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Back to the Future

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Agriculural Experiment Station scientists and Extension Service faculty offer predictions for the 21st centruy.

For months it's been impossible to read, watch or listen to the media without being subjected to speculation about what's going to happen in this new century. Will any of it turn out to be correct?

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," a lofty pundit named Yogi Berra once observed.

Boston Globe reporter Scot Lehigh reminded us of Yogi's words in a recent story that examined the dismal track record of predictions about the century that just ended. Lehigh said mistakes seemed to arise from too little imagination or too much.

An example of the first type is a patent officer who in 1899 declared that "everything that can be invented has been invented." Examples of too much imagination include predictions for the 20th century-many made after 1950-of underwater settlements, domed cities, space colonies and robot maids.

"They weren't the pipe dreams of harebrains and crackpots," Lehigh observed, "but the best guesses from supposed specialists: engineers and scientists, futurologists, technologists and professional trend-watchers."

Despite the warning from Yogi Berra, we're going to venture boldly on to where many have gone recently. Here, and may we have a drumroll, are the official Oregon's Agricultural Progress predictions for the 21st century from professors who do research through the Oregon State University Agricultural Experiment Station or related work with the OSU Extension Service.

But first a confession about methodology:

We did not painstakingly identify a somehow perfect cross-section of individuals and badger each of them for precisely prepared prognostication. Rather, a hasty note invited anyone on certain of the university's mass e-mail lists to send forecasts if they had time. Most didn't. Of those who did, quite a few focused on developments out in the state, while a few offered predictions for their academic disciplines.

Regrettably, we didn't receive much you could call bizarre: Nothing about alien consumers from a planet somewhere in the handle of the Big Dipper getting hooked on Oregon blueberries, or economics researchers, notorius for jargon and waffling, deciding in the year 2093 to use everyday words and present their insights in declarative sentences. Here and there, a prediction may strike you as whimsical. But most seem practical. They attempt to look at topics with economic, environmental and social implications for Oregon in the years and decades just ahead (which might increase the chances of accuracy).

Without further ado, let us gaze into these scholars' crystal balls:

***

"The next century will be a turbulent one for animal agriculture in the United States," predicts Steve Davis, a professor of animal science at OSU. "There is a growing concern in the United States that current confinement production systems are unsatisfactory because they cause physical and mental suffering in farm animals. I believe that this animal welfare concern will lead to a confrontation (collision?) between society and the corporations that believe that economics is the only important factor to consider when designing new animal production systems.

"Ultimately, in 10-20 years," Davis says, "I predict that society will demand an animal welfare ethic that will be something like that which already exists in Sweden. Their animal welfare law states that production systems must be designed to accommodate the animals' natural behavioral needs. That means no hens in cages, no sows kept in farrowing crates, cows and sheep will be on pasture at least part of the year, etc. These changes may well increase production costs for the farmer. As a result, consumers will have the moral obligation to pay more for animal products that are produced using animal welfare-friendly systems."

***

"During the next century there will be an increase in the importance of aquaculture as a seafood source for the United States and the world diet," predicts Mike Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafoods Laboratory in Astoria. "By 2030, more than 50 percent of the seafood supply will be from aquaculture. However, wild-caught ocean fisheries will continue to be the dominant source for seafood for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.

"After many problems, accusations and debate, fisheries management will have finally worked out the proper plans," says Morrissey, "and sustainable harvests and responsible fisheries will cause reinvestment into the fisheries sector. Fishermen and/or processors will own individual quota rights and long-term contractual arrangements will determine the how and when fish are extracted from the sea.

Cartoon of a pig visiting a psychologist.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

"Once harvested, full utilization will be the norm and new methods in biochemistry and biotechnology will allow production of high-quality products as well as feasible extraction and purification of enzymes, hormones and bioactive components that can be used for the pharmaceutical industry. A compound in oysters will be found to have the same effect as Viagra, and oyster bed leases will be in high demand."

Morrissey foresees that "dining on certain seafoods will have the same aura as consuming an exquisite bottle of wine with a known vintage and taste characteristics. Sensory profiles for both aquacultured species as well as wild-caught fish will be identified and used in promotional marketing. Columbia River spring Chinook caught between March 1?7 in the year 2037, with a 14- to 17-percent belly flap oil content, will be known as the finest salmon captured for the last 50 years. Preservation methods and ultra-low temperature storage will allow cuts of this salmon to be sold in Internet auctions for more than the monthly salary of an OSU faculty member.

