For use in local newspapers, week of December 20, 2013:
While there might be urban myths to the contrary, farmers have always embraced the latest technology.
When mechanized agriculture began in the early 1920s farmers put aside their mules and plows and climbed aboard spike-wheeled tractors. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the combine ushered in an era of truly mechanized harvesting, farmers discarded their threshers and reapers. And today just about every farmer I know has at least one auto-steer tractor. Soon we’ll embrace a technology that will likely remove the farmer from the farm machine completely. And that time will come sooner rather than later.
Like the rest of the world, farmers are technology consumers. Everyone I know has a smartphone. And be it smartphones, video games, iPads, apps, the list could go on and on, our society and our economy run, function and communicate via technology.
Technology has become so advanced that we now use the “phone” portion of the smartphone far less than we use the device to browse the web, tap into social media, listen to music and play games (Yes, days can be long on the farm. We like a little distraction as well as the next person.)
Most will agree that technology is changing the way we do just about everything and by all accounts we can’t get enough of it. That is until we start talking about food technology.
Often referred to as biotechnology, food technology has been fighting an uphill battle for what seems like the last three decades. For some, any talk of technology when it comes to our food supply and their mindsets automatically revert to the Dark Ages. “Frankenfoods” they call them. I hate that word. When the first plant scientists began crossbreeding quality traits in grains and oilseeds 300 years ago no one said a word. They just knew the town or village needed more food.
For years, farmers and ranchers have used technology to produce more food, feed, fiber and fuel, while using less acreage, chemicals and water. Now, facing quite possibly the biggest challenge of our generation, to produce 100 percent more food by 2050, we will need technology to feed far more than our brains and our Facebook accounts.
In fact, in doubling the amount of food grown in the next 37 years, 70 percent of that additional food will have to come from efficiency-enhancing technologies that will compensate for one of the few things technology can’t produce: farm and ranch land.
Through advancements in science and technology, agriculture production has made tremendous strides. Consider the improvements to corn yields since the mid-to-late 1800s. In 1870, the national corn yield was 29bushels per acre. This year, corn yields are projected to be 155.3 bushels per acre. The advancements in science and technology have resulted in a roughly 436 percent increase in the nation’s corn yields since 1870.
Today, approximately 90 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are adopted from a biotech variety. Yet, there has not been a single documented, statistically significant incident of harm to human health or to the environment. Due to the stellar performance of biotechnology products, the U.S. government, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences all have embraced the safety and benefits of these critical advancements. Still, some people are reluctant to accept this technology, let alone embrace it, as a means of feeding an increasing population.
To those who continue to be skeptical of biotechnology, please consider this: every choice you and I make involves risk. Waking up, eating breakfast, taking a shower, driving to work or even walking on the sidewalk has its hazards. And what about your new smartphone? There are risks associated with that, too. The reality is that we accept that technology can help mitigate these risks to the benefit of all society.
Why are we still in the Dark Ages in our approach to food technology, but we’re giddy over the release of the iPhone 5s? With a partner in technology, farmers and ranchers are prepared to meet the food, fuel and fiber demands of the 21st century, but there, too, is a risk: the minority who contradict their own acceptance of technology could ultimately eliminate food options for those who would take a meal over the latest iPhone any day.