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Predicting the future – hits and misses

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  • Here's a look back at a forecast USDA published in 2006. What did they get right and what did they miss?

Back in 2006, USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture published a report predicting what U.S. and world agriculture might look like in 2015. That’s basically two years away from now, close enough to apply a little hindsight.

The report didn’t go too far out on a limb with its projection that India and China “were likely to be the key drivers of additional demand for U.S. agricultural commodities.”

 Or that “massive Social Security and health care costs would become a substantial drain on national budgets, reducing resources for other sectors of the economy.”

The report figured that the United States would retain its position “as a leader in technological developments in medicine and agriculture. The United States will also continue to empower other nations and spread democracy, but our dominant world position will continue to breed resistance, resentment, and competition.”

Envy is indeed a powerful force.

The prediction that in 2015, our food products will be traceable from farm to shelf based on increasing consumer demands for convenience, information about ingredients, safety, and methods of production has been slow to materialize. But it’s moving in that direction. Proposition 37 isn’t dead yet.

The committee correctly predicted that “despite aggregate global food sufficiency, global hunger, malnutrition, and insecurity will persist, with the most pervasive impact in the world’s poor countries but also among disadvantaged populations in wealthy countries.”

At the same time, obesity continued to grow as the report projected, which has focused “attention on current western diets and lifestyle practices and may lead to changes in those diets that could lead to changes in demand for certain foods.”

The report noted that concerns about biotechnology “are very likely to be used by U.S. competitors as non-technical trade barriers to modulate trade.”

Some things never change.

The report warned that response to global warming could lead to major changes in agricultural production patterns or energy policies.

The report noted that the agricultural commodity system “will continue to be dominated by 4 crops, corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. Tensions may develop as non-food uses for some or all of these crops compete with food and feed uses for agricultural land and resources. They got that right, but few could have guessed the market dynamics forged by the ethanol mandate.

The onset of resistant weeds in the United States is also forcing changes in agricultural production that were largely unseen at the time of the report. But U.S. producers and industry, still the best in the world, continue to seek answers that will help U.S. agriculture remain competitive.

So what will agriculture look like in 2023? Will the United States survive the fiscal cliff, slim down, remain a superpower and continue to be a leader in technological development for agriculture and medicine?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect we’ll hit at least three of the four.

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