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Executive Summary Agricultural managers have for decades taken advantage of new technolo- gies, including information technologies, that enabled better management deci- sion making and improved economic efficiency of operations. The extent and rate of change now occurring in the development of information technologies have opened the way for significant change in crop production management and agricultural decision making. This vision is reflected in the concept of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture is a phrase that captures the imagination of many con- cerned with the production of food, feed, and fiber. The concepts embodied in precision agriculture offer the promise of increasing productivity while decreas- ing production costs and minimizing environmental impacts. Precision agricul- ture conjures up images of farmers overcoming the elements with computerized machinery that is precisely controlled via satellites and local sensors and using planning software that accurately predicts crop development. This image has been called the future of agriculture. Such high-tech images are engaging. Precision agriculture, however, is in early and rapidly changing phases of innovation. Techniques and practices not anticipated by the committee will likely become common in the future, and some techniques and practices thought to hold high promise today may turn out to be less desirable than anticipated. The technologies and practices of precision agriculture offer the potential to fundamentally alter agricultural decision making. The use of large machinery and hired labor have caused many farmers to think of large fields as the basic man- agement unit. Even though farmers know from experience that yields are higher in some parts of the field than in others, conventional management practices have 1
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2 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY focused on applying inputs at a uniform rate to an entire field. Information tech- nologies permit the modern grower to obtain detailed explicit information at a small scale common to farming practices of earlier times but with considerably more information, enabling them to efficiently manage the land at these finer scales. This report defines precision agriculture as a management strategy that uses information technologies to bring data from multiple sources to bear on decisions associated with crop production. Precision agriculture has three components: cap- ture of data at an appropriate scale and frequency, interpretation and analysis of that data, and implementation of a management response at an appropriate scale and time. The most significant impact of precision agriculture is likely to be on how management decisions address spatial and temporal variability in crop pro- duction systems. A key difference between conventional management and preci- sion agriculture is the application of modern information technologies to provide, process, and analyze multisource data of high spatial and temporal resolution for decision making and operations in the management of crop production. Advances in the technologies will be an evolutionary process and they will continue to be adapted for agricultural decision making. Precision agriculture is best considered a suite of technologies rather than a single technology. Farmers whose operations have numerous characteristics— different crops, weather, pest complexes, and marketing arrangements—will un- doubtedly use varying components of this suite. Nevertheless, all of these compo- nents have the common feature of increasing the information intensity of agriculture. The committee thus singled out this unifying feature, information technology-enhanced management, as the identifying characteristic of precision agriculture, and the report refers to this feature in making generalizations about precision agriculture, not the use of specific types of equipment. The report fo- cuses on technologies for managing crops, but aspects of the report may be ex- trapolated to other production systems, such as livestock and forestry. The report also focuses on public policy issues relevant to precision agricul- ture. Most of these concern research and development of precision agriculture technologies. Many of the technologies at the core of precision agriculture to- day—satellites, sensors, and geographic information systems (GIS)—are unusual for agriculture in that they were developed outside the traditional agricultural research, development, and dissemination (RD&D) system and were imported from industries not traditionally associated with agriculture. It is anticipated that investments in development and diffusion of precision agriculture by the private sector will continue at a rapid pace. Finding the appropriate role for traditional agricultural R&D institutions vis-à-vis these technologies has thus been a chal- lenge. This report presents some guidelines for determining the appropriate role of public agricultural RD&D institutions and recommends courses of action based on those guidelines. Other findings center on the implications of precision agriculture for broader
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 3 social concerns, primarily the structure of agriculture, rural employment, envi- ronmental quality, and data ownership. These implications depend on develop- ments that cannot be predicted accurately. The committee identified factors likely to be influential and drew on experience with similar technologies to assess the likely weights of these factors. A FUNDAMENTAL PARADIGM SHIFT FOR AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH SYSTEMS Historically, the productivity of U.S. agriculture has been fueled by a re- search and educational system that was largely funded by the public sector and whose effectiveness is envied around the world. In this unique partnership, re- search problems and findings were communicated through the Cooperative Ex- tension Service. