As I gaze methodically into my crystal ball, I’ll do my best impression of the divisive historical figure Nostradamus. I claim no divine inspiration, only the ability to call it like I see it — and quatrains are not my forte! Without further ado, my top seven issues/predictions of 2018 and beyond:
Modernize and Embrace the Future: Without a doubt, the developing world will be the de facto battleground for the adoption (or rejection) of ag technology. What better platform to showcase the perks of modern farming? Despite the best efforts of neo-luddites to keep the developing world stalled in the Stone Age (laughably dated “organic” farming techniques come to mind), the adoption curve is making headway. Exhibit A: Witness the miracle of Tanzania and subsidies for synthetic fertilizer use.
GMO, Version 2.0: Herbicide tolerance and Bt crops speak to farmers — and streamline production — but generally fall short on the consumer acceptance spectrum. Consumers rightly ask, “What about this newfangled technology, what’s in it for me?” Plenty, but it’s understandably not front and center. Luckily, GMOs will continue their march to the mainstream with more consumer-friendly products. AquaAdvantage Salmon, the Arctic Apple, or even Golden Rice 2.0 (a consumer freebie).
How Do You Like Your Food? Rare, Medium, Well Done, or CRISPR?: With that said, imagine GMOs sans controversy. Sidestep it altogether! CRISPR is a gene editing technology poised to do this and more. No more adding “foreign” chapters to the genetic tapestry of life, just spot edit a few words here and there (in the genetics playbook, all words are conveniently three letters long) in chapters already there. And the alphabet is only four letters long: A, T, G, and C. CRISPR is an elegant solution to a consumer acceptance and regulatory boondoggle. This is the real deal — if it can ever get off the shelf.
“What Is Fake News, Alex?”: With much bravado, the rise of social media has given quacks a viral venue to preach misinformation. It’s also been open season on scientists and farmers who dare to rebut these absurd claims. This rise of “counter-expertise” and bullying is troubling, but preventable. Pit scientists and farmers against the false prophets in a battle royale of level-headed facts and emotional appeals. Revenge of the nerds (and farmers) redux. Kevin Folta, the Credible Hulk, Farm Babe, The Farmer’s Daughter, and a host of others leverage social media for maximum impact. And many more aspiring ambassadors are receiving training to constructively engage the public. The socially inept scientist/American Gothic stereotypes are so yesterday.
Ditching the “Dirt”(y) Label: For years, soil has been synonymous with dirt. Fortunately, times are a’changin, and soil is getting the recognition it deserves. Tracking dirt into grandma’s kitchen is one thing, but soil really is the “ecstatic skin of the earth.” It’s not some inert medium, but a lifegiving ecosystem replete with critters. Soil health is finally coming into its own as a discipline, with the land grants, Ag Experiment Stations, and Cooperative Extension getting on board. And despite their unfounded rep, herbicides and GMOs help conserve this vulnerable resource — because soil takes geologic time scales to regenerate.
Last Dance of the Honeybee?: Nothing is as symbolic of our reverence for nature as the honeybee. Nor is anything as gut wrenching as their much-hyped decline attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). No doubt the mug shots of two mite parasites were posted in every apiculturist office. Most recently, neonicotinoid insecticides have been targeted. The new kid on the block seem to be fungicides. Look for honeybees to continue to rebound, despite the use of “big bad pesticides,” while researchers resolve a much more complex web of the factors that cause CCD, including a (quite natural) virus.
Meatlovers Delight: Remember the famous Wendy’s slogan “Where’s the Beef”? Meat substitutes have their cheerleaders. Reasons range from animal welfare to sustainability. One of my favorite trailblazers is Quorn. Or as I call them, fungus nuggets. These are just fungi shaped and breaded to resemble faux chicken. But meat substitutes in general have never been able to generate much buzz, especially wannabe beef. In the continual battle to outdo the Jones’, meat consumption is a sign of affluence, and is only slated to grow, especially in the developing world. But might we be willing to eat cloned beef grown in a petri dish if it could approximate the marbling and texture of the genuine article? The recently unveiled Impossible Burger uses plant based proteins and heme (think red blood cells) to simulate a nice bloody burger. Consumers may bite at this one if the price point is attractive enough.
Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.