Published on 08/16/00

Technology Is the Future of U.S. Agriculture

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U.S. agriculture is facing perhaps its biggest revolution since industrialization, said experts at the National Symposium on the Future of Agriculture in Athens Aug. 10-11.

"The future of agriculture is secure," said Gale Buchanan, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"What's not secure," he said, "is who will produce our food and fiber, and where it will be produced."

The second annual symposium brought together researchers, government officials and business leaders from around the country. They addressed the prospects for the industry's future.

The symposium included a U.S. House of Representatives field hearing to make an official statement for the Congressional Record. Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a member of the House agriculture committee, chaired the hearing.

Change and Technology

Discussion at the symposium centered around structural changes in the way U.S. agriculture does business and emerging technology that will direct the future of the industry.

"We have the potential to profoundly redefine the role of U.S. agriculture," Michael Boehlje, a Purdue University researcher, told the audience. "We are already redefining the science base for economic development through biotechnology."

Boehje said U.S. farmers must grow more differentiated crops and fewer commodities. "They also must provide high-quality products with less opportunity for contamination," he said.

The greatest new markets for American farmers are far from standard 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 a priority.

Biotech Nothing New

Biotechnology has helped make American farmers more productive, environmentally careful and competitive. Yet many global customers don't view the advances so positively. The opposition to biotechnology today is similar to that faced earlier this century to hybridization and pasteurization.

"We need to continue moving in this direction," Chambliss said. "The future will turn when we convince folks about the value of biotechnology."

Andy Paterson, a UGA geneticist in crop and soil sciences, genetics and botany, reminded the audience that biotechnology is nothing new.

"Transformation is the process of introducing a gene into an organism," he said. "It's been around since 1928."

Genetically modified crops already are widely used. 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.

Precision and Positioning

Other emerging technologies that promise to make U.S. farmers more productive are spatial technologies like precision agriculture, global positioning and satellite mapping.

"We get excited about the potential, but the products just aren't what they could be, so adoption is slow," said Craig Kvein, a researcher at the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory (NESPAL) in Tifton, Ga.

"It's a very tough time to be thinking about investing in new technology," he said. "But we have to do it. The test is knowing which ones to invest in."

A 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of farmers' use of computers showed the western United States is way 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.

What does it mean for the structure of agriculture? "Eventually computer chips will be imbedded in everything we do," said Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, a University of Missouri economist.

"It will be with us in every part of our lives," he said. "The rate of innovation is getting faster and the impact of it more significant."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.