Last week’s column dealt with direct changes to foods on the grocery shelf, the end product. This week let’s examine changes made out in the field long before food hits the shelf. These are changes due to consumer preferences, food safety, economics, potential environmental damage and in response to the environmental pressures. Naturally there are many more changes than can be listed here.
* The most obvious is the rise of GMO crops from Bt corn and cotton to Roundup Ready ® crops (corn, soybeans, alfalfa, sugar beet). At first glance many may want to put this in the “response to environmental pressure” category. While weed, insect and disease control are part of this, GMO crops also help mitigate potential environmental damage from more aggressive pesticides; decrease the possibility of chemical residues on food stocks; and improve not only the quantity but the quality of foods. In addition new GMO technologies are allowing the production of crops using less water and nutrients more efficiently.
* Increased adoption of conservation tillage nationwide. Much of this has been made possible by the first item. This trend is economic as it saves time, labor, and capital but there’s more. Conservation tillage protects the environment by reducing erosion and irrigation which reduces surface water pollution, protects groundwater and improves air quality.
* Livestock production has changed in several ways over the last generation. Pork and beef production has seen the rise of leaner meats through genetics and production practices. Poultry consumption per capita has risen significantly while other meats have seen their consumption remain flat or decrease. In response to consumer health concerns, there is a growing movement for items ranging from grass finished beef to organic eggs and free range chicken.
* Increased cropping diversity. As Consumer demand for” heart healthy” oil has resulted in increasing acreage in crops like soybean and canola. Parts of southern Kansas and much of Oklahoma are experiencing a dramatic increase in winter canola acreage. Sunflower can be added in the mix and there is increasing interest and research on other oil seed crops such as sesame and safflower. With the current gluten free movement alternative flour crops are receiving increased interest.
* Increasing corn acreage and production. No matter how many other crops are out there, corn is king and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. While this may seem to contradict the previous point it doesn’t. More acreage is coming back into production and production per acre (drought aside) continues to increase through research and education. Three hundred bushel per acre corn yields are now seriously discussed. The why is easy. High fructose corn syrup, increasing world demand for meat, plastics and ethanol are just a few of the demands on the corn supply.
The list could go on and on. The point though is that while many view agriculture as static, slow to change, and monolithic, it responds as rapidly as science, technology, and the crops produced allow.