When we think about recent innovations that have changed agriculture, the first thing that comes to almost everyone’s mind is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Starting with slow-ripening tomatoes in 1994, now most basic crops, like corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets and alfalfa, to name but a few, are GMOs.

Fewer people know that genetically modified bacteria are used to produce aspartame, which is the sweetening ingredient used in many chewing gums, diet soft drinks, numerous brands of yogurt and cereals. 

Aspartame was accidentally discovered in 1965 and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1980, but now the technology is being applied to a host of foods, medicines and other products for daily use.  For example, many pharmaceuticals rely on GMOs for their production.

Inventions have been devised, or are being worked on, that affect not just food, but also the people who produce and consume them, and sometimes the entire earth.  Have you heard of a 3D printer that produces edible pizza?  It’s real!

This article isn’t about whether GMO seeds, aspartame, or other innovations that have been applied in agriculture and to the foods we consume are beneficial or harmful.  It’s about raising awareness of a broad range of innovations that are available or are being developed for the production of food, fiber and biofuels. 

Additional columns will follow that examine some of the major already-implemented innovations, and others that are planned, with more details about what is known thus far about their effects on human health and the health of our planet.  All are aimed at providing information so readers can form their own opinions about innovations and search out additional information as desired.

Commonly recognized agricultural innovations have generally been mechanical, starting with such basics as the hoe, wheel, combustion engine, cotton gin, grain harvesting machines and on up to today’s computer-operated drones.  The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annually publishes its list of the 50 best innovations in agriculture for the past year. 

ASABE award-winning innovations over recent years have included mechanical advances like robotic planting and harvesting equipment and technological developments such as root-demand irrigation systems and machine input-output monitors.  The ASABE also recognizes outstanding inventors, educators, and even the catchiest agribusiness logo. 

Many of the most important innovations in agriculture aren’t in mechanical engineering or technology, but in related arenas such as safety awareness (e.g., ways to improve farmers’ attention to safety), farming consultation (e.g., nutrient and pest management and marketing) and in diverse disciplines (e.g., political science, ethics and genomics).

To illustrate, breeders of nearly all species of animals can request and receive genetic reports that describe heritability of traits being selected for replication in the animals they wish to use as sires and dams–like reproductive efficiency and rapid growth, or to be avoided–like hairlessness.  Plant genetic profiles are also available.     

Tests for human genetic assets and heritable diseases/defects can be requested prior to reproduction but are used mostly incompletely.  Their availability, cost, insurance coverage and eugenics ethical issues haven’t been fully sorted out yet.   

If the question is asked, “Is agriculture ahead of human genomics and ethics,” the answer is “Yes, in some ways.”  But we aren’t as concerned ethically about animal and plant traits, and maybe should be. 

Stem cell research is a hot topic politically, and not one this article can resolve.  There is interest in the production of meat in factories that involve the use of stem cells from cows and other animals to grow hamburger and other high-protein products called “schmeat.” 

Schmeat has the same genetic structure as the animal from which the stem cells were derived.  Is schmeat acceptable to humans as food?  Are detractors behaving squeamishly?  Space travelers might need schmeat. 

New ways of thinking are emerging that can make agriculture more efficient and sustainable.  For example, the Land Institute in Kansas (www.landinstitute.org) is working on the development of perennial wheat, among other things. 

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York (www.stonebarnscenter.org) is changing the way food is produced locally, so as to minimize transportation time and costs.  A Growing Culture (www.agrowingculture.org) is an international organization that promotes ecologically sound food systems, like perennial peanuts.

Agricultural ethics is a new field.  Just a few of the questions contemporary ethicists and philosophers are posing include these: 

  • Is food a basic right?
  • Are mechanisms that reduce biodiversity, whether GMOs or other methods, acceptable to people and the planet?
  • Do consumers have a right to biodiversity?
  • Do animals, and as some would argue, all organisms besides humans, have rights?

So much to learn about!  I hope these columns help farmers and consumers sort out many of the relevant issues.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Rosmann lives on a farm near Harlan, Iowa.  He was an associate editor of the Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health for many years, which is published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.  Dr. Rosmann can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.