"Rapid, non-destructive measurements of primary fish constituents, as well as sophisticated, portable electronic 'noses,' will allow processors and wholesalers to better understand their products' unique characteristics," he adds. "Instantaneous microbiological and biochemical tests will assure the safety and quality of fish and shellfish, although there will be an unfortunate incident toward mid-century. An algal toxin never before encountered will cause scientists at the Hatfield Marine Science Center to temporarily forget everything they knew.

"Through on-site media education modules, the OSU Seafood Laboratory will be the major education/research center for the Eastern Pacific. Astoria will have doubled its population to an uncontrollable 20,000 inhabitants due to the development of environmental canopies that increase sunshine availability to over 100 days per year. However, there will still be a segment of the population grumbling about the good old days when the rain and the storms kept the tourists away."

***

"In 10 years, I think we will see farmers taking the lead in watershed restoration in the Willamette Valley," says Mark Mellbye, a district agricultural agent stationed in the OSU Extension Service's Linn County office. "At the present time, most of them look at programs aimed at protecting water quality and salmon habitat as burdensome government regulations and excessive bureaucracy.

"[But] there was a time," he continues, "when folks in Oregon thought the bottle bill was unworkable. I'll never forget a discussion between a farmer and a friend from California back in the 1960s. After finishing a soft drink, the visitor threw his empty bottle into the garbage next to where they were sitting. The Oregon farmer gave him a serious look, pulled the bottle out of the garbage, and stated, 'That's not how we do it in Oregon. We recycle those bottles.' Ten or 20 years from now, I think we'll hear Oregon farmers voice similar statements of pride and ownership in the state's environmental protection efforts."

***

"I think the most significant development during the next century will be in the area of gene therapy," says Phil Whanger, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology who studies the importance of the trace metal selenium in the diets of animals and humans.

"Corrections of genetic diseases will be a very rewarding and worthwhile path to follow," he says, "and this certainly has great public support, especially from those who have family members with genetic problems. I am talking about injecting the correct gene into an individual to correct for a defective gene," which would cure a medical problem such as, for example, sickle cell anemia. Such knowledge also will be used to improve livestock production, he predicts.

***

These "off the top of the my head" thoughts came from Jay Pscheidt, a professor in OSU's Department of Botany and Plant Pathology:

Hazelnuts-Eastern filbert blight will be minor nuisance to hazelnut production in the next century. The next generation of growers will only hear the stories from their parents and "old timers" who talked of this dreaded disease. They will not understand what a problem it was since the new cultivars have so much disease resistance. The industry will be vibrant and expanding with Oregon as a continued center of production. Production will be mostly "organic" but that will be an old term they used to use in the 20th century.

Grapes-This industry will continue to grow and with it many more growing pains. Downy mildew, Eutypa dyeback, smuggled viruses and phyloxera will all rear their ugly heads next century. Several very wet falls and associated fruit rots will make for disastrous vintages. However, it will be nothing other regions have not experienced and survived.

Cartoon of a waiter serving a salmon in an ice bucket.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

Ornamental/nursery crops-The amazing growth and production of the last few decades will continue into the next century. However, once the Eastern Seaboard fills many market niches the industry will encounter its first big glut. Many operations will not survive the turmoil as prices drop and good stock is tossed away. The industry will push successfully after many years for different ways to cut costs and produce more efficiently. It will be a large industry in Oregon but maybe not the top money maker it was at the end of the 20th century.

Small fruits/berries-This industry will continue to be diverse and interesting well into the next century. It will continue along in much the same directions, neither getting big nor dwindling away. Some crop components might change such as the continued decline of strawberries (like walnuts and prunes before them). The discovery of a winter-hardy, Marion-like blackberry will rejuvenate the industry.

