Impact of Technology on Agriculture

Humans have long been manipulating the environment for our continued survival. We've gone from small nomadic groups dotted around the world to a landscape dominated by the ever-expanding human food print. This explosion in human population was only made possible through continuous advancements in agricultural technologies that have increased agricultural production.

Impact of Technology on Agriculture Impact of Technology on Agriculture

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Table of contents

    From stone tools to the manipulation of plant genomes, the Anthropocene Epoch has seen incredible transformations in how we interact with our agricultural environments through technology.

    Impact of Agricultural Technologies Overview

    Contemporary agriculture has been shaped by historical developments in agricultural technologies that date as far back as the end of the Stone Age.

    First Agricultural Revolution

    Also called the Neolithic Revolution, the First Agricultural Revolution began approximately 12,000 years ago in the Mediterranean region. During this time, humans were transitioning out of nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles and opting for permanent settlements, which opened up the possibility of farming.

    While agricultural technologies were limited to simple tools, humans made impressive advancements in domesticating plants and animals.1 Many of the staple crops and livestock animals that we depend on today, such as wheat and cattle, were undergoing the process of domestication through human selection.

    Second Agricultural Revolution

    The Second Agricultural Revolution began in England around the 16th century. Agricultural productivity increased dramatically through the development of new technologies and land management practices.

    Agricultural Geography, Jethro Tull seed drill, impact of agricultural technologies overview StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jethro Tull Seed Drill

    New machinery inventions like the seed drill reduced manual labor costs and allowed for more uniform and large-scale cultivation. The cultivation of cash crops, or crops grown solely for market sale instead of family use, was a hallmark practice of this time, and the average farm size increased as a result.1

    Cash crops are crops grown largely for market sale as opposed to subsistence consumption.

    This time period is also marked by the implementation of new land management practices that further increased agricultural production, like crop rotations, cover crops, the application of manure fertilizers, and new systems of irrigation and drainage. These advancements in agricultural technology were a significant factor in freeing up labor for the coming Industrial Revolution.

    The Green Revolution

    Fast-forward to the 1950s and '60s, when soils were largely suffering from degradation and loss of fertility through overuse and mismanagement. To address these issues, researchers began developing new fertilizer and crop technologies that have undoubtedly transformed agriculture and human society as a whole.

    Agriculture became increasingly mechanized during this time. Improvements in equipment for plowing, planting, and harvesting immensely reduced human and animal labor on the farm. Through research advancements in isolating favorable traits in crops, seed selection practices were able to increase yield averages drastically.

    The most transformative developments during the Green Revolution were made in agrochemical technologies. The Haber-Bosch process of converting atmospheric N2 into ammonia available for plant use marks one of the most influential agricultural developments to date. Other chemical fertilizers were developed to bring more productivity and fertility to soils through the addition of plant nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.

    Types of Agricultural Technologies

    There are four main types of agricultural technologies.2

    1. Land management practices include technologies and techniques in land alteration and natural resource management. Soil is considered a natural resource in agriculture, so practices like soil tillage, terrace farming, irrigation, the use of cover crops, and other soil preservation techniques are included in this category.

    2. Machinery and infrastructure technologies are comprised of farming equipment used in the field as well as in crop processing and storage. These technologies tend to reduce manual labor costs by increasing productivity through mechanization with equipment like harvesting combines and tractors. Agricultural infrastructure includes water pumps for irrigation, storage systems like silos, and even spatial technologies like GPS.

    Agricultural Geography, combine and tractor, impact of technology on agricultural production StudySmarterFig. 2 - combines and tractors help to reduce labor costs

    3. Agrochemical technologies include fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These chemical inputs are developed to increase soil fertility and to improve crop health and yields. They typically replace inherent soil functions when agricultural intensification is too great to be supported by natural soil processes.

    4. Biotechnologies include some of the more recent advancements in agricultural technology, like genetically engineered crops and the use of antibiotics, vaccines, and hormone treatments in animal husbandry.

    Genetic engineering in agriculture is the manipulation of an organism's genome. It is often used to increase yields, nutrient contents, or pest resistance, among its many other applications.

