Doom and Gloom for Ag? Not According to this Futurist

“I truly feel this is the best time ever to be in agriculture, and I think it’s the best time to be alive,” Lowell Catlett told a packed room at the 2017 Iowa Pork Congress last month. Catlett is an economist by trade and a futurist by avocation. He was a Regents Professor in agricultural economics and agricultural business and extension economics and the Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University until he retired in 2015. Here are some of the interesting facts and perceptions he shared:


In 2014, there were 7.2 billion people on the planet, Catlett said. The world did not produce enough for every person to have 2,450 calories in their daily diet.


“Now, we produce 3,100 calories for every man, woman and child in the world. To say agriculture cannot feed 9 billion people is the biggest lie on the planet because guess what? We already do,” Catlett said. “We’re going to feed the world with intensive animal agriculture operations. We can prove that we use fewer inputs to get a given level of output. We can prove intensive operations have the smallest negative impact to the environment. They’re going to be here – we have the infrastructure and the grain.”


In 1970, 20% of Americans’ disposable income was spent for food, Catlett said. “Fast-forward to today, we spend 9.7% of our disposable income on food. It’s agriculture’s efficiency. You didn’t have to do jack with your income in 2016, you got 10% of it back from agriculture!”


Catlett said that, even with more vehicles on the road than ever before, carbon emissions are down.


“Ten years ago, we didn’t talk about carbon. In a carbon-rich world, do you know who owns it and controls it? Agriculture. Get ready, because in a few years, you’re going to have some interesting policy decisions.”


Catlett recalls when seatbelts were first mandatory, and how upset the public was with being “forced” to use seatbelts.


“We drive 40% more miles today than we did in 1970, but fewer people are dying on our highways now than in 1970 because of airbags and passenger restraints,” he said.


Love and Acceptance
As the world has more money, the needle is moving to “love and acceptance,” Catlett said, so pets and pet products have become a huge industry.


“I wish I were half the man my dog thinks I am,” he joked. “Number of dogs and cats in China has gone up, and the relationship we have with pets is changing. For example, only 19% of us greet our spouse first (before our pet).”


This dynamic is changing the way consumers feel about animal production too, which means the industry needs to be moving in the direction of that trend.


This is an area in which Catlett became passionate, because the changes since 1970 are so extensive.


“My Galaxy phone is 32 million times more powerful than the computer that was used to send Americans to the moon and bring them back safely again,” Catlett said. “We’ll have devices that communicate with each other.


“Presently, 99.9% of all things in the United States do not have cognition. Get ready folks, they’re going to start talking to each other,” he said. “The Internet will move us in ways you never dreamed was possible.”


The first industrial robot was in 1962, according to Catlett, and just 1% of the cars in 1970 were assembled by a robot. He thinks in five years, 100% of the cars in the United States will be made by robots. He noted the second largest buyer of industrial robots last year was agriculture, because the dairy industry is upgrading to robotic milkers.


“The robot Baxter is human-compatible – it can tell a ripe peach from an unripe peach, and it can thread a needle with one hand,” Catlett said. “You show it how to do something once and it never forgets. Robots can take care of pigs 24/7 and they never get tired.”


He said 3-D or augmented printing is just on the horizon, pointing out that General Electric is basing the future of the company on 3D printing.


Catlett said the country will also see bionic or biological printing, including food.


“Are we going to print food? Yes, we already are,” he said, and then added jokingly. “Right now, it tastes like crap, but in this world, somebody is going to buy it.”