Pest control tactics-Pesticides will be with us through the next 100 years but will undergo the same amount of change they have in the last 100 years. In general, pesticides will get safer but the public will still be leery of their use. In the next 20—30 years the public will discover that the new pesticides are being used more often. Continued fear of problems will push chemical companies to develop safer but longer-acting materials (or should I say the remaining two chemical companies). Major food scares from food grown abroad will rekindle interest in our domestic production. Pesticides will in 100 years end up like our current drug industry with the need for prescriptions to make any chemical application to any field or home landscape. Non-chemical control tactics will be used more extensively, especially the use of new plants that have built-in or traditionally bred resistance [to diseases or pests]."

***

"Dairy farms will be located in regions where people will not live, on land that needs manure for fertility reasons, and where water can be recycled in such a way that tapping into groundwater or pumping out of surface water will be minimized," predicts Mike Gangwer, a district agriculture agent based in the Marion County Extension office. "These dairies will be located in other countries, for the most part, in places that still have plenty of less-costly labor. Smart technology will allow the owner to live anywhere and still manage the dairy."

He offered these additional thoughts on the dairy industry within Oregon:

"The industry will continue its trend of industrialization with a very few organic dairies meeting that market. Ten years from now the 1,000-cow dairy will be small and the typical dairy will be 3,000 cows.

"The hauling of raw milk will be a thing of the past. On-farm milk will be processed at the dairy, [or] at least as a minimum the removal of most of the water, and at the most made into manufactured products like cheese that can be hauled anywhere by refrigerated truck.

"Energy costs will skyrocket and force dairy farmers to adopt precision farming practices such as deficit irrigation, variable manure application, minimal or no tillage of farmland, and cow-smart technology that minimizes electrical use.

"Cow manure will be treated and the byproduct of methane will be used to generate electricity. These treatment systems will be found on all dairies.

Cartoon of a cow on a nighttime talk show.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

"The very best cows will be cloned and we will see large numbers of identical cows in herds all over the planet.

"Cows will be used to produce medicine and vaccines and enzymes so as to design milk products for certain human conditions, including obesity, disease, and aging."

***

The field of food science will approach the futuristic world of television's Star Trek Enterprise spaceship and surpass it, predicts Antonio Torres, a professor in OSU's Department of Food Science and Technology. "And we are generating today the technology pieces that will be needed," he says.

"We [consumers] make strange buying decisions," says Torres. "We are just beginning to investigate structure function relations-that is, if I want to use my brain most effectively, what foods should I eat in what amounts?

"In 2099, your personal genetic makeup will be analyzed, and using information technology the supermarket will help you make food buying decisions tailored individually to you that are pleasant, provide nutrition and maximize health. 'Star Trek' sounds primitive when I think what will be possible!"

***

"I don't consider myself a futurist/visionary," says Gale Gingrich, a district agriculture agent based in the OSU Extension Service's Marion County office, "but I believe we will continue to see mainline farms become larger and larger and fewer in number. The smaller farms that survive will have to carve out and fill niches where specialty crops are grown, processed and marketed.

"In the long term, agriculture in the United States will have to become even more efficient, sustainable and economically viable if we Americans continue to insist on cheap food, and if people in the remainder of the world are going to improve the level and choice of foods they eat."

***

"In the short term (the next 10 years)," says Clint Shock, superintendent of OSU's Malheur Experiment Station at Ontario, "I expect greater conflict over non-point source contamination of water by such things as phosphate and sediment. These problems could prove very divisive for the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences in the next decade. However, if faculty simultaneously look after producers and the environment, OSU could seize an exciting period of progressive, creative leadership. How can constructive approaches be fostered?

"Long term, I expect that Oregon water allocations will be in considerable conflict. I expect that restrictions in water quality specifications will be used administratively and politically to control water, and eventually to divert water from agricultural production to urban use. Paradoxically, the people will continue to become increasingly dependent on high-quality food produced on irrigated acreage. Low-flow irrigation (micro-sprinklers and subsurface drip irrigation) will become much more important. Currently, low-flow irrigation systems account for only 1 percent of Oregon irrigation systems."

***

"Crop production will evolve dramatically in the next few decades away from generic commodity-based markets,'" predicts OSU wheat breeder and geneticist Jim Peterson.

"'Designer crops' with very specific food and industrial applications will be contracted for and identity-preserved from the field to the processing plant," he says. "For example, a wheat variety with unique starch composition designed for use in Chinese raw noodles will be grown next to a variety with unique taste and textural properties destined for whole-grain tortillas. A soybean variety for use in low-cholesterol cooking oils will be grown next to a soybean variety with unique oils for making plastics. Growers will direct-market world-wide via the Internet, matching novel genetic and value-added quality traits with rapidly changing market needs and consumer demands.

