissions.9,10
In an era in which water supplies have become increasingly limited and costly and chemical price growth has outpaced crop prices (exhibit 4), John Deere has a unique opportunity to align long term environmental concerns with the short-term profit-maximizing motives of farmers.10 Acquired for $305 million in September of 2017, Blue River Technology utilizes machine learning and computer visioning attached to tractors and drones to manage crops at the individual plant level.11 Though its applications are currently limited to weed control in lettuce and cotton fields, Blue River has been able to reduce the usage of herbicides by 90% by targeting and dosing each plant rather than inefficiently spraying entire fields.11 Looking forward, John Deere should invest heavily to continue to expand this “See & Spray” technology into water and other chemical applications for a wider range of crops. Though farmers are notoriously slow to incorporate new technology, John Deere has the potential to encourage widespread adoption of environmentally friendly practices by helping farmers need less of the water and chemical inputs that drive up their costs.
Questions Crop Up
Facing daunting challenges in agriculture, John Deere appears to be uniquely positioned to develop integrated solutions that improve crop yields, reduce the need for water and chemicals, and reduce input cost for farmers. To do this, John Deere will need to partner with farmers to help them integrate new data from smart tractors into their decision making, while also committing to expand applications for precision ag technologies. As we sit at a critical moment, will John Deere will be able to successfully introduce “See and Spray” technologies into additional crops to reduce the need for chemicals on a larger scale? As a public company responsible to shareholders’ demands, will John Deere be able to adequately invest in innovations that could financially incentivize farmers to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices. Time will tell, but the future of agriculture may depend on its willingness to go John Deere Green.
- Foley, J., Treat, J., & Mason, V. (2014, May 21). Feeding 9 Billion. National Geographic Magazine.
- How to Feed the World 2050. (October 2009). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: High Level Expert Forum. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf
- Diouf, J. (Ed.). (2011). The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i1688e/i1688e.pdf
- Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates
- Deere & Company. (2017). Environmental Stewardship[Press release]. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from https://www.deere.com/en/our-company/citizenship-and-sustainability/environmental-stewardship/
- Lambert, F. (2016, December 5). John Deere Unveils Latest All-Electric Prototype for Zero-Emission Agriculture. Retrieved from https://electrek.co/2016/12/05/john-deere-electric-tractor-prototype/
- Wolfert, S., Ge, L., Verdouw, C., & Bogaardt, M. (2017). Big Data in Smart Farming. Elsevier: Agricultural Systems,153, 69-80.
- Schaible, G., & Aillery, M. (2017). Irrigation & Water Use. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use/background/.
- Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2017) – ‘Fertilizer and Pesticides’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org.Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/fertilizer-and-pesticides/ [Online Resource]
- Blue River Technology. (2017). Smart Machines [Press release]. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from http://www.bluerivertechnology.com