Lowell Catlett sees things other people don't. Although his official title is the more prosaic professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, he's perhaps better known as a “futurist.”
He observes trends and lifestyles and technologies and “sees” how they will all mesh at some point in the future to result in different trends and lifestyles and technologies.
A lot of the stuff futurists predict don't come to pass at all, or it takes a lot longer than predicted. But a lot of it does come to pass, and Catlett's “hits” have been pretty impressive.
He rolled out his latest insights at the annual meeting of the California Plant Health Association at Palm Desert, Calif. The technologies exist. Their adaptation is coming, Catlett says.
“Pepper” lasers. A scientist has developed a laser no larger than a grain of pepper; you can hold thousands in the palm of your hand.
So what does that have to do with agriculture?
“Apply them to wheat or corn or vegetables and you now have a way to monitor those plants — every minute of every day throughout their growth cycle.”
Bluetooth, a high frequency radiowave technology that's now being used by thousands of companies for wireless networks. A similar technology, 802.11, is used by United Parcel Service to track all its packages.
“Bluetooth creates wireless networks that allow all kinds of electronic devices to communicate with each other,” Catlett says. “Shopping centers are installing them in light poles around their parking lots, so when you drive onto their lot, XYZ store may communicate with your cellphone and tell you it has a special sale on the particular brand of socks you prefer, so please stop in while you're in the neighborhood.”
Bluetooth on farm
In agriculture, Catlett says, “Put Bluetooth devices around the perimeter of a farm field that has been sprayed with pepper lasers, and every plant in that field can tell your computer what it needs in the way of water, nutrients, etc., every minute of every day.”
Technologies such as these “have been made 10 times more relevant” as a result of the terrorism of Sept. 11, he says, and can mean more money to the farmer.
“When we can use these methods to assure the consumer that their agriculture and their food are certified pure all the way back to the source, they will pay for it. Every plant and animal product that can be monitored to its source, and certified, will be gold to the consumer.
“A public that spent $10 million last year on voice-activated cellphones for dogs, so their vets could constantly monitor their vital signs, will pay to know that their food is safe all the way back to the field in which it was grown.”
Consumers will also pay for greater convenience, for branding, and for reputation, Catlett says.
“I used to spend all night barbecuing brisket, and it was pretty good beef. Then one day at Sam's Club I discovered brisket already marinated and cooked. I don't cook brisket any more — Sam's Club does it for me and my friends don't know the difference.
“We've got to make our food and fiber system more convenient, and consumers will pay us for it.”
Agriculture today “isn't just about a commodity anymore,” Catlett says. “It's about everything you can wrap around that commodity.”
In an uncertain world, people rely more on trademarks, brand names, and reputations, Catlett contends. “These are as valuable as platinum. But we in agriculture have done a lousy job in branding our products. If we're going to succeed in the world ahead, we've got to do better at it.”
Unprecedented affluence and an upcoming transfer of wealth between generations is creating a society that wants its every wish catered to, Catlett says.
“Americans are worth a collective $42 trillion — the most ungodly amount of money that has ever existed on this planet in terms of individual ownership.” Of that amount, $33 trillion is owned by the post-World War II generation, he notes.
Huge wealth transfer
“Over the next 11 years, as they die out, we will see the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history and the greatest transfer of agricultural land ownership in history.”
As a result, Catlett says, millions of people will have wealth that enables them to be “spoiled brats” in terms of consumption choices.
“If companies like Evian are smart enough to bottle water and sell it for $4 a liter, and we feel we have to have 300 varieties of balsamic vinegar, why can't we get a decent price for the food we produce?”
Referring to Thomas Jefferson's “aristocracy of knowing,” Catlett says “people who can take information and do something with it are the ones who will own the world of tomorrow. Information is knowledge, and information will be critical in a smart food world.
“We have the most disposable income in history and we dare to ask, ‘Can we pay more for food?’ Of course we can, and will — if we're given that food in the time, place, and form we want it.”