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Innovation Feeds Agricultural Growth

Article by John Prestbo February 1, 2013 //   3 minute read
“Vertical farming” is just one of several remarkable innovations — some of which are already here and others 10 years or more from making a difference — that will help agriculture keep pace with a steadily growing global population. And they will help accelerate U.S. economic growth, too, by expanding our role as a leading supplier of foodstuffs to the world. The details are in the Wall Street Journal Report on Innovations in Agriculture, a six-page section published on Monday. A dozen articles describe the clever-to-ingenious ways that farmers, scientists, and innovators are boosting crop yields, rebuilding cattle herds, and fighting drought, among other agricultural productivity advances. The section’s cover story examines the virtues of vertical farming, which it credits to a microbiologist at Columbia University. The idea is simple, the article says: “Instead of trucking food from farms into cities, grow it as close to home as possible — in urban greenhouses that stretch upward instead of sprawling outward.” The article says that a “host of vertical farms are up and running in the U.S. and overseas,” though they are small, experimental and produce only token amounts of food. It also quotes skeptics, who point out that greenhouses require a lot of energy and special (by which they mean expensive) equipment. Proponents argue back that those conditions may change in the future. Other innovations, such as micro-irrigation of certain crops (saving water) and no-till farming (reducing erosion and fertilizer use) are already established. Their productivity contributions will increase as more farmers adopt them and use them more consistently. Dairy farmers have used bull semen with strong female characteristics for artificial insemination since the 1980s, but now beef-cattle ranchers are trying it to rebuild their herds after devastating droughts over the past two years. Innovation is the fizz in the U.S. growth story. We too often equate innovation with high-tech industries. But it is bigger than that. It must be applied at even the humblest levels if we are to kick U.S. economic growth into high gear. It is gratifying to learn that agriculture isn’t being left behind.