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Climate-smart farmers break new ground

More farmers seem more open to new practices, leading to to higher crop yields, or doing more with less. The limits in agriculture are fading as farmers show greater willingness for today's innovation.

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A farmer in Cuba works at a hydroponic farm which uses specialized irrigation methods to grow vegetables in non-rural areas of Havana.

AP Photo/file

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Experts on global agriculture were startled last year when record crop yields started to show up in unlikely places, such as Africa. Were farmers adopting the latest seed varieties resistant to global warming? Were they using better fertilizers?

Not likely. The answer was that more farmers in poor countries are simply open to the many new ideas about agriculture.

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The great leap in crop productivity since the 1960s, driven largely by better seeds, is continuing today but mainly because of wider acceptance of a range of practices, such as drip irrigation, minimum tilling, and GPS-assisted planting and harvesting.

One new idea on the horizon: Attaching sensors to crops – even barcodes – and tracking them from harvest to store so that consumers are assured of origin, freshness, and other aspects of their food. Such FedEx-style tracking could greatly reduce wastage and raise efficiency for farmers.

The umbrella terms for this new narrative in food production is “climate-smart agriculture” or “sustainable intensification,” according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. The effect on food security from the new techniques could be substantial. The institute predicts they could reduce the risk of hunger by close to 30 percent by 2050.

The strategy is to do “more with less,” largely by growing more food with currently available cropland and water resources. In a study published last week in Science magazine, a team of scientists found that better use of resources for only 17 crops could help feed an additional 850 million people. Oddly enough, that is about the same number of people who go hungry every day, according to the United Nations.

New innovations in raising yields are needed more than ever in an era of climate change and resource constraints. Yet the ideas just keep on coming. The real limit seems to be a farmer’s willingness to try them. Now perhaps even that limit has been broken.