prev | next
index for this volume | New Crops News | NewCROPS home page

New Crops News, Spring 1992, vol. 2 no. 1

Agricultural Trends in the 1990s

American agriculture in the last decade of the twentieth century must be concerned with megatrends that are directing our destiny. These forces are shaping the lives and fortunes of all of the agricultural community--producers, processors, suppliers, scientists, and educators.


Consumer is king (or queen) in the agricultural markets today. Today's consumers are very concerned about the nutritional characteristics of the food products brought home from the supermarket; they're very concerned about the safety of those food products; they're very concerned about the efficiency of preparation of those food products. With the increasing number of women in the labor force today, we may not hire a lot of maids in our homes, but we certainly buy a lot of maid services in the products we take home from the supermarket. The emphasis on developing new products that not only meet the nutritional and the safety characteristics desired, but also the ease and speed of preparation, is an important concern.


We live in a global market and a global society. This creates tremendous opportunities for us to draw upon genetic material and new crops from other countries. I spent about five years of my life overseas between 1965 and 1974, and in the four years we spent living in the tropics, one of the great joys was having such fruits as mango, papaya, avocado, sugar apple, and, jack fruit readily available, month in and month out. These added tremendously to our quality of life, and they're one of the things we've missed most back here in the United States. There are tremendous opportunities for creating new products. Any of us who have lived in Brazil know guaraná, a tremendously satisfying beverage. Given its high level of caffeine, I suspect it would be a tremendous hit with kids and might outdo many cola beverages in terms of salability. Many alternative crops are available in the rest of the world, the existence of which most American consumers are now totally unaware. Introducing more of these could contribute greatly to the quality and variety of our diet.

Because of the size of the world market, internationalization is one of the fundamentally important forces affecting the well-being of American farmers. It is important to remember that in the 1970s, the world market for bulk commodities&151;corn, soybeans, and wheat, in particular&151;virtually exploded, but in the 1980s the growth in the world market was almost entirely in what we call value-added products--;alternative products and processed products. The corn, wheat, and soybean markets were virtually flat in the 1980s. The United States captured most of the growth in the international market in the 1970s because we were as efficient a producer of raw bulk commodities as any country in the world. But, unfortunately, less than 10% of our agricultural exports are value-added products and alternative products. In western Europe that figure is over 50%. Consequently the action in the world market today is in the areas where western Europe thrives. If we are going to thrive in this international environment we are going to have to get our act together and address the reality of (1) marketing value-added products, (2) developing more alternative crops and more specialty crops, and (3) finding ways to deliver those to foreign consumers in the form in which they want to buy.


The third major trend of the 1990s is increasing concern for the environment. We have responded to this trend at Purdue by establishing a Center for Alternative Agricultural Systems. One of the goals is to provide modern commercial agriculture, whether in traditional or alternate crops, with the best available, most environmentally friendly and economical pest control mechanisms. Water quality is issue number one in this state, and it is one of the highest priority issues throughout the country. All of us involved in this area are concerned with how to make sure that our agriculture production systems of the future not only provide an acceptable level of income to our farm families but also produce those agricultural products in an environmentally benign manner.

Policy Change

The fourth major trend of the 1990s is a change in the policy environment. There has been a significant decline in the role of "old-line" commodity programs for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, programs that used to make up the most important elements of agricultural policy. Instead, the new agenda is environmental policy, science policy, trade policy, animal welfare, and food safety. These are the hot issues of the 90s; these are the policy priorities about which people are concerned. The 1990 farm bill originally would have cost $53 billion over the next five years, but as a result of the budget deficit reduction package the $53 billion was cut to $41 billion. Budget constraints caused reductions in the levels of support to corn, wheat, cotton, and rice in particular in the 1990 farm bill.

In many cases, the commodity programs caused some rather negative impacts on American agriculture. They led to greater specialization than optimal, and they led to misuse of natural resources. Specialization has very important implications for new crops and alternative crops. As I interpret the changes in policy that are occurring, the incentives to specialization in, for example, continuous corn, are declining rapidly. This will improve the situation for bringing alternative crops into the farm producers system. In the 1990 farm bill 10% of a farmer's acreage base is flexible. That is, farmers can plant anything they want on those acres on which they would not receive deficiency payments anyway. This creates an ideal opportunity for farmers to experiment with alternative crops on these "flexible acres."

High Technology

The fifth great trend of the 1990s is that agriculture is becoming an increasingly high tech industry. We have a tremendous array of powerful tools of modern plant science at our disposal for the improvement of traditional crops through genetic manipulation and for finding alternative means of controlling pests. These genetically engineered crops could be less dependent on chemicals that have been associated with environmental negatives. We also have opportunities to borrow genes from alternative crops from all over the world and introduce them into crops that we've traditionally grown.

These trends have important implications for new crops. One of the most important issues of the 1990s will be to identify the best alternative and new crops that we can competitively grow in an environmentally friendly manner to satisfy today's consumer demands for safe, nutritious products.

Robert L. Thompson
Dean of Agriculture
(Excerpted from a transcript of remarks made on October 7, 1991 at the Second National Symposium, New Crops: Exploration, Research, Commercialization.)