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and land grant university researchers conducted the scientific analyses necessary for continual enhancement of production agriculture’s efficiency. New knowledge was created in experimental plots and extrapolated to fit actual farm situations. Precision agriculture is changing the way in which agricultural research can be accomplished. The generation of massive amounts of data on farms will en- able dynamic experimentation that could supersede the use of traditional con- trolled experimental plots. Information technologies can produce quantitative data that will complement qualitative whole-farm case studies. On-farm research will reflect actual farming practices. Further, the agricultural system may need to evolve so that innovation and learning can exploit both traditional research plot experiments and information captured from actual field operations. Farmers en- gaged in precision agriculture will likely be transformed from research clients into research partners. Precision agriculture requires new approaches to research that are designed explicitly to improve understanding of the complex interactions between multiple factors affecting crop growth and farm decision making. USDA and land grant universities should give increased priority to such new approaches by reallocating personnel and budgets. Understanding the complex interactions among the multiple factors affecting crop growth is the foundation of any attempt to improve management systems. Incorporating information about variability in soils, moisture, nutrients, and pest populations into decision making requires an understanding of crop growth in an environmental context. Traditional plant and soil science research has not been designed to provide this kind of information, however. The current paradigm is that of the controlled experiment, in which one or a few factors are varied while all others are held constant. Such an experimental design corresponds poorly to a real farm context, in which multiple factors vary simultaneously. Such experi- ments provide little information about how responses to variations in any one
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4 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY factor change as other conditions change. Furthermore, they are frequently de- signed to yield qualitative results or quantitative estimates of responses to changes in inputs or other variables over a range so limited as to preclude estimation of responses to the range of conditions found in production fields. As a result, stan- dard research results are frequently of little value in designing spatial models intended for improved decision making. Precision agriculture will necessitate a systems approach to experimental re- search. In this regard, precision agriculture is similar to the application of systems principles in sustainable agriculture and ecologically-based pest management strategies. What makes precision agriculture different is the capability to capture data on the production practices actually applied in fields and on the results achieved. Moreover, systems principles are needed to improve farm decision making, not for themselves alone. Research approaches from ecology and eco- nomics, in which multiple factors vary simultaneously and statistical methods are used to identify the effects of variations in individual variables, are likely to be more productive than traditional approaches. Crop science research for precision agriculture should be designed explicitly to produce results that can be used in economic or statistical decision models by decision makers. This research will also need to be interdisciplinary, drawing on expertise in a range of subject areas such as agronomy, plant science, genetics, soil science, entomology, meteorol- ogy, weed science, plant pathology, ecology, and economics. The potential of precision agriculture is limited by the lack of appropriate measurement and analysis techniques for agronomically important factors. Public sector support is needed for the advancement of data acquisition and analysis methods, including sensing technologies, sampling methods, data- base systems, and geospatial methods. A basic premise of precision agriculture is that more and better information can reduce the uncertainty producers face in decision making and the unmeasured variability in agronomic conditions. Measurement can reduce the uncertainty of decision making without changing the biological variability that occurs in crop production. While the use of information is not new to agriculture, the potential exists for a vast increase in the timeliness and amount of information if additional means of data collection and analysis become available. Only a few commercial sensors are available today. Efforts continue by both private companies and the public sector to develop real-time sensors for additional agricultural indexes. Current sampling and analytical techniques are not designed for managing small units or for in-field decision making. For example, nutrient assays that require soil sampling and physical/chemical analyses are slow and costly. Current map- ping techniques are limited by a lack of understanding of the geostatistics neces- sary for displaying spatial variability of crops and soils. New information technologies will be required to make the more detailed and timely decisions necessary for precision agriculture. Introduction of new sens-
