By Rina Tanaka
During the program, we noticed that people were trying to be more sustainable in very different ways.
We visited Rowbot Systems, a company that develops automatons for row-crop agriculture. A typical conventional corn farmer applies much of nitrogen fertilizer early in the season, when the corn is still very small. However, corn at this stage can absorb only so much nitrogen and the unused nitrogen left on the soil surface is susceptible to rainwater runoff. Nitrogen that ends up in bodies of water can cause algae bloom and oxygen deficiency, making the water uninhabitable for organisms. Part of the reason why these farmers keep on dumping excess nitrogen fertilizer on their corn field year after year despite the glaring inefficiency is probably convention – that was the way their grandparents did. But part of the reason is practicality. If you have ever tried to wade your way through a field of mature corn stalks, you could easily imagine that trying to get in there with a tractor would not be a smart idea. (And of course, if I were a farmer, I would not want to carry a heavy load of nitrogen fertilizer and push my way through the cornstalks to manually apply fertilizer to a100+ acre field.) So even though it makes more sense theoretically to apply fertilizer when the corn is old enough to absorb nitrogen, it is not very practical – at least before “Rowbots” came along.
A “Rowbot”, invented by Rowbot Systems, is a semi-autonomous vehicle (and is on its way to being completely self-driving) that can fit between the rows of adult corn and apply fertilizer to the soil. This eliminates the “need” to apply nitrogen fertilizer early in the season when the corn is still too young to efficiently take it in. Not only does this reduce nitrogen runoff (and the ensuing environmental pollution), it is more profitable for the farmer. Previously, much of their nitrogen input was going to waste, but with “Rowbots”, they can apply fertilizer right when their corn needs it. This means that they can cut back on their input, while increasing the yield. “Rowbots” can also be connected with a program that assesses when and which part of the field needs to be fertilized, which further promotes an efficient use of fertilizer. The CEO of the company seemed to recognize the importance of economic incentive for the farmer to employ “Rowbots”. And luckily, for this particular case, what was more profitable was also less harmful to the environment.
We also visited Environmental Tillage Systems (ETS), a company that focuses on developing sustainable tillage equipment. Tillage, which is the act of disturbing the soil (by digging, stirring, overturning etc.), is a common practice on farms. Organic farmers, who cannot use synthetic pesticides rely on tillage to control weeds, and many farmers – organic or not- use tillage to loosen up the soil and prepare new beds. However, tillage is known to be bad for the soil; it destroys the soil structure and the habitats of organisms in the soil. Furthermore, tillage releases CO2 into the atmosphere, and tilled fields are more susceptible to soil erosion because they are composed of loose soil particles and are lacking crop residue which can cover the soil and hold water. Because of this, there are farmers who employ no-till (omitting tillage from their operation), but they are still a minority and face their own set of challenges.
SoilWarrior, developed by ETS, is machine that uses strip-till. Strip-till is a tillage system that minimizes tillage by only tilling parts of the field that will be seeded. It can also incorporate liquid nitrogen into the soil as it tills. Similar to “Rowbots”, it can be more profitable (even when considering the initial investment) for the farmer since they can cut down on fuel and fertilizer cost. The more profitable way also happens to be less harmful to the environment.
As I was introduced to such latest crystallization of technology, I felt a schism between the optimistic excitement emanating from the company members and my own state of mind. In short, I found myself unable to share their beliefs that these new pieces of technology will pave the way for a sustainable food system.
Why so?(*) What worries me is that these high-tech machines do not challenge the current food system. When I say “the current food system”, I am thinking about some of its aspects that are associated with larger systemic issues. These include dependency on synthetic fertilizer, meat consumption and corn used for livestock feed, and capitalistic thinking, just to name a few. I’d like to expand on each one in order now.
-Synthetic (nitrogen) fertilizer
Both these machines are built to spray synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Not only is this type of fertilizer the most likely to harm the environment due to its high solubility, it is usually inseparable from a type of farming that is heavy on input and based on short-term thinking. Nitrogen fertilizer might be a relatively quick and easy way to boost yield, but the fertility brought to the farm is short-lived since it is sourced from outside the farm. The farmer must continue to replenish the field as the “fertility stock” in the soil runs out. In comparison, a meticulously- cultivated farm whose soil is teeming with microbes can generate some of its own fertility and does not need such a frequent feeding of nutrients to be productive. To complement, composting the after-harvest plants or unmarketable crops can be a good way to capture and utilize the fertility and energy on the farm. Overall, the type of farming that relies heavily on synthetic fertilizer does not seem very sustainable since synthetic fertilizer requires considerably more energy to be produced, transported, and etc.
Corn is certainly not the evil behind all of the individual issues with our food system, but most of those issues are systemic ones. And corn has an enormous presence in the system. For example, Americans on average consume so much (red) meat even though research suggests that eating a substantial amount of (red) meat is not good for our health. Now, just because a lot of the feed for livestock is corn-based, it doesn’t mean that taking corn out of our food system will stop people from eating so much meat. A lot of things need to change, such as consumers’ taste, our heavy reliance on fast foods, political power of corporations (such as meat industry having a say in the drafting of the food pyramid), but at the same time, I cannot imagine that promoting more corn-production will get us any closer to fixing the problem. There are many other issues, such as inhumane factory farming/CAFOs or the prevalence of unhealthy corn-based sweeteners in (so much of) our food, that can’t be blamed on corn, but have strong connections with the current corn production. Both of these machines -“Rowbots” and SoilWarrior- are built on the assumption that corn will stick around and continue to play its big role in our food system. And I worry that not challenging such an assumption will perpetuate the issues in our current food system.
Although both Rowbot Systems and ETS take sustainable food production into account, they are still driven by capitalistic ideals. This is not always problematic, but a capitalistic mindset tends to neglect/belittle things that are hard to put a price tag on, such as the health of the planet and its people. Sometimes being more sustainable and making more profit conflict with each other, and in such case, which will be prioritized by these companies?
My belief is that to actually solve many of the issues with our food system, we need to change the system, not just make “small” adjustments. In order to do that, we need people to question the norm and change their mindsets.
This is why people call me an idealist though. Because even if my belief makes sense, things don’t always go that smoothly.
“Change is hard and scary” — We heard that at so many places that we visited during the program. If a farmer has been growing crops the same way for 40 years and has just been able to make a livable income, why bother taking a risk and jumping out of their comfort zone? An employee at ETS told us that for many conventional farmers, even switching to strip-till is a “lifestyle change”.
I can talk about ideals as much as I want, but if the steps needed to achieve those ideals are so big that they will never be taken by the majority, I won’t be doing anything very effective in promoting sustainability. “Rowbots” or SoilWarriors may not be the key to sustainable food production or living in long term, but maybe- even though I am not fully convinced- they are a step towards being sustainable.
How much do we need to change and what do we need to change to be truly sustainable? What should I (temporarily) accept/compromise in order to actually trigger change?
I will continue to struggle with those questions.
(*)—Of course, there is also a financial barrier. One Soil Warrior costs more than the average tractor. However, I am actually not that concerned about this problem. Just as refrigerators, cars, or laundry machines have all evolved from being fantasies to being relatively common household items, I will not be surprised if “Rowbots”/SoilWarriors became much more affordable in the near future.