New technology in agriculture

THE RAGING debate now engaging the scientific community is centred on the role and efficacy of foods derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Scientific and technological advances in genetics, cytogenetics, microbial genetics, microbiology, microtechniques, cell physiology and material science have unlocked the secrets of action, reaction and expression of genes, the proteins and the activities that they control. Whereas these technologies were initially viewed as beneficial to humans, especially in the areas of health, the agricultural sector has also benefited tremendously from these new discoveries.

Micro-propagation, of course, is not new in agriculture. As far back as the 1950s vegetative propagation of plants was a well established practice in the region, with leaf cuttings replacing stem cutting as rooting material in cocoa, coffee and other plants, which itself replaced the seed. These smaller cuttings were then replaced by tissue culture that allowed for rapid multiplication of plantlets as planting material.

The advantage of tissue culture over these earlier forms of propagation lies in the fact that not only can the planting materials be replicated quickly, but also the properties of these materials can be fixed and assured. Properties such as resistance to diseases, responses to fertilizer application and other growing conditions and product quality can be predetermined and fixed. It is that property of the technology that makes it so useful in the agricultural sector.

Irrigation also represents another area of new technology in the agricultural sector. It has long been demonstrated that sprinkler irrigation is not only wasteful and inefficient but also harmful to some crops. Flooding or furrow irrigation has not been demonstrated to be any more suitable for crop physiology or more efficient in water conservation and, particularly in small farms can cause erosion. Research into these problems has developed new methods of irrigation, notably drip irrigation, that addresses the problems of water-use efficiency, water pressure, soil modification and in addition facilitates increased uptake of fertilizer by the plants.

In the animal sector new technologies are also being introduced. Artificial insemination and bloodless castration are used throughout the region. However, the debate over GMOs also has implications for that sector. Cloning is now possible and raises issues of ethics and of animal gene variability loss that is vital to the preservation of biodiversity.

The rising global population together with economic growth in emerging markets will mean burgeoning demand for both potable water and food. Agriculture now accounts for roughly 70 percent of global water use, but as dietary changes in developing countries raise demand for water-intensive foods such as meat and dairy, this proportion will grow yet higher.

While historically wet, the Southeast United States have seen persistent drought conditions over the past decade and legal conflicts over water. That makes Georgias Flint River basin, where farmers grow thirsty cotton, corn, peanuts, and pecans, a good proving ground for this technology.

A common method of irrigation is the center pivot, which projects water 360 degrees, creating the crop circles obvious from an airplane. The Flint River basin has 6,250 center-pivot systems. The problem with this technology is that it sprays water blindly, even across areas too wet to plant, such as grass waterways, seasonal wetlands, permanent ponds, a lake on the edge of a field.

Around 2004, University of Georgia faculty Calvin Perry, Stuart Pocknee, and Craig Kvien, developed variable rate irrigation (VRI), which allows farmers to selectively turn off specific nozzles as the pivot crawls over patches that dont need water.

This year, they made the system easier for farmers to use. The previous version required a farmer to develop a water application map on a computer, upload that map to a thumb drive, and transfer it to the irrigation controller. Using the new push-button version, “he would just walk his irrigation system to one of these areas he wishes to not apply water … push the button to tell the controller, this is where this anomaly starts. He then walks the system to the far edge of the anomaly, pushes another button, which says, this is where that ends,” said Perry, who works in the universitys College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Caribbean agriculture must be linked to food production and food security, therefore, the necessary research in home economics, food preparation, nutrition and agri-business must be undertaken with a view to satisfy the tastes of the various sectors of the population, rich and poor, foreign and local. It must also establish linkages with the tourism industry to take advantage of the higher earnings associated with this sector, as well as reduce the food import bill of the region.

In order to bring about that transformation, the traditional precepts of agricultural production for export purposes must be replaced by the new concept of processed products for export. Only pointed injections of technology can bring about that transformation and the application of renewable energy to agriculture can play an important role in that process. Policies must be established to provide for independent producers of energy when the national grid does cater to the needs of farmers. Incentives must be provided to persons and institutions interested in doing research, especially on product development and transformation. Such incentives can take the form of tax holidays, or tax credits.

For Caribbean agriculture to contribute significantly to development, it must be able to inter alia, satisfy the food and nutrition needs of the region, as well as export excess produce. Previous agricultural policy has not been that direction. Agriculture in the Caribbean has always been regarded an export activity for the generation of foreign exchange and agricultural policy has been developed to support that objective. Thus, when another activity is perceived to be able to provide foreign exchange to the region, policy is quickly changed to favour that new enterprise at the expense of agriculture. Such is the situation in the region that agriculture has to compete with tourism, with export processing zones or electronic assembly plants for scarce State resources and the attention of policy makers. A more rational policy would have been for agriculture to provide the platform for manufacturing to and complement the resources that these other activities could bring to the State. This would require a view of agriculture that places it at the centre of economic activity whose first and foremost responsibility would be the provision of food and fibre to the population. In that context the necessary research and development for product transformation, for post harvest research and for marketing of products could be undertaken, as is done for tourism.

It is interesting to note that in the developed countries domestic farm policy takes precedence over international policy, macroeconomic policy and resource policy. In fact, in one country it has been noted that domestic farm policy is the bread and butter of agricultural and food policy. Seen in that context, a more holistic approach to planning for the sector would, of necessity, be the norm. Concerns for nutrition, healthcare, farm amenities and for the farm family to adequately house, feed and educate itself would drive the policy agenda. This is where technology would be an important component of farm policy. The emphasis would be on farm income rather than on commodity prices. Therefore, the total operations of the farm and the total products that can be derived from them in order to increase income would drive the research agenda for new products and the capturing of the upscale market products.

With a weak research and development base to support extension and with extension concentrating on the agronomy/cultivation of the export crop, much of the time is spent advising on production technologies which, of course, do not change quickly. Extension work is not seen as necessary for the promotion of the development of the farm family. Instead it is seen as a necessity for the production of the crop. There is no link between food and nutrition, between marketing and post-harvest concerns and between crop production and cost accounting and book keeping. Farm management and family income management have no complementary under the present extension ethos.

The farm energy needs would also be addressed and the introduction of technologies that are appropriate to the farm setting would be promoted. Hence new technologies in energy, and related farm inputs would be promoted to increase the efficiency of operations and levels of farm incomes. This new dynamism would be supported by the educational system at all levels and the corresponding linkages would be made with the other sectors such as tourism and manufacturing to promote and enhance the industrial development efforts of the region. With these supporting systems in place and a revitalization of the industry, policy makers in individual States will have greater latitude of action to meet the needs of their respective countries and to take decisions that appropriate to their constituents within the framework of regional complementarity, cooperation and collaboration.

The agricultural officer must work hand in hand with the home economics officer, the Health Officer and the Community Development Officer, each one promoting his role where and when necessary. Local farmers, too, will be able to participate in the decision-making and implementation processes, where they can appreciate and note a direct relationship between their activities, their governments policies and the income and other benefits that accrue to them in the process. This new approach will require a transformation of minds as well as that of the education system. Unless this is undertaken, the agricultural sector will contribute even less to the national and regional economies than at present, and should be a major cause for concern by policy makers.

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