A world of new opportunities
Imagine a collection of tools that reduced the physical demands of farming and raised living standards. That freed people to pursue an education or start a business, or helped farmers grow enough food while using fewer resources. For most of human history, this would have sounded impossible.
But by the middle of the 20th century, impossible started to become reality. Modern agriculture was born, launching millions of people into the global middle class. By the 1970s, especially in Mexico and India, the Green Revolution led to agricultural technologies that drastically improved the productivity of farming. Elsewhere around the world, the pattern repeated itself: as agriculture soared, standards of living steadily improved.
Today, the industry is poised to make similar progress in places like Africa. Modern efforts are focused on improving productivity per hectare, to help reduce the need for additional cultivated land.
Behind these accomplishments lies a relentless dedication to innovation, as plant breeders and other scientists search for ways to make farming more efficient. Among their most important accomplishments are hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and advanced crop protection products.
Modern crop protection rises to prominence
Over the past 60 years, innovations in modern crop protection have helped change the face of agriculture, offering farmers the benefit of efficiency, productivity, and sustainability.
When tools like glyphosate were introduced in the 1970s, the rate of pesticide active ingredient application per hectare dropped by 95 percent — while acute toxicity was reduced by 40 percent. Meanwhile, overall harvests across all crops increased from just under 4 tonnes per hectare (t/ha) in 1960 to just over 6 t/ha today.
While drastically lowering weed pressures, time required to fight weeds and the labor needed to do so, modern crop protection has correlated strongly with a rise in farm productivity, environmental benefits and quality of life for farmers and communities worldwide. This mix of rising benefits and reducing challenges is a compelling way to think about some of the most important trends in global agriculture.
Soil health renaissance
Beginning in the 1990s, farmers ushered in a new era of conservation tillage as part of their integrated weed management strategies. Until that point, plowing (tilling) to control weeds was the norm. The change came with the introduction of crop protection tools and herbicide-resistant crops, both of which allowed farmers to manage weeds without tillage.
Through conservation tillage, the previous year’s crop residue is left in place after the harvest, creating a protective barrier. This method also reduces the number of tractor passes required on the land, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and helping to keep more carbon in the soil — both of which benefit the planet. As a result, soil erosion is reduced, keeping water and nutrients where they can best support crops.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about modern agriculture is how close it has brought the world to the point at which no additional land will be needed for farming.
To find this point, researchers consider productivity per unit of land. If current trends continue, we will become so productive with every hectare that it will be possible to offset the impact of a growing population.
Within agriculture, this is known as sustainable intensification, which marries sustainability goals to productivity goals, leaving more land available for wildlife habitats or the repopulation of forests. The regions with the best success stories have one thing in common: they have embraced advanced technology to help drive productivity. This includes tools like glyphosate.
At some point between 2020 and 2040 the world will hit peak farmland, and it will be a good thing for humanity and the planet.
Brazil’s emergence as a global ag powerhouse over the past 40 years has been nothing short of miraculous. With 13.5% of the world’s potential arable land and two long growing seasons, it’s uniquely situated to support global agriculture. As of 2012, it had already achieved top three status in production and export of sugar, coffee, orange juice, soybean, beef, tobacco, ethanol and broiler chicken.
Since the 1970s, Brazil has seen its cities grow into thriving centers of industry, as local agricultural productivity gains led to fewer people needed on the farm. During that same period of time, the cost of food for Brazilians has steadily dropped by half, a staggering achievement.
Investing in optimism
Our standards of living aren’t the only thing on the rise. We are also becoming more confident about what innovation can help us accomplish. On every continent, in every region, science is being applied to challenges previously considered insurmountable. Some examples include fresh water shortages, soil health, unpredictable climate conditions, shifting weather patterns, an aging population and malnutrition.
Investors are getting in on the action, directing substantial financial resources toward ag technology startups who are applying science to farming challenges. Optimism can also be found at the individual level. Advancements in food security allow more people to pursue an education, a great sign of things to come. These trends are excellent examples of the long-term thinking that has always been the foundation of agricultural innovation.
A better tomorrow
Since the middle of the 20th century, modern agriculture has lifted millions out of poverty and supported the establishment of a global food distribution system. It has done so with the help of a variety of innovations, including seed technology, farm machinery and crop protection solutions that help farmers fight insects, weeds and diseases.
As we think about what lies ahead, we know there are still problems to solve and room to improve. Modern agriculture will continue to provide a range of innovations — and we believe it can help us achieve a better tomorrow.