May 20, 2014

Commentary - Research, Science and Technology for Climate Smart Agriculture

By Margaret Zeigler and Edona Dervisholli

Margaret Zeigler is Executive Director of the Global Harvest Initiative and Edona Dervisholli is a Policy Intern at Global Harvest Initiative. This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 22.

The Chicago Council Symposium theme “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of Weather Volatility and Climate Change” is a timely one. The release on March 31 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report III entitled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, helps us better understand the effects of climate change to date and learn of future risks that lie ahead.

In particular, climate change is a serious threat to agricultural production and food security. Climate change, particularly decreased rainfall and extreme weather patterns, disrupts food production and agriculture development, creating economic volatility and food insecurity. Climate change will have the greatest impact in areas where hunger and malnutrition are already persistent problems, particularly in Africa and South Asia.  

Climate change and weather volatility also impact food and agriculture production here in the U.S. The Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) 2013 Global Agricultural Productivity Report® (GAP Report®) describes a case study that explains how we can make agriculture more ‘climate smart.’ The study shows how collaborative research, science and technology are applied to solve challenges of extreme weather and the impact on agriculture. While the example takes place in the U.S., the model of this collaborative effort can be applied in other regions of the world where drought and rainfall is increasingly erratic and where irrigation technology exists, but could be made more precise and efficient.

The Lower Flint River in southeastern United States is a region where agricultural intensification has heightened in the past decades as farmers produce sweet corn, cotton, peanuts and pecans worth more than $2 billion in revenue annually. However, productivity is slowing due to the multi-year droughts and sustained water use from both underground aquifers and the Flint River. As a result of these challenges, the Flint River Partnership Initiative was forged between a coalition of farmers, researchers, conservationists and private companies to advance the efficiency of agricultural water use and to shift innovative irrigation and conservation practice from the research laboratory to the field.

Step One: Research

Thepartnership uses state-of-the-art research and technology to make agriculture more precise and to grow more “crop per drop”. This model was launched in 2004 by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District. Other partners including University of Georgia, University of Florida, along with regional farmers and companies, such as Coca-Cola and IBM.  

The partnership conducted research on how to improve irrigation by using variable rates of application (varying the amount of water applied depending on soil needs and weather conditions).  IBM has been working with the partnership to develop new tools for agricultural conservation such as “Deep Thunder” which is an advanced weather prediction service to aid farmers in the Flint River Basin to better schedule their operations based on a 72-hour forecasts of weather events at a one kilometer resolution…in other words, farmers will know the precise weather conditions for their fields, 3 days in advance.

Step Two: Field Trials

The partnership extended variable rate irrigation methods and technologies to fields, and experimented with the amount of water applied to various places depending on soil needs and weather conditions. This system, saves an average of 15 percent water use each year and can be adapted to most center-pivot irrigation systems across the globe.

Step Three: Precision Agriculture and Data Technology

To increase the accuracy of irrigation, farmers placed sensor probes in the soil to track moisture levels. The data from these sensors are transmitted to home computers so farmers can access the information and analyze the data to determine where and when to apply water.   Plans are underway for using the probes to measure nutrients and soil acidity.  The partnership is working with IBM to integrate data from tractors, such as fuel usage and the types and amount of seed applied, to provide additional precision on the farm input process to reduce cost and energy use. 

When combined with high-yielding, drought tolerant seeds and practices such as conservation tillage, precision agriculture technologies have the potential to save billions of gallons of water globally in the decades to come. Collaborative research, the application of field trials, and using innovative precision data technology are a critical steps to help make agriculture more ‘climate smart.’ The Flint River Partnership is an excellent model for improving productivity in the face of climate change.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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