    The incorporation of biotechnologies in agriculture is a subject of debate across many disciplines. While humans have long been altering plant and animal genes through human selection and domestication, direct control over an organism's genes is a fairly recent advancement.

    Biotechnologies have the potential to exceptionally increase agricultural productivity, but the unknown impacts of biotechnologies on human health and the environment is a concern among researchers and consumers alike. Read on to discover more about the positive and negative impacts of technology on agricultural production and on the environment.

    Impact of Technology on Agricultural Production

    Advancements in technology have unquestionably shaped the trajectory of agriculture throughout human history. From our beginnings of using sticks to poke holes in the soil for seed planting, to our use of automated self-driving tractors, agriculture has undergone incredible transformations. However, positive impacts on the production of food are counterbalanced by many negative impacts on the environment.

    Contemporary agriculture is now faced with the task of addressing this ever-pressing asymmetry.

    Positive Impacts of Agricultural Technology

    Agricultural productivity has significantly increased with the intensification of agriculture through the Second Agricultural Revolution and the Green Revolution. As production has intensified, the carrying capacity of the land has increased along with the availability of food. This has allowed for the noteworthy population growth that has occurred, particularly in developing countries.

    Since 1970, undernourishment in developing countries has decreased from nearly 35% down to below 15% of the population.3 This positive impact on agriculture has been achieved through mechanization and agrochemical technologies that increase productivity and yields, which can lower food costs.

    Agricultural Geography, genetically engineered gold rice, impact of technology on agricultural production StudySmarterFig. 3 - Genetically engineered "Golden Rice" has increased levels of vitamin A, which makes it a more nutritious food source to populations deficient in this important vitamin.

    Through genetic engineering, the nutritional content of some crops have increased, which has further reduced global undernourishment. Environmental issues that limit agriculture production have been addressed through the genetic engineering of crops that can deter pests and are more drought resistant. The impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human and environmental health are still uncertain. However, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that, to date, no health issues or harmful gene transfers have occurred.5

    Golden Rice is a type of rice that was genetically engineered in the early 2000s to address vitamin A deficiencies, which can cause blindness in vulnerable populations.

    The rice genome was altered with genes from daffodil and a species of soil bacteria, which resulted in a marked increase in beta-carotene synthesis in the rice.4 Beta-carotene (this is what makes carrots orange!) is the antecedent to vitamin A. Golden rice now contains over 20x more nutritional beta-carotene.

    Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Technologies

    Unfortunately, the negative impacts of agricultural technology on the environment are virtually limitless. Because many agricultural practices contribute to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, there is no ecosystem untouched by the impacts of agricultural technologies. In addition, intensive agriculture often requires heavy irrigation, which places strain on limited freshwater sources.

    While productivity has increased, it has often come with the costs and impacts of unsustainable land management. Soil degradation and loss to erosion are concerning impacts of the use of agrochemical fertilizers and tillage practices. Essential plant nutrients are made available to plants, as soil microbes mineralize and repurpose nutrients locked up in decomposing plant matter. Chemical fertilizers skip this microbial step and provide plants with an immediate supply of nutrients, often in excess.

    Agricultural Geography, global excess phosphorus fertilizer, environmental impacts of agricultural technologies StudySmarterFig. 4 - This map shows excess phosphorus fertilizer from agriculture. When applied in excess, fertilizers can pollute the surrounding environment and air.

    Negative Impacts of Technology on Agriculture

    The use of agrochemicals reduces the biodiversity of soil microbes by ultimately taking away their function of recycling nutrients. Biodiversity is further diminished in bug populations around agricultural areas due to the heavy use of pesticides that often kill non-target pests as well. In addition, native plant biodiversity is reduced when land is cleared for cultivation or animal husbandry. Disruptions in food webs then spread to the outer lands surrounding agricultural areas.

    Because agrochemicals are regularly applied in excess, they can also pollute water sources through field runoff during rain events. As these nutrients accumulate in rivers, lakes, and oceans, they contribute to eutrophication. Waste produced from aquaculture fish farms can also disturb the nutrient balance in water ecosystems.

    Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes exceedingly enriched with nutrients, causing an overgrowth of algae. This can harm other aquatic populations by depleting access to sunlight and oxygen.

    In addition to water runoff, agrochemicals also contribute to air pollution, as they can release greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a byproduct produced as nitrogen fertilizers go through the microbial process of denitrification. N2O is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, as one molecule can trap 298x more heat than a carbon dioxide (CO2) molecule!

    Lastly, land management technologies that disrupt soil structure, like the use of plows in tillage, release stored carbon back into the atmosphere. The Earth's soils currently hold more carbon than the entire atmosphere, but unsustainable soil management allows this carbon to be re-released as a greenhouse gas.

    How can we reliably feed the world when so many of our agricultural technologies are disrupting ecosystems? Well, perhaps it's time for the next revolution in agricultural technologies.

    Impact of Technology on Agriculture - Key takeaways

    • The Green Revolution involved the development and implementation of agrochemical technologies like fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
    • There are four main types of agricultural technologies: land management practices, machinery and infrastructure, agrochemicals, and biotechnologies.
    • The primary positive impact of technology has been increased agricultural productivity.
    • The principle negative impact of technology has been the degradation of the environment and atmosphere.
    • Agrochemicals and unsustainable management practices pollute water and air, decrease biodiversity, and can disrupt entire ecosystems.

    References

    1. Clegg, John, and Rob Lucas. “Three Agricultural Revolutions.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 1, 2020, pp. 95–111, (https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-8007677).
    2. Ruzzante, Sacha, et al. “Adoption of Agricultural Technology in the Developing World: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature.” World Development, vol. 146, 2021, p. 105599–, (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2021.105599).
    3. Roser, Max, and Ritchie, Hannah (2019) - "Hunger and Undernourishment". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ('https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment')
    4. Al-Babili, Salim, and Peter Beyer. “Golden Rice – Five Years on the Road – Five Years to Go?” Trends in Plant Science, vol. 10, no. 12, 2005, pp. 565–73, (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2005.10.006.)
    5. Barrows, Geoffrey, et al. “Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 28, no. 1, 2014, pp. 99–119, (https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.28.1.99).
    6. Figure 1: Jethro Tull Seed Drill (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oliver_seed_drill_MD1.jpg) by Acroterion (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Acroterion) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    7. Figure 2: Combine and Tractor (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Deere_combine_and_tractor_at_work.jpg) By Dan Davidson (https://flickr.com/people/22541812@N03) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    8. Figure 3: Genetically Engineered Golden Rice (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Golden_Rice.jpg) by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricephotos/) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    9. Figure 4: Global Excess Phosphorus Use (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/excess-phosphorous?country=CHN~IND~USA~GBR~MEX~ZAF~FRA) by Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/) licensed by CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en_US)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Impact of Technology on Agriculture

    What are some negative impacts of technology in agriculture?

    Technology in agriculture has had many negative effects on the environment, including water and air pollution, reductions in biodiversity, and soil degradation.

    What is a positive impact of agricultural technology?

    Agricultural technologies have dramatically increased the carrying capacity of the land and have resulted in increased food production.

    What technology has had the biggest impact on agriculture?

    The development of agrochemicals including fertilizers and pesticides have had a large impact on agricultural production.

    How does agricultural technology affect the environment?

    Agricultural technologies have negatively impacted the environment through soil degradation, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the disruption of food webs.

    How can we reduce the environmental impact of agricultural innovation?

    The environmental impacts of agricultural technologies can be reduced when fertilizers are not applied in excess and less disruptive practices, like conservation tillage, are implemented. 

    How has technology changed farming?

    Technology has transformed farming to dramatically increase agricultural productivity. Manual labor and time costs have been reduced with technological advancements. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which agricultural revolution first included the adoption of growing cash crops?

    The Haber-Bosch process was developed for agriculture during the Green Revolution. What nutrient does it supply? 

    The use of fertilizers directly reduces the biodiversity of which type of organism?

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