As the agriculture industry takes a more scientific, detailed approach to micromanaging crops, soil and livestock, professor Lowell Catlett from New Mexico State University said that ag integration rather than commercial farming will become the next avenue for producers.
Catlett spoke at Wyffel’s Corn Strategies July 23 in Worthington, Minnesota. He discussed agriculture’s role in the next decade.
Placing his talk in the context of the last 50 years since the Apollo moon landing, Catlett said he firmly believes that the ag industry has already fed a hungry world and that producers should move beyond that goalpost should they want to succeed.
“Guess what folks, we fed a hungry world. We did it. Thank you very much. And we did it in the time it took Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon,” Catlett said.
Over the last 50 years, according to Catlett’s research, the world has spent roughly 5% less of its income on food while averaging more calories per day than what is needed. Because of that, Catlett challenged those who attended Corn Strategies to think beyond commercial agriculture.
The amount of land dedicated to agriculture is shrinking, and it will never return, Catlett said. That’s why produces should start looking to science in order to feed the world and produce a better crop. Part of that, according to Catlett, is carbon sequestration.
“Whether you believe in climate change or not really doesn’t matter, we are just getting to the point where there is too much carbon out there,” he said.
Farmers already capture carbon simply by planting crops and grazing livestock, but advanced techniques to improve the soil, crop health and habitat for wild animals will push carbon capture to a whole new level, Catlett said.
Producers capturing carbon isn’t profitable on its own, Catlett admitted, but that’s where carbon credits come in. Carbon credits started several decades ago as a way to exchange carbon footprints. As one source outputs more carbon than is allotted, it can pay a carbon-neutral or positive site such as farms to capture the excess carbon they emit for a combined neutral carbon output. Catlett predicts that as the world gets more carbon-rich, so will the value of a producer’s ability to capture excess carbon.
“If you have the right mix of soil microbes, you can sequester carbon as well as grow a very viable plant,” he said. “What I’m trying to tell you is, you’re going to be farming below the surface as much as you’re farming above it.”
Three emerging technologies will lead to better soils adapted to capturing more carbon, according to Catlett. LIBS, or laser-inducted breakdown spectroscopy was created to detect nuclear radiation. It can also be used to detail what microbes are active in a producer’s soil. Catlett predicts LIBS devices will soon be attached to tractors.
Facial recognition software – for cattle – will be part of the puzzle as well, Catlett said. Programs can take a picture of a cow’s face and detect if it is lame, diseased or unproductive.
“Before that veterinarian can get in there, this software can predict with 97% accuracy that something is wrong with the cattle,” he said.
Reading the face of livestock and eventually reading the stems of plants can make farmers more efficient.
The third emerging technology Catlett highlighted was rapid DNA profiling. What once took decades can now be done in minutes. Both plants and animals can be profiled to genetically continue the best lines.
These three pieces, along with an ever-changing carbon environment, are the future, Catlett said.
One thing Catlett sees for the future of agriculture doesn’t exactly fit with state-of-the-art technologies. A recent study by the Urban Land Institute found that a majority of new neighborhoods are ditching established social centers, like golf courses, for community gardens or dog parks. On top of carbon farming, the ag industry can play a role by providing new urban products, instead of mass commercial ones.
“Agriculture isn’t just about feeding hungry people, as we’ve done. It’s about feeding all the world as well as being part of the ecological and environmental movements,” he said. “Agriculture is what the world needs more than ever. It feeds us, our dogs, our deer, and it enriches the world we live in and you get paid for it.”