Wednesday 20 September 2023

The Importance of Quality Control in Agriculture


Developed countries like the United States of America moved beyond subsistence agriculture long ago. Today, their farms operate and produce on a scale that accommodates high consumer demand at home and robust international trade abroad. In so doing, producers must continuously monitor yields and update best practices in order to bring in larger harvests while, simultaneously, exercising responsible stewardship of the land. It begins and ends with the soil. Preserving soil health, fostering organic matter and improving arability is often a delicate balancing act. Fortunately, science and technology provide important tools to these ends and to quality control in general.


By Brittany Cotton 

The Necessity of Quality Control in Agriculture



What exactly does quality control mean in the context of farming and agribusiness? Why is it so necessary? As with any economic sector, agriculture adheres to certain standards for growing crops and raising animals. Quality control aims to conform to those guidelines for the benefit of consumers and the sustainability of farms. Any number of factors will boost or degrade the quality of crops, for example. Among them are:


        Weather and climate -- including rain and snow; heat and cold; humidity and dryness; the strength and impact of winds; and the intensity of solar rays.

        Soil conditions -- including topography, soil texture, molecular structure and ability to retain moisture; organic matter like microbial biomass and decomposing floral and faunal tissue; and soil pH and temperature.

        Biological influences -- like diseases and nematodes as well as the presence of pests and weeds

        Cultural factors -- such as tilling practices, geographic isolation as well as the timing and density of planting.



Quality control involves adjusting these and other factors to come closer to commodity standards and specifications. How does this help?


1. Quality control leads to better productivity. It prods farmers toward greater efficiency through superior tools and strategies. From tillage to planting to cultivation to harvest, farmers can reduce their time in the field and maximize their yields through quality control.


2. Quality controls are also put into place in order to minimize waste. Accurate seed drilling is an example of precision planting in terms of spacing and depth. This assures that each seed has a greater likelihood of germination and emergence.


3. Implementing more advanced technology for a farm operation allows producers to receive real-time input from agronomists and other scientists. These experts can then track developments using as much or as little data that farmers choose to share.


4. Quality control technology and strategies also allow producers to streamline their operations, shedding many expenses related to manpower and materials.


5. In the end, quality controls and precision tools serve the cause of sustainability. Equipment has greater longevity; land suffers less compaction; and there is less pressure on financial resources.


Ultimately, quality control measures are good for the environment, good for the bottom line and good for farmer peace of mind. These benefits are forwarded to traders and consumers who rece3ive superior crops and livestock.


Employing Microbiology and Pharmacology in Agriculture



As noted above, soil fertility is a variable in the improvement of agricultural output and the quality of crops. Also influential -- in a negative way -- are the effects of plant diseases. Thus, quality control seeks to foster the former while inhibiting the latter. Microbes play a vital role in both efforts. In addition, they are central in post-farm processes such as fermentation, preservation and flavor enhancement. As the world population burgeons and weather patterns become more unpredictable, scientists endeavor in response to utilize micro-organisms to grow larger and sturdier harvests.


One way to use microbes is to wield them as molecular biological tools (MBTs). Rhizobacteria, for instance, are formed at the roots of legumes and they can help, hinder or have no effect on growth. On the positive side, they work to convert atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into fixed nitrogen compounds in the soil upon which a plant can feed. Furthermore, they can defend the plant against pathogens. At the same time, however, the nutrients rhizobacteria produce attract competition from adjacent vegetation. Plus, the plant's creation of nodules as hubs for the rhizobacteria consumes significant energy from photosynthesis.


Clearly, looking at rhizobacteria as MBTs, quality control intends to emphasize the nitrogen fixing activity while finding ways to curtail competition-related nutrient loss. The use of MBTs, then, could complement a fertilizer strategy aimed at extending the length of the crops' roots -- a proven measure at reducing competition. In this way, harvests are more plentiful, on the one hand, and more vigorous on the other. The stubbornness of pesticide residues is another threat to agricultural sustainability with regard to soil health and water purity. However, a number of microbes, like Rhizopus fungus, are effective in the degradation and neutralization of these chemicals.


This leads to the related topic of pharmacology in agriculture. most people in the course of life have need to restore and sustain their health through some form of chemical intervention. Crops and livestock are no different. As noted above, pesticides and herbicides -- in their primary mission of protecting a plant -- can also, like human drugs, leave detrimental side effects. In the same vein, veterinary medications in animals are sometimes a mix of benefits and complications. All kinds of diseases respond to pharmacological treatment. Quality controls preserve effective treatments decreasing undesirable reactions or by-products.


High-level research is ongoing in diseases and threats as varied as apple canker, whitefly pests, rust, Aster yellows, leaf blight, leaf scorch and countless other dangers to field crops and orchards. Meanwhile, herds and flocks receive routine vaccinations for bovine virus diarrhea (BVD), pinkeye, porcine respiratory and reproductive syndrome as well as many others. All this occurs in the service of creating and administering chemical solutions that keep farm animals strong, healthy and growing. Sickness not only leads to premature death, it can also stunt weight gain and render some animals economically valueless. This is why medicines and pesticides are essential to quality control.


