Jack Uldrich
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The Future of Agriculture

Posted in Agriculture


On the inside pages of today’s Wall Street Journal is a half-page advertisement from BASF touting its ability to get “48 miles per kennel.” The claim is a clever bit of hyperbole, but it does hint at a promising future for the entire agricultural sector.

A Replacement for the Tractor? Not Quite.

For centuries, the agricultural industry has been adept at applying the latest advances in technology to improve both yield and productivity. There is no reason to believe this trend will stop anytime soon and one unlikely hero in this unfolding technological revolution will be the humble supercomputer.

Earlier this week, researchers at Sandia and Oak Ridge National Laboratories announced they were developing an exascale computer. For those of you counting at home an exascale computer will be 1000 times faster than today’s petaflop computers—which as I explained in this piece are already wickedly powerful.

Now these supercomputers won’t be tilling the fields or harvesting crops anytime soon, but they will allow farmers to reap more from every kennel of corn and acre of land. This is because supercomputers are the engines fueling the new discoveries being made in the rapidly maturing field of genomics.

This past week witnessed two noteworthy breakthroughs. First, a team of scientists announced that they had completed a working draft of the corn genome. Among other things this development is expected to lead to better crops varieties that can meet society’s growing demand for food, livestock, feed and fuel.

Last week I wrote about how agricultural scientists had identified a key gene that boosts the yield of oil and oleic acid and explained how this could be a windfall to various agricultural companies.

With the corn genome now unraveled researchers will be able to take this advance many steps farther, including making corn both more nutritious and more efficient for ethanol production. In addition to being a boon for large ethanol producers it could also alleviate some of the tension over the “fuel versus fuel” debate by allowing farmers to squeeze more ethanol from each bushel of corn.

Bone Dry … in a Good Way

A second area where genomics promises to yield some important breakthroughs is in the creation of drought-resistant crops. In a paper published in Nature this week, biologists at the University of California, San Diego outlined how they have isolated a gene responsible for opening and closing the stomal pores which regulates water loss from plants.

This might not sound like that big of a deal until one considers that plants under drought stress lose 95% of their water through evaporation through such pores. If successfully developed at a commercial scale—and this is still a big “if” at this time—the advance could open up vast regions of the planet to productive farming.

Farming Looks Good in Genes

As significant as these advances are, I would strongly advise readers to keep an eye on the work of geneticist Craig Venter. At a presentation at the prestigious Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference this week, he disclosed his potentially world-changing “fourth generation fuel” which, as you may have guessed, is being fueled by advances in genomics.

As Venter noted, he has 20 million genes which he can genetically reengineer to “eat” agricultural feedstocks and “excrete” pure fuel. If he is successful, agriculture could not only feed the world, it could fuel it.

Advances in genomics are going to impact a great many industries, including health care and pharmaceuticals; but for my money if you’re looking for an industry that might look really good in “genes” you should consider the agricultural sector.

Jack Uldrich is a writer, futurist, public speaker and host of jumpthecurve.net. He is the author of seven books, including Jump the Curve and The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business. He is also a frequent speaker on future technology and future trends, nanotechnology, robotics, RFID, innovation, change management and executive leadership to a variety of businesses, industries and non-profit organizations and trade associations.

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