The Role of Technology in Sustainable Agriculture

Scott H. Hutchins
Global Director, Crop Protection R & D
Dow AgroSciences
9330 Zionsville Road
Indianapolis, IN 46268

The notion that agriculture, as a global practice, has been exploiting resources faster than they could be renewed has been a topic of discussion and debate for decades, perhaps centuries. Symptoms of imbalance have been seen in the form of pollution, soil erosion/loss, wildlife population decline/shifts, and general alteration of a "natural" flora/fauna as a result of human intervention. Indeed, agricultural practices are undeniably "unnatural", regardless of whether the production is a one square meter vegetable garden in Tokyo or a one million hectare rubber tree plantation in Malaysia. Of course, an equally unnatural and parallel phenomenon has been the exponential growth in human population, with associated demands for both food and shelter, which have often exceeded the "natural" carrying capacity of land. Based upon the premise that human population growth will not be constrained as a result of food shortages due to overriding social values, this article makes three assertions regarding the role technology in sustainable agriculture:

  • Technology has/will increase agricultural productivity
  • Technology development has-been/will-be sustainable
  • Technology is, therefore, the basis for Sustainable Agriculture

Food is subject to the economic principles of scarcity. Unlike the artificial value of scarce items such as gold, an adequate supply of food is paramount to population survival and skill diversification, making agriculture a first level priority. Technology has enabled human civilization to leave the "Hunter / Gatherer" paradigm of existence and concentrate labor and land to the sole purpose of food production on an ever-increasing scale. The concept of "scientific agriculture" dates to publications by Liebig in 1840 and Johnston in 1842, which speculated about the role of chemistry in agriculture (Pesek, 1993). The concepts of inheritance and Mendelian genetics were soon to follow in 1865 and subsequently stimulated the biological basis for modern agriculture. Soon, science-based institutions in Europe and North America eagerly expanded the application of biological and chemical sciences to agriculture, spawning new technologies and approaches. These early applications of technology have not only increased food production in real terms, but have dramatically reduced the number of individuals directly involved in food production/processing – enabling the diversification of society to address social issues not directly related to "survival", but generally seen to increase the quality of life.

To deny the role that biological and chemical technology have played, continue to play, and will play in the future development of agriculture is to deny natural history itself. The indiscriminate or inappropriate use of chemical and biological technology, however, can clearly produce negative consequences to the ecosystem and threaten the long-term viability of the enterprise. The central issue of sustainability, therefore, is preservation of nonrenewable resources.

Food production, habitat preservation, resource conservation, and farm business management are not mutually exclusive objectives. Credible arguments have been advanced to suggest that production of food via high-yield agriculture techniques can meet the nutrition requirements of the global population (Avery, 1995). The balance can be achieved through planning land use – with a considerate analysis of what parcels of land to employ for high-yield agriculture while retaining marginal or poor land for non-agricultural activities or wildlife habitat preserves (Anonymous, 1999). Studies to quantify the impact on production of reducing or limiting inputs to agriculture have suggested that yields/hectare would decrease from 35% to 80% depending upon the crop (Smith et al.). Without a concurrent decrease in demand, the amount of land that must be utilized would increase dramatically. In fact, global land in production today, which is roughly the size of South America, would need to be the size of South America and North America if the high yield benefits of technology were not employed (Richards, 1990). If the motivation of sustainability is optimization of production and resource conservation objectives, then progress can clearly be achieved.

Sustainability in agriculture relates to the capacity of an agroecosystem to predictably maintain production through time. A key concept of sustainability, therefore, is stability under a given set of environmental and economic circumstances that can only be managed on a site-specific basis. If the perspective of sustainability is one of bias against the use of biological and chemical technology, and espouses a totally natural ecosystem, then agriculture as a practice is already excluded. If, on the other hand, the perspective of sustainability is one of preservation of non-renewable resources within the scope of the agricultural enterprise, then the objective is not only achievable, but good business practice and good environmental management.

