New technology pushes American agriculture to new frontiers
Back in the days when gold was discovered in California, the area was considered anything but a land flowing with milk and honey. In 1855, for instance, a visitor confidently predicted that ''California's valleys will afford a sufficient supply of breadstuffs to support sparse settlements, but the average or general surface of the country is incapable of sustaining dense populations.''Skip to next paragraph
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Today, California is the salad bowl of the United States. It produces nearly half of the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
What the 19th-century observer failed to anticipate was the effect of a process that began at about that time: the application of scientific methods to agriculture. This process transformed the very fabric of US society. And nowhere has its impact been as pronounced as in California.
Driven by the need to adapt to the state's dramatically diverse climatic, soil, and water conditions - and inspired by the flair for innovation for which California's inhabitants are noted - growers there have frequently been in the forefront of agricultural change.
Recently, a number of the architects of this revolution gathered at the University of California, Davis, (UCD) here to take stock of what they helped create. And they offered some tantalizing glimpses into the future of US agriculture. The occasion was the 75th anniversary of the campus, one of the nation's foremost agricultural institutions.
The raw statistics are remarkable enough. In the past 50 years US farm output has increased nearly 21/2 times. During the same period, the number of farm laborers has plummeted to one-fifth of previous levels, use of machines has tripled, and the application of chemicals has risen by 25 times.
Chester O. McCorkle, professor of agricultural economics at Davis, totaled up some of the pluses and the minuses of this transformation:
On the positive side of the balance, he lists:
* The creation of an unprecedented abundance of food and fiber at low prices, which has helped feed a substantial portion of the world's people.
* Freeing the labor needed to build the nation's industrial might.
The negative side effects he cites include:
* Serious soil erosion and the depletion of underground water reservoirs.
* Periods of overproduction, increased farm sizes, farmers' heavy dependence on credit, and the decline of the political power of the farming community.
* Serious health and environmental pollution problems caused primarily by the use of pesticides.
Today's agricultural scientists are directing their efforts toward preventing or minimizing many of these problems, Dr. McCorkle claims.
''Today the criteria for selecting agricultural production and processing practices and assessing new technological developments are being broadened. We have come to believe that what promises to be the best for the producer in the short run may not necessarily be best in the longer run for either the producer or society,'' he says. The new criteria he refers to are energy efficiency, acceptable long-run environmental impact, acceptable health and safety risks, and acceptable social cost.
The direction of current agricultural research is critically important: Scientists involved report that the new tools of genetic engineering and computer technology are setting the stage for a second agricultural revolution equally or more profound than that begun a century ago.
''It is very likely that we will witness changes in the next 25 years as dramatic as they have been in the past 75,'' asserts Charles E. Hess, dean of the Davis College of Agricultural Science.
According to James M. Lyons, assistant director of the Davis Agricultural Experiment Station, genetic engineering has already made plant breeding along traditional lines quicker and more effective.