Conservation news

Modern farms need both high- and low-tech farming practices (commentary)

  • Farmers across Argentina have had to contend with new and unprecedented pressures. As a third-generation Argentinian farmer, I have seen this first-hand.
  • The key to surviving any major change is to adapt, and by embracing both low-tech and high-tech practices, farmers can thrive and prosper even in the face of significant climate and food security challenges.
  • The use of biotech seeds, especially, provides farmers with much more flexibility in combating weeds and pests, without having to resort to mechanical production that breaks up the soil. Many countries have been slow, or perhaps reluctant, to adopt this kinds of technology. Yet Argentinian farms have reaped the benefits and are now able to make progress towards more sustainable agriculture.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

From the devaluation of the peso and changing weather patterns to meeting the growing demand for soybeans over corn and wheat, farmers across Argentina have had to contend with new and unprecedented pressures.

As a third-generation Argentinian farmer, I have seen this first-hand.

The key to surviving any major change is to adapt, and by embracing both low-tech and high-tech practices, farmers can thrive and prosper even in the face of significant climate and food security challenges.

A major development in Argentinian agriculture was the emergence of improved seeds, produced through biotechnology to have greater resistance to pests such as caterpillars, which cause huge losses and undermine both food production and farm incomes.

Using biotechnology to help grow more resilient, herbicide-tolerant maize has boosted yields by up to 10 percent. Not only does this help meet demand for a staple crop in Argentinian households, it also allows farmers to do so efficiently. With the high-tech means to produce more, we can start to produce better.

Author Juan Minvielle in a cover crop of oats that was planted after the maize harvest. The residue of the maize harvest is on the ground. Photo courtesy of Juan Minvielle.

Safe in the knowledge that these new seeds would result in higher yields, be more resistant to pests and disease, and be more resilient under a harsher climate, farmers could reduce the amount of pesticides and labor needed to till the land.

No-till farming, which refers to the practice of growing crops from year to year without plowing and tilling the soil, is a form of agroecology, or farming in line with natural cycles and resources. No-till farming avoids the need for deep plowing to control weeds, which is made possible with improved varieties of crops introduced in 1996.

The practice of leaving the residue of previous harvests to degrade naturally helps retain soil moisture, avoid erosion, and contribute to biodiversity by creating the right environment for insects and earthworms to thrive. Moreover, it helps soil better store carbon dioxide.

And since the tractor is passed through the fields less often and less fuel is burned, Argentinian farmers can feel confident that they are doing as much as possible to lower their carbon footprint. Finally, no-till has also reduced herbicide run-off into streams, reducing the impact of farms on the local environment.

But no-till farming is sometimes not enough on its own to completely avoid soil erosion, and this is why many farmers introduced cover crops, or plants grown to cover the ground between harvest and planting.

Maize that was planted directly into soil that was not plowed or tilled, with the residue of the previous crop on the ground. Photo courtesy of Juan Minvielle.

Since introducing them myself, I have noticed reduced water runoff, particularly after periods of heavy rains, as well as benefits such as weed control and needing fewer herbicides.

The dramatic increase in the use of no-till farming in Argentina, from 5 million hectares in 1995 to more than 30 million hectares in 2016, is a testament to its benefits. And it coincides almost directly with the introduction, and then rapid adoption and development, of biotechnology-enhanced seeds.

The environmental benefits of agroecological practices, then, are in part thanks to technological advancements and improved seeds.

The use of biotech seeds, especially, provides farmers with much more flexibility in combating weeds and pests, without having to resort to mechanical production that breaks up the soil.

Many countries have been slow, or perhaps reluctant, to adopt this kind of technology. Yet Argentinian farms have reaped the benefits and are now able to make progress towards more sustainable agriculture.

These new advances in modern technology, coupled with more frugal and traditional techniques, can help farmers achieve the daunting task of securing food production in the face of increasing food demand and growing climate pressures.

Vegetables from ecological farming. Photo by Elina Mark, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

CITATION

• Brookes, G., & Barfoot, P. (2018). Farm income and production impacts of using GM crop technology 1996–2016. GM crops & food, 9(2), 59-89. doi:10.1080/21645698.2018.1464866

Juan Minvielle is an Argentinian farmer and President of MAIZALL.

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