Science continues to move food production forward

By Don “Doc” Sanders

Please allow me to enlighten you, in case you’re not aware of the great work of Norman Borlaug, the American Nobel Prize-winning plant scientist of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Borlaug was the scientist who developed rice with high vitamin A content to prevent hundreds of thousands of children from going blind in third world countries because of vitamin A deficiency. He also developed seed barley strains that required half of the usual amount of water to grow in semi-arid countries. He taught third world villagers to plant corn in rows for weed control, rather than casting the seed around randomly like you were feeding the birds.  

His list of accomplishments to improve food security go on and on (https://www.cast-science.org/celebrating-norman-borlaug-man-who-fed/).

In 1972 he and 18 other scientists founded the nonprofit Council for Agriculture, Science and Technology (CAST). Its mission is to disseminate information about new science and technology to Congress and governmental agencies, the mass media and the public. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of CAST.

This group in 1972 made bold 50-year projections of American agriculture’s future. Their predictions were prescient. Now, as we near the end of that half century forecast, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers and consumers, and the top world food exporter. The USDA reports that agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.109 trillion to the U.S. GDP in 2019. America’s farms contributed $136.1 billion of this sum. 

In this past 50 years we have witnessed extraordinary developments in agricultural science and technology. So much so, that in 1972, CAST greatly underestimated American agriculture’s progress. 

Food security challenges lying ahead of us will require similar strides — even more so — in the next 50 years. This is why we need to create a new blueprint to help agricultural scientists, farmers, Congress and regulatory agencies meet the rising food security needs of our world’s rapidly growing population.

The world population is expected to increase from 7.5 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. Some analysts predict the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than they do now. Longer range predictions foresee the world population not stabilizing until it reaches 11 billion.

As we strive to produce more food, American agriculture will be faced with added challenges within the growing constraints of social mores and government standards regarding humane animal care, environmental stewardship, and carbon sequestration. This will be complicated by concerns and misconceptions held by the lunatic fringe regarding genetic modification. 

Contrary to their misgivings, genetic modification has already shown great promise for the future of agriculture by improving food quality, safety and productivity. And agricultural scientists will be discovering new uses for genetic modification utilizing CRISPR-cas-9 technology to produce food for the world. 

But it will take more than scientists for this technology to live up to its full potential. Government must overcome the regulatory approval logjam between the FDA and USDA to clear the use of genetically modified organisms. 

Behind the scenes bickering between agencies is at an all-time high. Their disagreements have been over such matters as salmon that was genetically modified in the 1990s to improve disease resistance and growth to the FDA’s refusal to permit the USDA to regulate CRISP-cas-9. 

The genetically improved salmon were developed over 35 years ago, yet didn’t receive FDA approval until a year or so ago. The FDA has chosen to bury new food technologies under the regulations for new drug development rather than USDA oversight of food safety. Duh! Does this all make sense?

Newly developed science will become commonplace with tools such as: 

  • Gene deletion to prevent major diseases such as PRRS in pigs 
  • Modification of DNA to prevent development of nonmarketable rooster chicks 
  • Genomic sex neutralization in male pigs 
  • Genetic modification to enable pigs that are late bloomers to reach full muscular maturity without being fed B-agonists and anabolic growth promotants prior to entering the market 

“Big data” also will play a key role in the future of food security, strategically focusing food production, farm management, supply chains, consumer demand and sustainability. Advances in agricultural technology like robotic tractors and harvesting equipment, drones, satellite scanning analysis and other new solutions will also figure prominently in the future.

And the answers to agriculture’s future will not be bound by the earth. You got it! Growing crops on other planets will soon be on the horizon, utilizing extraterrestrial vegetation production, underground planetary water and ice reserves more proximal to the sun’s intense energy.

While I pontificate on what the future of food and agriculture holds, there are others who would have you believe that all of our food will be produced in laboratories, in giant fermentation vats, using genetically modified organisms that synthesize our food. Some of this may occur over the next 50 years.

But I believe this is largely unnecessary, thanks to Mother Nature and the amazing ability of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer) to turn the cellulose of grass into protein — something that one-stomached animals and humans are incapable of doing. And considering that 45% of U.S. land mass consists of grasslands and wilderness unsuited for crop production, they have lots of untapped room to work their magic to help feed the world. 

Environmentalists, however, would have you believe that we can’t use ruminant animals because they emit methane gas into the atmosphere. To the contrary, even though methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, Dr. Frank Mitloehner at UC-Davis has demonstrated that cows and other ruminants emit methane in a 12-year carbon-neutral conversion cycle. That is, they emit no more methane than is continually captured, utilized or stored by grass, plants and trees.

All you skeptics out there that opine global warming is caused by cows, think about it! Before man’s obsession with global warming, 100 million buffalo grazed the American range. Are there any historical indications that global warming was an issue while these animals roamed, prior to our fossil fuel-powered generating plants and engines? 

It has been only in recent years that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crowd became obsessed over cow farts causing global warming. And don’t get obsessed that fossil fuels are the primary issue. There is more to this story for another day.

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One comment

  1. Borlaug was NOT the scientist who developed rice with high vitamin A content.
    “The scientific details of golden rice were first published in 2000, the product of an eight-year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg.”

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