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 5 ing techniques will enable the collection of an unprecedented number of soil, crop, pest, and weather observations. Maps created from the data can be used during field operations to make more precise and timely application of inputs. Crop production and monitoring will be improved with development of accurate and cost-effective data acquisition and analytical techniques. Involvement of both public and private sectors is needed to undertake funda- mental research, develop field applications, evaluate the utility of sensing tech- niques, and—more importantly—answer questions about what information to acquire and at what frequency (i.e., which variables warrant investment in infor- mation acquisition and at what levels). Scientific expertise in university and fed- eral laboratories should be focused on determining biological, physical, and chemical principles that may result in improved or expanded sensing techniques. Agencies should recognize the ongoing contributions of industry to precision ag- riculture sensing and analytical techniques and concentrate their efforts on areas for which there is little incentive for the private sector to invest. Technology transfer mechanisms should be used to promote movement of practical sensing techniques into the marketplace. Collaborative efforts among researchers in the public and private sectors should be focused on sensing techniques that hold po- tential for accuracy, high spatial resolution, and inexpensive operation. Multidisciplinary research will be needed to match measurement methods and analytical techniques with crop production questions of interest—to effec- tively understand and use information about the true variability of measurable parameters within farm fields. Database management and image processing methods are needed to extract useful information from very large data sets. Geo- statistical methods must be advanced both to more effectively sample and to more accurately interpolate sparse data subject to instrument and sampling er- rors. Spatial analysis methods and spatially explicit components in crop models should be evaluated and calibrated under field conditions, and incorporated into GIS to facilitate accurate analysis and inference from collected precision agri- culture data. In the twenty-first century, agricultural professionals using information tech- nologies will play an increasingly important role in crop production and natural resource management. It is imperative that educational institutions modify their curricula and teaching methods to educate and train students and professionals in the interdisciplinary approaches underlying precision agriculture. Adequately trained professionals will be required to form the bridge between precision agriculture and science and technology. New and emerging technolo- gies such as GIS, the global positioning system, and remote sensing and weather station data will be used in crop models and decision support systems as aids in the farm manager’s decision-making process. A broad view of training is needed to ensure the beneficial use of precision agriculture:
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6 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY • To be successful, prospective employees will need to have the disciplin- ary depth and analytic skills for understanding spatially variable data. This should be provided by various educational institutions, including the land grant universities and technical colleges. • Existing professional advisers, including independent consultants, will need continuing education and remote-site learning in precision agricul- ture technologies because they will be called on to help interpret informa- tion for managers who make decisions at the farm level. These profes- sionals may already have valuable field experience that will be enhanced with training on a systems approach to farm management. Technology providers are filling some training gaps. Additional support is needed by state extension personnel and professional societies. • The professional societies associated with agriculture, biology, earth sci- ences, and environmental sciences could provide guidance in identifying necessary course work for new professionals and additional training for existing personnel. THE VALUE OF INFORMATION WILL INTENSIFY WITHIN PRODUCTION AGRICULTURE Agriculture, with its related supply and marketing activities, is a major com- ponent of the U.S. economy. Precision agriculture, if adopted widely, could en- hance the viability of this sector of the economy by adding a fundamentally new component of value to agriculture’s traditional assets of land, labor, and capital. That new source of value is the enhanced capability to learn from the data and experiences explicitly captured within precision agriculture operations. Produc- tion agriculture could experience a change similar to that in several other sectors of the economy over the past decade where more effective application of infor- mation technology led to the realization that information, and the ability to learn from operations, is an important economic asset. The agricultural production and marketing system does not have a tradition of understanding and measuring the value of information from operations or the systems that create that value. In other sectors, shifts in market power between suppliers and customers have occurred in similar settings. The experiences of the agricultural sector do not prepare it well for understanding the implications of these changes, even though they could affect research, public sector involvement, and the achievement of economic and environmental gains. Precision agriculture will require clarification of intellectual property, data ownership, and data privacy rights. The extension service should play a lead- ership role in providing education on existing law pertaining to these issues. Precision agriculture will involve, even require, the acquisition and process- ing of data by a variety of off-the-farm vendors, including crop consultants; farm
