The future is now in U.S. agriculture. And, if nothing else, this makes the job easier for the prognosticators and soothsayers among us whose job it is to tell the future.
Genetically modified crops and precision agriculture technologies are evidence enough that we currently are witnessing the most profound changes in U.S. agriculture since industrialization. This was the shared opinion of the researchers, government officials and business leaders who gathered in Georgia recently for the second annual National Symposium on the Future of Agriculture.
Most of the discussion at the symposium focused on current trends in U.S. agriculture and the emerging technologies that will direct the industry's future.
While the future of agriculture itself appears to be secure, it's not yet certain who will produce our food and fiber and where it will be produced, said Gale Buchanan, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Agriculture's scientific base already has been redefined though biotechnology, said Michael Boehlje, a Purdue University researcher. American farmers, however, haven't fully redefined their role in agriculture's future.
"U.S. farmers must grow more differentiated crops and fewer commodities," said Boehlje. "They also must provide high-quality products with less opportunity for contamination."
The best new markets for American farmers do not include customary farm products, he said. "Whether U.S. farmers focus on growing cloned animals for therapeutic use, soybeans and wheat for nutriceuticals or corn-based raw materials for biodegradable manufacturing, it's clear that growing food will become less of a priority."
Andy Paterson, a University of Georgia geneticist, contended that while biotechnology is a driving force in agriculture's future, it's certainly not a new concept. "Transformation is the process of introducing a gene into an organism, and it's been around since 1928," he said.
Genetically modified crops now are widely used by American farmers, he added. In 2000, modified agricultural products included 25 percent of the U.S. corn acreage, 54 percent of soybeans and 61 percent of cotton, as well as some tomatoes, potatoes, squash and canola.
Other emerging technologies that promise to make U.S. farmers more productive include the spatial technologies associated with precision farming, including global positioning and satellite mapping, said Craig Kvein, a researcher at the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory (NESPAL) in Tifton, Ga.
"We get excited about the potential, but the products just aren't what they could be, so adoption is slow," he said. "It's a very tough time to be thinking about investing in new technology, but we have to do it. The test is knowing which ones to invest in."
Computers also will continue to move agriculture forward, said Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, a University of Missouri economist. A 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of farmers' use of computers showed that the Western United States is far ahead of the rest of the country with averages near 65 to 75 percent. Several Southern states, including Georgia, are the lowest, with only 25 to 30 percent of farmers using computers.
"Eventually, computer chips will be imbedded in everything we do," said Kalaitzandonakes. "Computers will be with us in every part of our lives. The rate of innovation is getting faster and the impact of it more significant."
The symposium also featured a U.S. House of Representatives field hearing for the purpose of making an official statement for the Congressional Record. Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a member of the House agriculture committee who chaired the hearing, said that biotechnology has helped to make American farmers more productive, environmentally conscious and competitive.
"Yet, many global customers don't view the advances so positively," said Chambliss. "The opposition to biotechnology today is similar to that faced earlier this century to hybridization and pasteurization. The future will turn when we convince folks about value of biotechnology."
During the hearing, Chambliss noted that almost 47 percent of U.S. net farm income last year came from federal government payouts. And that percentage is expected to at least be equaled this year.
"We know that's not the way we need to operate. We need to work with commodity groups to get prices up and keep them at decent levels. People blame the 1996 farm bill, but it's getting undue criticism. Other problems have contributed more significantly to this situation."