Cartoon of two farmers working on wheat DNA.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

"The entire genome [an organism's genetic make-up] of each major crop will be sequenced. Genetic engineering will become routine, allowing rapid isolation, manipulation and exchange of genes among all plant and animal species. Genes will be placed into designer 'cassettes' for insertion of multiple traits and disease resistances. Genetic 'switches' will be designed to turn on metabolic pathways as needed for resistance to disease and insects and provide tolerance to extremes in temperature and moisture.

"Growers will trigger genetic switches via chemical applications to compensate for environmental fluctuations or unfavorable long-term weather forecasts. Weed control will be genetically incorporated into crop plants. Herbicidal chemicals will be released from the root system when non-crop plants are in the vicinity.

"A combination of macro- and micro-tools will be used for on-farm crop management. Micro-DNA extraction technologies placed on computer chips will provide rapid confirmation of novel genes, measure levels of gene expression and plant health, identify varieties in the field and in marketing channels, and monitor race-specific pathogens.

"A more environmentally sound farming system will emerge," Peterson concludes, "through return of marginal farmlands to native vegetation, while production on the most productive lands will become increasingly intensive and higher yielding through micro-management."

***

OSU bioresources engineer John Selker envisions irrigated agriculture in the Willamette Valley in the year 2015:

"The Oregon climate network will feed each farmer continuous data on the instantaneous rate of evaporation for their soils," he says. "The soil in the fields will be continuously monitored for water content. Each morning the planned schedule of irrigation will be printed out for the field hands to carry out, with the set times specified to the minute, per field, based on the expected pressure of the pumping system, which will have been computed based on the number of sets scheduled. Water and nutrient consumption will have dropped by 50 percent each, making Oregon crops highly competitive on the world market, while the improved control increases the quality of the product, bringing in premium prices for the goods.

"Drain tiles will also be managed so that they only flow in the spring. In the fall and winter the systems will be blocked so that the rain falling on the soil does not wash the soil clean of the residual nutrients left after harvest. Instead, in the spring these nutrients will be waiting for the new planting, encouraging rapid growth, conserving costly applications and reducing contamination of surface waters.

"In the year 2100 the entire valley will be irrigated and drained by subsurface lines with integrated monitors. The lines will add water and nutrients as needed, further reducing water consumption and virtually eliminating weeds, without pesticides, since only the target plant will have roots reaching the source of water."

***

"We believe that management of non-irrigated crops in the Columbia Basin will continue to migrate away from the winter wheat/summer fallow system [where grain fields sit unplanted for long periods soaking up moisture]," says Richard Smiley, a plant pathologist who is superintendent of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton. "Practices that already are becoming more important include minimum or no tillage, increasing diversity of crops in a rotational scheme, decreasing public tolerance of residue burning as a disease, weed and residue management tool, increasing public constraint on particulate matter in the air (including dust and smoke), and increasing acreage in spring crops."

The increasing complexity of Columbia Basin agriculture will make monitoring disease-causing organisms more challenging, Smiley says. He predicts that relatively early in the century molecular-level tests will start replacing microscopic evaluations for identifying disease-causing organisms in plant residue and soil, allowing growers to do examine "what if" scenarios. "This will minimize risks, maximize production efficiency and increase the bottom line on income potential," Smiley says.

***

"Nutrients that are currently wasted to the air or soil will be conserved and used on productive agricultural land even though it may be hundreds of miles away," predicts OSU bioresources engineer Ron Miner.

"Air will not be an acceptable place to discharge pollutants that are currently described as odor," he says. "There will be an accepted norm that manure is stored in enclosed tanks and managed as a valuable commodity.

"The trend to larger, more sophisticated livestock production will continue to the extent that operations involving a few animals keep them as pets or recreational animals.

"Animal diets will be more carefully balanced to reduce both production costs and the nutrient load in the waste stream."