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 7 cooperatives; seed, fertilizer, chemical, and equipment dealers; aerial and satel- lite remote sensing companies, and software systems providers. Information tech- nology will generate valuable data not only for the producer but for others in agricultural production and marketing. Protection of a producer’s data and its availability to others will influence the effectiveness of precision agriculture. Intellectual property rights and data privacy protections are evolving areas of judicial and legislative activity. Existing legal precedents and contract forms for protecting a producer’s data will need to be adapted for precision agriculture. Producer and industry associations have been developing legal templates and forms for producers to use in asserting ownership over precision agriculture data. It will be important to find a balance between protecting individual privacy and securing benefits to multiple users. Leadership by public agencies, such as the extension service, will be needed to develop legal instruments and language to clarify rights and responsibilities of data use and dissemination to producers, crop consultants, and others involved in the data stream. Data collected for use at the subfield and field level have additional value for research, testing, evaluation, and marketing when assembled into regional databases. Mechanisms are needed to create and use this value, including data collection and transfer standards; institutions for collecting, managing, or networking data; and policies to facilitate data sharing and access while protecting proprietary interests and confidentiality. The collection and analysis of georeferenced data from individual farm fields provides an unprecedented opportunity for gaining new insights into the func- tioning of agricultural systems. Such data sets can provide competitive advantage for private companies and be an invaluable resource for producers and public sector researchers. However, individual farmers may not readily agree to freely contribute their farm’s data to a larger pool of data. Commercial companies may not readily release or share data sets they have assembled with universities or the USDA, even though the data might benefit and facilitate research across broader areas. Public agencies, such as the extension service, will be needed to provide leadership in this process by promoting models and templates for data sharing, providing examples of the benefits of sharing and aggregating data, and provid- ing protection for data privacy rights. One can easily visualize significant benefits from compiling and analyzing data sets generated from precision agriculture. However, care must be taken to ensure the completeness of such data sets so that they will be sufficient to address present-day problems and questions that have yet to be formulated. Because some of these data sources serve more than agricultural purposes (weather, geographic information, and global positioning data), they have their own set of standards. Other data structures (variable-rate technologies, on-the-go sensors, and yield monitors) will be totally focused on agricultural applications and will need to be interfaced with nonagricultural sources. To facilitate this process, standardized
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8 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY formats for data collection, storage, and transfer must be identified. The impor- tance of metadata data standards that define measurement conditions and quality control increases as data from sources outside the farm are used in decision mak- ing. Because of the breadth and depth of such data sets, a consortium of public and private sector scientists and practitioners continues to play an invaluable role in formulating, evaluating, and communicating standards. UNCERTAINTY OF PUBLIC ROLE The introduction of precision agriculture comes at a particularly interesting time relative to the public sector’s role in agriculture. The 1996 Farm Bill and international trade agreements negotiated in the 1990s appear to have accelerated a trend toward diminishing the federal government’s role in providing price sta- bility in the marketplace. Conversely, the regulatory influence of government entities regarding environmental and food safety issues appears to be increasing. In recent years, the role of private sector firms in agricultural research and devel- opment has increased markedly. As noted earlier, precision agriculture may alter the public sector’s role in research and development. Much of the technology embodied in precision agriculture was developed outside the traditional agricultural research establishment, and it is argued that private sector initiatives will be sufficient to develop precision agriculture to its full potential. However, there continues to be an important public sector role in areas where the private sector cannot completely capture a return on its invest- ment. As noted earlier, the public sector will need to provide fundamental prin- ciples for private sector development of sensors and crop models. The exact na- ture of the public sector’s role is likely to evolve as precision agriculture matures and as other forces in the agricultural setting evolve, but these roles deserve care- ful and ongoing attention. Unbiased, systematic, rigorous evaluations of the economic and environ- mental benefits and costs of precision agricultural methods are needed. USDA should facilitate and coordinate evaluations conducted through col- laborations of public agencies, professional organizations, commercial or- ganizations, and producers. Producers require a diverse set of information sources if they are to most accurately and rapidly evaluate the economic opportunities of precision agricul- ture. Considerable information and advertising are provided by firms supplying the information technology. Although useful, information from these firms will be scrutinized carefully because of the natural commercial interests of these sup- pliers. Many innovative growers are experimenting with the technologies on their farms, but few producers have the scientific expertise or resources to design and implement a scientific investigation. As an information source, the usual farmer “coffee shop” network cannot account for site-specific differences among farms. Producers considering adopting precision agriculture are, therefore, particularly
