Dr. Lowell Catlett

The future of food and farming

Imagine a cell phone app that could read a cow’s mood, assuring consumers that she is comfortable and content, or another that could analyze a plant in the field, helping farmers to better provide the precise amount of water or fertilizer. How about using sensors to target and eliminate a population of just 20 insects using only a few molecules of pesticide?

These weren’t so much predictions as they were possibilities highlighted by Lowell Catlett, who believes a digital revolution in farming will dwarf the mechanical and chemical revolutions that preceded it.

A noted futurist and dean of New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Catlett pointed to a golden age for American farmers who he expects will meet growing world food demand through innovations
that make the most of limited natural resources.

He shared his thoughts as part of the 2nd Annual Ohio Farm and Food Leadership Forum, which brought together members of farm and food organizations, civic groups, businesses, government and other sectors for a discussion on how Ohioans can effectively engage and improve their local communities. Ohio Farm Bureau helped host the event.

None of this seems unthinkable in the current age where farmers are buying robots to milk their cows and employing GPS signals to automatically steer their tractors.

Catlett said intensive growing methods have helped farmers produce more than enough calories than are needed for every person on the planet, which wasn’t always the case.

“Because of advances in management, in technology and in applications, we can feed a hungry world. And so I don’t get upset when people say ‘Well, the world’s population is going to go to 9 billion people: How are we going to do it?’ ” Catlett said. “It’s doubled since 1970. We couldn’t feed them then, but now we can.”

That means , Catlett added.

“They want air conditioners, they want safer food, they want more meat protein. They want the things they saw us have just 30 years ago,” he said.

At the same time, he believes relatively affluent American consumers will continue to pay for specialty products, leading to a highly diversified food system.

His advice to best prepare for the future: expose yourself to ideas from people you may disagree with.

“We like to confirm that we’re right,” Catlett said. “But in reality, if you’re going to adjust to a very fast moving, changing world, you’ve got to understand where those people are coming from too.”

Hear our interview with Catlett at TownHallOhio.org.