Regents’ professor speaks about next 50

John Adams

Problems like global warming, pest management, population increases and soil erosion will likely be manageable in the next 50 years, said Regents’ Professor Vernon Ruttan on Monday. But he cautioned that as agricultural research becomes more privatized, the industry will suffer from the lack of information-sharing between public and private institutions.
Ruttan gave his predictions for the next 50 years of agriculture in a speech, “The Transition to Agricultural Sustainability,” to a group of about 40 students and faculty in Borlaug Hall.
Drawing on experience accumulated in agriculture since the 1950s while working for the International Rice Research Institute, Ruttan was able to compare his predictions from the 1950s to those he is making now.
In the 1950s the question was how agriculture was going to feed a 20 percent population increase in the next 10 years.
Ruttan said his answer at that time was: “Irrigation, fertilizer, pest-pathogen management and new plants that could respond to management.”
But now he is much less enthusiastic about his current predictions.
“Today I cannot say with certainty where the agricultural gains will come from over the next half-century,” Ruttan said.
He summarized the threats to agriculture in the next 50 years: soil erosion, water scarcity, population increases, pest control and climate change. He then showed how each could be worked on through research.
“The private sector is not interested in non-product research, which is a whole set of environmental issues,” Ruttan said. The predictions for the future of food production now are much more abstract. “Signals are not as clear as they ought to be,” he said.
Ruttan said society did not know what it wanted from science after the Cold War ended.
“Society no longer believes you can pour money into it (science) and good things will happen,” Ruttan said. “It’s a dangerous time for institutions.”
Vernon Cardwell, a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, agreed with Ruttan that future work is more complicated than the questions of the 1950s.
“All the easy gains have been achieved,” Cardwell said. The sharing of public information is becoming more exclusive to the private sector. “In the past, public and private research was very open” while in the future it is going to be more difficult for students to have access to information to learn, he said.