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 9 interested in unbiased, objective assessments of precision agriculture’s perfor- mance under various conditions and in different regions, summarized to indicate the crops and soil conditions for which precision agriculture is likely to be profit- able. Acceptance and support for precision agriculture similarly depends on the extent to which potential environmental benefits and efficiency gains are actually achieved by particular crop systems. There is a lack of comprehensive data to determine the profitability and envi- ronmental benefits of precision agriculture systems. Because precision agricul- ture is designed to address specific sites in farm fields, evaluations of precision agriculture must be framed in the context of the specific crop and resource condi- tions on which it is applied and the mix of technologies and practices used. Evalu- ators should compare precision agriculture systems with conventional uniform management systems, recognizing that precision agriculture enables changes to crop systems beyond variable-rate application of inputs (i.e., soil quality). Precision agriculture evaluation activities should be undertaken by both the public and private sectors. Organizations in both sectors should work together to avoid possible biases in evaluating efficacy of the technologies. USDA is in a unique position to facilitate and coordinate evaluation and research activities among federal agencies. USDA, and its affiliated land grant system partners, have the agronomic knowledge necessary to evaluate the effec- tiveness of specific information technology-based innovations in precision agri- culture. Where federal agencies outside agriculture have some basic technologi- cal components and expertise necessary to advance precision agriculture, collaboration in that evaluation should be encouraged. Producers and other cus- tomers for precision agriculture technologies should be encouraged to search for multiple sources of information when deciding whether to adopt particular com- ponents of precision agriculture technology. Evaluations should be formally conducted using rigorous scientific and sta- tistical methods, ensuring that differences in system performance are statistically significant. System evaluations are appropriate on technologies that are installed, maintained, and operated as specified by the manufacturer. The crops, soils, ini- tial conditions, and geographic areas over which the results are likely to hold should be clearly stated so that results can be appropriately extrapolated to un- studied situations. Detailed reporting of protocols must be included so that ex- periments can be repeated. Full disclosure of funding sources and of financial interests of researchers, as is currently part of many university reporting systems, will aid users in evaluating research findings. The methods and purposes of publicly funded data collection activities should be periodically reviewed and adjusted to ensure that data are accessible and useful for precision agriculture, as well as supportive of other public and private purposes. The National Cooperative Soil Survey should revise exist- ing procedures to make more effective use of information technologies, farm- generated data, and new concepts in soil science.
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10 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY Public sector investment in data collection and management is often driven by obsolete mandates or narrow programmatic purposes. As the ability to collect, manage, and—particularly—share data improves with advances in information technologies and as budgets for public data collection decline, it becomes even more important to gather data that balance specific agency and program require- ments with broader purposes. For example, simple modifications in data collect- ing or processing methods could make data more useful for precision agriculture. USDA has an opportunity to facilitate data activities among agencies for preci- sion agriculture. Under USDA’s leadership, agencies should: • more effectively coordinate data collection activities among agencies, • use accepted data and metadata data standards, • periodically review the purposes of data collection (i.e., user needs as- sessment), • periodically review methods of data collection, and • make information gathered with public funds easily accessible at low cost (with appropriate safeguards for the anonymity of any producer-supplied datasets). The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS), a partnership of the Natural Resources Conservation Service with local and state agencies and land grant in- stitutions, has been generating soils information for several decades. Much of the variability that is managed with precision agriculture methods arises from vari- ability in soil properties. Practitioners report, however, that current soil surveys satisfy few of their soils data requirements. The soils data are not at an appropri- ate level of detail nor are the indexes required by precision agriculture the same as those provided by soil surveys. Digitizing existing data is not sufficient, either in terms of data resolution or content. Thus, the NCSS process should not be used to collect the detailed information required to support precision agriculture at the subfield level. NCSS could be useful to precision agriculture by providing technical support but will need to modify its soil taxonomy approach to more effectively character- ize soil property variability and soil landscapes. Consultants and producers need some assistance in improving data quality standards and data management meth- ods. Guidance and logistical support on soils data collection and management provided by NCSS could be exchanged for access to soils data useful for other public purposes, such as planning and watershed management. The assembled data sets could not compromise a land manager’s proprietary interests; more pre- cise data could be used with agreements that agencies maintain the confidential- ity of data at the finest resolution. Similarly, public agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service or U.S. Geological Survey could trade data (i.e., high-resolution digital orthophotographs) for more detailed soils data to incre- mentally improve the public stock of soils data. A primary issue for agencies involved in collection of remote sensing data is
