You don’t need a person called an “operator” to manually connect cables and help you make a phone call. And farmers don’t use oxes or mules anymore either. Life in the 21st Century is pretty great.
No matter where you look, technology’s promise is the same in every corner of our lives: more from less. High performance with minimal input. Better results through greater efficiency. More reliable output with fewer costs. Greater production with less waste.
This phenomenon is on dramatic display in American agriculture right now. Technology and innovation have improved yields while rolling back both environmental and financial costs from a generation or two ago. In 2013, farmers produced 14 billion bushels of corn on 87.5 million acres of land — twice as much per acre than 25 years ago.
They’re also doing it more sustainably than ever. Less irrigation. Less tilling, to protect soil carbon. Less pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer. Fewer passes across a field with farm equipment, which reduces diesel fuel consumption. And each new growing season, those improvements come with measureable data and concrete evidence of success — thanks to the relentless advance of technology.
According to a study by Field to Market, the amount of land needed to produce one bushel of corn has dropped more than 37 percent since 1987. The amount of energy needed to produce that bushel has also dropped 37 percent since then.
This has helped accelerate ethanol along a positive environmental trajectory — cleaner and more sustainable fuel year after year. The same can’t be said of petroleum.
At the very time that ethanol is improving its environmental profile thanks to sustainable farming practices, petroleum extraction has become dirtier (Alberta Tar Sands), more difficult (deep water drilling in the gulf) and the subject of intense concern for its environmental dangers (the Keystone XL pipeline’s threat to the Oglala aquifer and the 2010 BP Oil Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico).
There are three notable reasons annual yields of field corn, the primary feedstock for most ethanol in the United States — and not a food crop — has exploded even as inputs like fertilizer, water, herbicide, and pesticides have diminished:
The rise of precision agriculture. The same digital technology that powers your smart phone and laptop computer is now hard at work revolutionizing agriculture. A combination of hardware, software, GPS or satellite-driven location-based services and data management known as “Precision Agriculture” has given incredible power to farmers to do more with less. Precision ag means farmer can now plant the right seeds in the right locations in the right soil on their fields with a margin of error less than an inch. It also means he or she can very precisely apply fertilizer and crop protection products with astonishing control and accuracy. That means less waste.
No-till farming and improved soil management. Tilling soil is an age-old weed, pest and irrigation management practice on farms around the world. But tilling can degrade soil organic matter, lead to compaction and accelerate soil erosion. More and more American farmers are using no- or low-till techniques that leave the ground undisturbed with crop residue left covering the field. That residue helps the soil retain moisture and simultaneously reduces the need for irrigation while significantly boosting yields. No-till farming improves soil organic matter content. That helps to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and reduces the overall carbon footprint of the farm. According to the USDA, as much as one third (1/3) of US corn is grown in a no-till operation, a figure expected to rise.
Striking improvements in seed technology. Corn is unique among all crops in that it can be rapidly and very precisely bred for important traits — drought, pest and herbicide resistance, among many others. The revolution in biotechnology has meant we can grow more of this commodity with fewer inputs on the same amount of land. Seed technology is one of the most important breakthroughs to protect conversation lands, preserve habitat for native species and improve species diversity in the soil. The science has dramatically improved the productivity of each acre of existing farmland and is moving agriculture beyond the harsh crop protection chemistries of the past.
As these environmental practices improve and proliferate with every new growing season, the benefits continue to improve ethanol’s environmental profile.
In other words, conventional fuel and ethanol are moving in opposite directions.