New Possibilities in Agriculture

I admit it. Agriculture fascinates me. As someone with an engineering education I see so many potential upsides, complex merging of systems, and breakthroughs ahead.

I’m not a spiritual person but the miracle of growth is inspiring. As Cargill Executive Director Greg Page once said to me, “Trust in photosynthesis.”
Hand Water Plant Small

I envy the nifty toys agriculture pro’s get to play with. Robots and drones. Tiny nano-sensors that eventually feed big honking computational power to make everything work even better. Curls my toes.

If I could restart an education and career I could easily choose agriculture. It appeals to the boy still in me.

A fascinating niche of the field is the never-ending possibility of new crops and new uses. I spend a lot of time with the monoculture – the empire of corn and soy that dominates the best soil in America. But there are very interesting upsides for discovered or rethought plants and the potential within them.

Perhaps none of them will make a huge difference in agriculture – at least not in my lifetime. But every time I hear of a new potential crop, an experimental program, an adaptation, the possibility to grow a cure for a disease, a new source of energy, or a breakthrough that could help us in climate change, I’m inspired.

Carinata, moringa, and Rhodiola rosea are examples. Each has promise in a particular niche of agriculture.

Brassica carinata is the most interesting of new biofuel crops. It’s essentially a weed – Ethiopian mustard – that grows on marginal land in heat and drought conditions. New breeding by Canada produced a plant that rivals canola for yields, is resistant to disease, produces long hydrocarbon chains, and has a number of uses. Jet fuel, lubricants, and bio-plastics are all on the list.

Moringa trees are native to the foothills of the Himalayas and are cultivated in the tropics. One nickname is the miracle tree. It produces small leaves and pods that have an impressive nutrient profile. With a protein content nearly that of eggs, more potassium than bananas, more iron than spinach, and massive amounts of calcium you can see why it’s a new buzz in natural foods.

This is no recent discovery. Moringa were used 4,000 years ago but the application to a modern society for anti-oxidants, anti-diabetes, anti-inflammatory, anti-arsenic, and anti-cholesterol are just coming into wide recognition. Look for development of species even easier to harvest as the world seeks food for the next two billion planet occupants over the next 25 years.

Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen. It’s made into a supplement that has an ability to improve the response to physical and mental stress and trauma. There are claims it lifts mood, increases energy, and sharpens focus. It can optimize insulin production and extend the effects of caffeine. The root is powdered or chipped for tea.

Cultivation is ramping up because demand far outstrips the wild sources from Siberia. Canada, Scandinavia, Poland, and even Alaska are doing startup cultivation. But there is a growing emphasis in agriculture on indoor cultivation of many specialty crops.