Growing a Greener Tomorrow

A look at precision agriculture's impact on soil and carbon sequestration.

Seamus Heaney said it best in his famous sonnet about farmland—after plowing a field, the turned-up acres breathe. But the Irish poet couldn’t have known how accurate that metaphor was and how much carbon dioxide plowing actually released into the air. Today, farming is changing rapidly to accommodate a shifting climate and growing population. Precision agriculture is at the forefront of the movement.

What Is Precision Agriculture?

One way to define precision agriculture (PA) is any technique that involves taking measurements. Testing the soil's pH, nutrient levels or amount of carbon is a precise science with immediate, real-world applications. Farmers use these measurements to improve crop growth and reduce their carbon footprint.

Another aspect of PA is careful, controlled farming techniques that help farmers get the most return from their labor without harming the surrounding ecosystem. For example, 11.2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 stemmed from agriculture—much of it from plowing fields. Some farmers have begun using seed drills to plant seeds directly in the soil to avoid releasing carbon. A seed drill maximizes crop growth by planting seeds at a precise depth and avoids breaking up the ground.

Electric farming equipment further benefits the environment by not releasing air pollutants or running on fossil fuels. With advances in PA like self-driving tractors and drone imagery, farming is ripe for a green revolution.

Why Precision Agriculture Matters

How does PA benefit people and the land?

Carbon Storage. PA improves carbon sequestration—the process of storing carbon in the ground rather than releasing it into the air. Carbon sequestration is key to mitigating climate change because it prevents carbon from warming the atmosphere.

Soil Health. Precision agriculture also helps the soil. With PA, farmers can reduce their fertilizer usage, pesticide usage and tillage, benefitting the microbes and insects living in the ground. It allows the dirt to build up more nutrients over time, which improves crop growth and yields.

Additionally, all that carbon in the soil stimulates the growth of microbes that take up nitrogen. It makes the ground more stable and even enhances its ability to absorb water.

Water Absorption. A mere 1 percent increase in soil organic matter on a hectare of land allows the earth to hold an extra 240 tons of water. That is an astonishing amount of rain. This super-soaking soil is especially valuable in flood-prone areas, absorbing water that would otherwise build up on the ground’s surface.

Lower Food Costs. Precision agriculture is good for people, too. Farming technology has made it possible to grow bigger, healthier and more closely packed crops on smaller tracts of land. As a result, the average U.S. family spends 25 percent less of their income on food than they did in 1900. That has allowed unprecedented population growth and improved countless people’s quality of life.

Incentivizing Greener Farming

PA faces several barriers, including high upfront costs, producer skepticism and low applicability to small farms. That is why many governments and private companies are giving farmers bonuses for implementing PA.

A Budding Movement

PA—which encompasses soil and plant testing, meticulous machinery use and controlling farming’s effects on the environment—is gaining traction. Although it can be expensive, governments and private organizations are helping farmers implement it in their operations, which profoundly benefits people and the Earth. It’s still early days for precision farming, but the practice is putting down roots.

About the Author

Jane Marsh is an environmental writer. You can keep up with her work on her site