Peering at the horizon, Part I

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When I was growing up, holiday family get-togethers with my cousins Jennifer and Julie always drummed up a healthy dose of envy.

We didn’t get to see them as often as we saw my other cousins because Jennifer and Julie lived “far away” in the Columbus suburb of Pickerington where my uncle was a teacher.

Jennifer, a year older than me, and Julie, a year younger, always seemed so “cosmopolitan,” so hip. They knew the popular music hits, the latest dances and clothing trends long before the fads ever reached Holmes County – if they ever did reach Holmes County. My cousins were just so cool.

I was envious, but I also eagerly picked their brains as to what was “hot” in Pickerington, so later I could impress my own friends with my worldly knowledge.

Today, I still like to know what’s “hot” – not necessarily in the world of pop culture, but in the world of agriculture. And I don’t do it to impress anyone, I like to stay informed so I can keep you informed.

Knowing what’s on the horizon is a good, proactive dose of preventative medicine – or profitable medicine.

This week and next, I’ll give you my top 10 list of trends, ideas or problems I’ve spotted that will impact agriculture in 2003 and beyond. In no particular order, here are the first five:

* 1. Water. OK, so it didn’t take a genius to realize water will continue to increase in environmental, social and political importance.

Aquifers don’t stop at state borders, nor do they end at international boundaries. As world population increases and competition for water heats up, watch for water wars.

Don’t think you’re immune because you don’t live in California. Water control and quality is an environmental issue that affects us all.

* 2. Nanotechnology. Think small. Very small – one nanometer is about the size of four water molecules placed side by side.

Thinking small has been big for at least 30 years, but kicked into high gear within the last five years. The president’s FY 2003 budget sought $710 million in nanoscale research, a 17 percent increase over FY2002.

Using nanotechnology research, scientists are relearning basic building blocks of all natural and man-made things.

On the nanotechnology horizon: microscopic sensors that could be applied to the skin of livestock or sprayed on crops that would alert farmers to the presence of disease-causing microbes; new vaccines tailor-made for each virus, and for each patient; quick-testing computer chips that could immediately detect if a food product contained any harmful bacteria.

* 3. Biometric scanning. Security and identification issues are pushing the use of biometric technology (think law enforcement fingerprint scanning).

Your hand, eye, speech patterns, typing patterns, vein patterns on the back of your hand, and even body odor, are unique and can be used.

In medical science, a scan of the eye could reveal certain illnesses (or the user’s excessive use of drugs and alcohol). Kroger food stores have tested a finger-scanning device for retail transactions (pay for your chips and diapers with a touch of your hand).

* 4. Designer foods. The whole “Old MacDonald’s Pharm” scenario could change the face of agriculture.

We’re talking designer milk that could boost immunity or improve lactose utilization. We’re talking milk proteins produced not from cows, but from recombinant organisms, such as yeasts. We’re talking new ways to improve vitamin content of foods. We’re talking new ways of taking medicine.

* 5. Fossilizing fossil fuels. Hydrogen may become the world’s power source. Already, automakers DaimlerChrysler and Toyota are developing fuel-cell-powered cars that convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. They plan to put them on the roads by 2010.

(In Part II: (Un)Happy Trails.)

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