***

Cartoon of Elvis watering a plant.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

"I'm sure precision agriculture will become more common in the next decade," says Susan Aldrich-Markham, an agricultural extension agent in Yamhill and Polk counties. "Growers will use yield monitors with GPS [Global Positioning System] units on their combines to gather data on yield for each spot in their fields. They'll use the data to make yield maps of fields showing which areas are high- and low-yielding. This will be the starting point for determining why certain areas are low-yielding and what might be done to improve the situation.

"If testing shows that the low yield is due to soil pH, for example," she says, "a higher rate of lime will be precisely applied to those areas using a GPS unit with a map of the field on the lime spreader. This is already being done in the Willamette Valley on a few fields. If an area of a field is low-yielding because of shallow soil, and nothing can be done to improve it, the grower could precisely apply less fertilizer to those spots and save money.

"Using a GPS unit on spray equipment will allow a grower to precisely apply herbicides to the weed patches only rather than to the whole field. This can do the job with less herbicide. The grower makes a GPS weed map of the field to tell the sprayer when to spray and when to shut off. This map might be an aerial photo showing the locations of the weed patches. Records of pesticide applications can be kept on the computer that show the exact GPS locations where application were made."

"Growers can have GPS maps of all the important things on their farms. Field boundaries can be precisely located. They can know exactly where crops were planted each previous year, even if the field edges and landmarks are no longer present. They can know exactly where to find their underground drain tile system and irrigation mainlines are even though they are buried five feet deep."

***

Erik Fritzell, the head of OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, aimed his predictions at 25 years from now:

"Oregon's sales tax will include a dedicated 0.4 percent for conservation of biodiversity-half of which must be spent on conservation easements to private landowners," he says.

"Most endangered fish species, with the exception of Chinook salmon, will remain 'listed' despite somewhat improved populations and habitat over much of Oregon. In 10 more years, others will have recovered.

"Education of fish and wildlife managers will emphasize working with diverse publics in ecosystem-oriented management. More focus will be placed on applied sociology than on biology.

"Populations of sage grouse, spotted owls and marbled murrelets will have recovered largely because of restrictions on non-compatible uses of public lands.

"Hunting and angling will remain an important recreational activity in Oregon, but access fees on both public and private lands and water will be an accepted practice.

"Commercial fishing along Oregon's coast will be managed by cooperatively derived fishing quotas, limited entry and gear restrictions.

"Advances in genetic techniques will foster the establishment of sophisticated fish and wildlife populations monitoring.

"Wolves will occupy the eastern third of Oregon. Restrictions on the use of management tools with these and other large predators will be one of many factors affecting the ability of Western stockgrowers to compete with the vertically integrated beef industry.

"Over 7,500 acres of wetlands will have been restored to native conditions throughout the Willamette Valley. The area will have become an important destination of birdwatchers. Three 'ecotourism' lodges will have been built and nearby private landowners will have benefited financially from access fees. A viable wild rice industry will have accompanied wetland development."

***

Cartoon of a man on a safari in a corn field.

Illustration: Bill Lanham

"I think our directions for the future will be consumer driven and marketing functions will rule in the food industry," says Mina McDaniel, who heads OSU's Sensory Science Laboratory, which conducts taste and other tests on what we eat and drink. "Sales are everything, and the questions are, 'what do consumers want, or think they want, or what can we convince them they want, etc.?' It will center on convenience more than ever, and on perceived health issues more than ever. Foods will be functional, fast and fun. "There will be a segment of the population that wants higher quality, and this of course is central to agriculture. Sensory evaluation/marketing will be more important than ever as we try to identify the food qualities, flavors, textures, etc., that people desire. I think there will be more and more emphasis on foods for special groups of people, men versus women, kids, the elderly. If you watch food advertisements you will see that companies already are targeting specific groups."

***

"What is coming in the 21st century will be much more dramatic than anyone can imagine, because changes are being driven by progress at the molecular level," says Larry Boersma, a professor emeritus of soil science. Many scientific disciplines have contributed to increases in crop yields and will continue to, Boersma says, but they also have contributed to environmental problems with pesticides, fertilizers and soil erosion. "Eventually these problems will be eliminated," he predicts. "For example, food (protein) can be derived directly from green matter through chemistry. How the land is used will be different, but it will still be the place where we harvest solar energy."

*****

So there you have it-conjecture about the future from OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and Extension Service personnel. Let's hope we're around a long, long time to find out who was right: Yogi or the professors?

Published in: People