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 11 subsequent processing of raw imagery. Georectification and data volume reduc- tion are needed for most applications of these data. To be useful for precision agriculture, these data may need to be further processed into images depicting crop-relevant conditions, such as greenness or soil moisture. Public and private roles in data management and processing should be balanced to protect public interests while supporting private initiatives. High-speed data connectivity is needed in rural areas to support precision agriculture. Agricultural organizations and agencies should work collab- oratively with public agencies and industries to ensure adequate rural con- nectivity. Precision agricultural techniques are data intensive and geographically dis- persed. The interrelated network of agricultural service providers and producers will increase the need for data transfer capabilities. The current reliance on manual transport of data is inconvenient, expensive, and prone to data loss. Telephone networks represent the most likely source of electronic communication in rural areas. The Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996 allows major telecom- munications providers to concentrate their services in the most profitable sectors. In the near term, this could diminish the potential for telecommunication services in rural areas. Strong federal-state-industry partnerships will be required to meet the na- tional goal to provide high-speed data connectivity to all American schools by 2000. State extension programs should become involved in these partnerships to ensure that American farmsteads have the communications technology necessary for precision agriculture. Agricultural organizations should be aware of both the need for a better rural communication system and the potential for degradation of the current service under the deregulated market. IMPLICATIONS OF PRECISION AGRICULTURE A committee objective was to explore what impact the adoption of precision agriculture technologies would have on economic, social, and environmental vari- ables. Because precision agriculture is in early stages of adoption, a rigorous analysis of its impacts and development of conclusions is not feasible. The com- mittee identified four policy issues that should be examined in greater detail when (and if) precision agriculture becomes widely accepted. Adoption Patterns It is difficult to generalize about the expected adoption process for precision agriculture, because precision agriculture is a suite of technologies and practices used to improve agricultural decision making rather than a single technology. Producers, consultants, input suppliers, and researchers will use these tools in
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12 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY various combinations. For example, some producers will use Internet linkages to discover marketing opportunities whereas others will implement precision agri- culture for in-field decision making. Because agriculture is heterogeneous, preci- sion agriculture will vary across crops, geography, and farming systems. Further, it will be impossible to have a sound understanding of the sector-wide effects of precision agriculture on key variables such as profitability, farm size and struc- ture, rural areas, and the environment unless adequate data are available on the extent and rate of adoption. Precision agriculture is a convergence of information technologies and agro- nomic sciences. Evaluation of its diverse innovations will not be consistently favorable nor will the adoption process occur uniformly over time. On the basis of studies of similar innovations, such as irrigation technologies, the greatest long- term potential of precision agriculture may be in geographic areas or in produc- tion systems where input costs are high or crops have high value. Precision agriculture will probably evolve as a combination of services and products. New independent services related to precision agriculture could arise but also are likely to be provided by existing crop consultants and input suppliers. In the latter case, a consultant or supplier would purchase equipment and depreci- ate the capital costs over many acres providing producers with data collection and management services. Alternatively, producers may choose to establish the hard- ware and software equipment in their operations. However, it is likely that a combination of services and products will result in which services are needed to customize precision agriculture systems for each producer’s operation. Farm Structure Adoption of precision agriculture innovations is unlikely to be uniform across farm types and sizes. Production systems include a wide range of operations, some of which are typically performed by the producers and others by the service providers. Even though technically possible, adoption of precision agriculture at the level of each farm unit can be impeded by various factors such as access to capital, management sophistication, and presence of local service providers. Al- though farm size may make a difference in access to all precision agriculture techniques, all farms will likely have access to some of the techniques in the long term. Experience with earlier information-intensive agricultural technologies, such as integrated pest management, indicates that in the long term there should be relatively few, if any, systematic differences across farm size in either access to or advantage from precision agriculture implementation. Smaller operations that cannot afford to purchase information technologies may buy the services pro- vided by consultants. However, there is concern that in the short term, smaller- scale farming operations may have less access to consultants than would larger farming operations, and that consultants will be concentrated in areas of higher