To a large extent, the rate of technology development and the degree of innovation in future technologies will greatly influence the stability, and certainly the productivity, of agriculture (Hutchins and Gehring, 1993). Technology, in the classical sense, includes the development and use of nutrients, pest control products, crop cultivars, and farm equipment; but it also includes the vision of genetically modified crops providing greater nutritional efficiency (more calories per yield, or more yield), manipulation of natural pest control agents, and use of farm management techniques that focus on whole-farm productivity over time, not just annual production per hectare. Consider the basic premise of biotechnology: the least expensive and most renewable source of energy on Earth is the sun and the most abundant and predictable mechanism to convert the energy from the sun to useable energy is photosynthesis -- biotechnology has enabled methods to direct abundant natural energy to new more efficient or unique food products. The imagination is literally the limit to the opportunities. Short term objectives will of course focus on yield, quality, and input reduction. Long term, however, the genetically-created "transmissions" will focus on creating super-nutritious feed for animals, plants that outproduce the subtractive influence of pests (making "tolerance" a key pest management tactic), physiological adaptation to out-compete adjacent species (e.g., weeds), drought stress tolerance, and overall improvement in the rate of photosynthesis (leading to any number of industrial applications).

The development and use of agricultural technology is not, however, limited to genetic wizardry. Indeed, the use of computational technology, combined with geographical location devices and remote sensing advancements, promise to radically change the way all crops will be managed. Commonly referred to as "Precision Agriculture", the underlying theme is integration of information to create management knowledge as a means to address site-specific production goals. Uncertainty with the environment will always be a key issue with agriculture, but this too will be managed as environmental modeling, combined with risk management algorithms, will lead to the optimal use of genetics on specific soils within known weather profiles. And, breakthroughs will continue to be seen in the "classical" technologies that have exponentially increased world food production since the advent of "scientific agriculture" in the late 1800’s. In addition to advances in productivity, technology will be used to remediate land that has been overused or misused through poor agricultural practices.

The concept of Best Management Practices will continue to be a key focus, regardless of the current state of technological offerings. Strategies, such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) consider the site-specific circumstances, but also the values and business considerations of the agricultural producers. IPM has been essential in describing the role and rationale for responsibly managing pests, pointing scientists and practitioners alike to identify future needs in biological information, and placing pest control in perspective with production goals. To this end, the concept of pest Economic-injury Levels has been central to dismiss the notion that pests must be controlled at all cost in favor of break-even analysis (i.e., Gain Threshold; Stone and Pedigo, 1972).

Sustainability is indeed an issue of survival, but is far broader than the concept of habitat destruction and soil erosion. Sustainability includes the goal of food production, welfare of the food producers, and preservation of nonrenewable resources. To that end, technology of all types has been and will be the enabling man-made component that will link these two overriding objectives. Indeed, history confirms that technology has been essential to agricultural productivity/stability, current breakthroughs in technology confirm that the discovery and development of new technologies is a sustainable endeavor, and common sense directs us to the conclusion that technology will enable Sustainable Agriculture.


  • Anonymous. 1999. Sierra Club Exec and Other Greens Endorse High-Yield Agriculture and Biotech Crops, In Global Food Quarterly. No. 26: 3-5. Hudson Institute.
  • Avery, D.T. 1995. Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. Hudson Institute.
  • Hutchins, S.H. and P.J. Gehring. 1993. Perspective on the Value, Regulation, and Objective Utilization of Pest Control Technology. Amer. Entomol. 39: 12-15.
  • Pesek, J. 1993. Historical Perspective. In, Sustainable Agriculture Systems (Hatfield, J.L. and D.L. Karlen, eds.). CRC Press: Boca Raton, Florida, USA.
  • Richards, J.F. 1990. The Earth as Transformed by Human Action. Cambridge University Press.
  • Smith, E.G., R.D. Knutson, C.R. Taylor, and J.B. Penson. (undated). Impacts of Chemical Use Reduction on Crop Yields and Costs, Agricultural and Food Policy Center, Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University, in cooperation with the National Fertilizer and Environmental Research Center of the Tennessee Valley Authority, College Station, TX.
  • Stone, J.D., and L.P. Pedigo. 1972. Development of economic-injury level of the green cloverworm on soybean in Iowa. J. Econ. Entomol. 65: 197-201.