What is the Public Significance of Quality Control in Agriculture?



There is a public stake in food production, processing and distribution. In fact, there are good reasons the general public should take an interest in these processes.


Health and Nutrition



The growing of crops and raising of animals has a direct impact on the overall health of consumers everywhere. Consider the production of meat. Setting aside philosophical opposition to consuming animal flesh, meat is a significant source of protein, B-complex vitamins and essential amino acids. Yet the variations in amount and proportions of these nutrients found in the flesh relates to the nutritional sources consumed before slaughter. Consequently, quality control in feeding and diet makes a difference in the quality of meat on the table.


How about fruit? Does quality control in the orchard influence the well-being of the end-users? One of the markers of quality fruit is "nutraceutical content." i.e. nutritionally or medicinally beneficial components. Depending on the fruit, nutraceutical content increases and then peaks as the fruit ripens. Growers must pick at just the right time for this reason -- as well as for optimal taste, firmness and acidity. There is technology that can measure sugar content, another indicator of the best time to harvest.


Environment and Sustainability



There is much talk these days about agriculture and its role in climate change and other environmental challenges. The vast majority of farmers, truth be told, are sensitive to the vulnerabilities of land, air and water.


One aspect of farming that inhibits healthy growth is soil compaction due to heavy machinery traversing the fields. This places stress on the soil by reducing or eliminating air spaces beneath the surface into which water, oxygen and nutrients can penetrate. Sluggish root growth, weak emergence and unstable soil -- all resulting from compaction -- lead to less robust plants and smaller yield overall. Worse, highly compacted soil allows for more runoff of applied chemicals when it rains. This has ominous implications for adjacent waterways and the soil itself.


To counter these ill effects with quality control, farmers now have measuring instruments that locate and evaluate compaction density. From these readings, they can redesign rows in some cases and re-route tractor patterns. They can also identify where tillage might be necessary. This helps to facilitate drainage and reduce the chances of chemicals traveling beyond the farm's boundaries.


Another quality control measure with ecological consequences is waste management. Manure, of course, is full of nutrients that are worth recycling back into the soil. Still, many livestock farms generate more animal waste than is usable. Under these circumstances, state governments are requiring farmers to submit plans on how they will handle the surplus: storage, treatment, removal e.g. The emphasis is on containment to protect public health and neighboring properties. A different quality control technique is the employment of anaerobic digestion that extracts the methane from manure to generate electricity. What is left -- digestate -- is ash that has multiple uses in addition to fertilizer.


Quality Control in Precision Agriculture



In high finance, the rule of thumb says "buy low, sell high." Precision agriculture works much the same way. This means the inputs for bringing a crop to harvest should be held to a minimum whereas the harvest itself should be bountiful, healthy and fetch a good price. To be, well, precise, precision agriculture uses advanced technology for the purpose of reducing water usage, insecticide applications and fertilizer spread. In addition, these technologies allow for more yield per acre, perhaps leaving some land fallow each year.


In and of itself, precision agriculture is quality control. It is a data-driven practice whereby farmers continually test and measure the performance of various inputs. Tractors are outfitted with global positioning systems and monitoring devices that can track seed depth, spacing, rate of fertilizer application, surface slope and even plant health by means of a normalized difference vegetation index. Remote sensing technology can guide tractor-driven implements and combine harvesters in ways the naked eye does not. This fosters efficient planting, cultivation and harvesting. From a satellite perspective, land use becomes very different and offers many more options to working farmers. Smart irrigation systems distribute just the right amounts of water to just the right fields and locations.


Animal agriculture accommodates precision agriculture too. Markets demand larger livestock, better milk output, freedom from diseases and the least possible environmental impact. This is a tall order even with state-of-the-art technology. Mounted sensor surveillance cameras -- in barns and outside -- follow animal behavior and movement. This is important especially when tracing the pathology of diseases. They also follow pastured animals' mating practices. When dairy cattle mate successfully the natural way, farmers spend less on artificial means of impregnation.


Precision technology has another benefit: tracking nutrition. Livestock farmers are serious about feed conversion ratios, i.e. how efficiently an animal turns feed into meat, eggs or milk. The higher the output side of the ratio, the better in terms of efficiency. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have developed a system of ear tags, radio frequency identification technology and software applications to audit the feeding and growth of specific animals -- beef cattle, dairy cows and pigs, primarily. If outputs reach their goals with less feed, farmers can cut back on it, saving some money and labor that usually goes into managing nutrition.


The essence of quality control in agriculture and other industries is to raise commodities that markets and consumers desire while preserving and increasing profit margins. Additionally, QC in agriculture seeks ways to maintain the land, waterways and atmosphere for the sake of sustainability and environmental health. That research and development have provided technology to meet these objectives is good for farmers as well as processors, wholesalers and retailers. Without a doubt, consumers also benefit. From the molecular level to farm design, quality control in agriculture follows the age-old maxim -- do more with less -- using cutting edge science.


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