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 13 demand. More direct evidence is needed to determine the potential effect of farm size on diffusion of these technologies. Numerous economic, social, and technological factors interact to alter the distribution of farm sizes in American agriculture. Factors such as global trade, tax policy, and consumer preferences also contribute to more vertically integrated, coordinated operations. The potential effect of adoption of precision agriculture technologies should be considered in the context of these other factors. Rural Employment In general, the capability to integrate and support the hardware and software tools of precision agriculture is currently lacking in rural communities. There- fore, widespread adoption of precision agriculture will depend on economic in- centives to enhance the support infrastructure in rural America. Those support needs include human and social capital and an adequate communications base. Human capital needs will likely be met by a combination of service providers located in rural areas and the development of products embodying expert infor- mation that can be imported from areas already rich in human capital. Market forces and government policies will determine which, if either, of these ap- proaches dominates. When effectively and widely used, precision agriculture will be data inten- sive and will generate those data in remote locations. An effective communica- tion system will be a critical factor in the adoption of these technologies. Addi- tionally, high-speed data connectivity is essential for precision agriculture to attain its full potential. Environmental Quality Precision agriculture may simultaneously improve farm profitability and re- duce environmental spillover from agriculture. Thus, potential improvements in environmental quality may be an important reason for using precision agriculture technologies. This view is rooted in the sensible belief that agricultural pollution comes from inputs that do not reach their target. Calibrating input usage more precisely should increase the percentage of applied inputs taken up by crops, thereby simultaneously reducing economic waste and emissions into the environ- ment. Field-level agronomic studies show that precision agriculture may permit large reductions in fertilizer and pesticide application rates without sacrificing crop yields. Limited experience with precision agriculture and more extensive experi- ence with similar technologies, however, suggest that precision agriculture will likely result in less environmental improvement than indicated by field-level ag- ronomic studies. Moreover, some field level studies show that reductions in fer- tilizer or pesticide applications may not result in reductions in ambient concentra-
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14 PRECISION AGRICULTURE IN THE 21ST CENTURY tions of chemicals that cause environmental damage, presumably because natural degradation rates change in response to changing application rates. Economic factors may also limit reductions in chemical application rates at the field level and in the aggregate. At the field level, precision agriculture technologies may increase crop response to inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. For example, technologies that allow producers to change application rates in response to changes in soil moisture, pest infestation levels, or other growing conditions will likely increase marginal fertilizer and pesticide productivity. Similarly, better in- formation about soils may induce farmers to increase their estimates of yield potential. In such cases, use of these inputs is unlikely to be reduced as much as anticipated, and it may even become profitable to increase input application rates. At the regional level, precision agriculture technologies may create incentives for farmers to expand the cultivation of crops that use these inputs relatively more intensively, resulting in higher total emissions of agricultural pollutants even if emissions per unit area fall. Such research should concentrate on broader-scale effects, however, such as impacts at the watershed or ecosystem, rather than field- level effects, and should consider the impacts of economic incentives as well as agronomic considerations. Some producers may adopt precision agriculture technologies with the ex- pectations that the technologies will generate environmental benefits. However, economic incentives to adopt precision agriculture so as to improve existing envi- ronmental quality will exist only in settings where farmers bear at least a share of the costs of agricultural pollution. Although precision agriculture may be a means of effecting reductions in agricultural pollution, it is not a substitute for agricul- tural pollution control policy. Because precision agriculture technologies and services are seen as another profit arena for agribusiness (and an entry into agribusiness for other information technology providers), the status quo of capital- and chemical-intensive forms of agriculture will be maintained and in many areas bolstered. Conceptually, preci- sion agriculture could contribute to organic farming and systems commonly re- ferred to as reduced-input agriculture; however, this may not be considered prof- itable by technology providers. Determination of environmentally sound uses of precision agriculture is an appropriate public sector role. POTENTIALS FOR PRECISION AGRICULTURE The committee believes that precision agriculture offers new and emerging technologies to address information needs for management of crop production. Widespread adoption of precision agriculture technologies will constitute a new way to practice agriculture at ever finer spatial and temporal resolutions, offering the potential to be both more economically and environmentally efficient. How- ever, precision agriculture technology is new and largely unproven. Widespread adoption depends on economic gains outstripping the costs of the technology.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 15 Lessons from the adoption of other agricultural and information technologies urge caution in anticipating the growth of precision agriculture use. Widespread adop- tion of precision agriculture methods will create some changes in farm operations and social institutions that can be anticipated and, where they are negative, miti- gated. Many of the important findings in this report deal with the range of public policy responses to precision agriculture’s evolution and adoption.
Representative terms from entire chapter: