Innovation in an "old" sector — agriculture

Each holiday has its own special characteristic. Christmas is about gift-giving. Halloween is about kids. Easter is about spring and renewal. Thanksgiving is about food.
So here is a thought provoking article on agriculture for your Thanksgiving holiday enjoyment — Is Our Agricultural Technology Innovation System Up to 21st Century Challenges?. Written by Professor Paul Thompson of Michigan State University, the piece argues that:

Americans have been disinvesting in agricultural research for the last three decades. Our agricultural innovation engine has become too narrowly focused on piecemeal adjustments in plant and animal genetics, to the exclusion of potentially valuable research into alternative, low-input methods such as organic, no-till, and poly-crop agriculture. This leaves us in a dangerous position with too few options for the future.

I’m not sure I would go as far as argue that the emphasis on plant and animal genetics has been misplaced. But my earlier posting on the transformation of Brazilian agriculture point out the importance of more than just genetics. To quote the story on this transformation from the Economist — “The miracle of the cerrado“:

Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it–not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s [Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation] was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

In other words, they used information, intangibles and innovation to work a transformation.
All of this reinforces a point that I have been saying for some time: economic growth and development is all about transformation in all sectors of the economy.
Unfortunately, this concept of transformation is not clearly understood. It gets distorted into an idea of transition for one part of the existing economy to another. For example, some continue to say we can abandon manufacturing. It is the natural order of things for other countries to take over as making things. Just as we moved from agriculture to manufacturing, so are we moving from manufacturing to services/information/knowledge.
Wrong. Wrong analysis based on wrong history. As this country’s economy “progressed,” we did not abandon agriculture. We transformed it. We did not transition from one set of existing economic activities to another set. We created new forms of economic production and activity.
That process should not stop. As Thompson’s piece points out, we need to continue to transform agriculture by renewed attention to alternative methods. As I have long argued, we need to transform manufacturing as well.
So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving feast, think about how far we have come since the days of the first Thanksgiving. And think about how we continue to grow, innovate and transform.
Happy Thanksgiving.

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