Look around us. There are so many exciting innovations and breakthroughs happening all over the world. Many of these are happening in agriculture, which is no surprise.
We are the stewards of working lands. We know from deep experience how to take what we have, and make something even better from it. It’s in our DNA.
The last year has seen some remarkable achievements. Half of this column could have easily been about the James Webb Telescope. I am a space nerd. I geek out on seeing the origins of the universe or witnessing as a black hole consumes a star 10 times the size of our own.
Here is a thumbnail of some cool things pushing us into the new year.
2022 has been a boon for advancement in understanding and treating chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer. Two innovations have stood out to me:
- Next generation mRNA vaccinology. Advancements in the generation, purification and cellular delivery of RNA have enabled the development of RNA therapies across a broad array of applications, such as cancer and Zika virus. The technology is cost-effective and relatively simple to manufacture.
- Alzheimer’s drugs. Duke University has two medications being tested head-to-head in a first-ever virtual clinical trial. This one means a lot personally because my mother passed away over five years ago after being riddled and reduced by this dreadful disease. The impact is huge. An estimated 6.2 million Americans ages 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s disease.
A transformative energy source
The creation of a new, limitless energy source is one of the most profound physics challenges ever conceived. Imagine harnessing nuclear fusion — the reaction that fuels our own sun and other stars across the universe — to generate abundant clean energy right here on Earth.
For six decades, the best minds in the world have searched for a fusion breakthrough to make this energy source more than just theoretical. Last month, researchers announced a milestone: for the first time, a fusion reactor has produced more energy than was used to trigger the reaction.
I majored in political science, not science science, so let’s go to what the Science Daily folks said about this momentous advancement: “On December 5, an array of lasers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, fired 2.05 megajoules of energy at a tiny cylinder holding a pellet of frozen deuterium and tritium, heavier forms of hydrogen. The pellet compressed and generated temperatures and pressures intense enough to cause the hydrogen inside it to fuse. In a tiny blaze lasting less than a billionth of a second, the fusing atomic nuclei released 3.15 megajoules of energy — about 50 percent more than had been used to heat the pellet. Though the conflagration ended in an instant, its significance will endure. Fusion researchers have long sought to achieve net energy gain, which is called scientific breakeven.”
“Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a Washington, D.C. media briefing.
A moon shot for aggies
The next few decades will be critical for the industry to jump into the quantum tunnel of advancement or be left behind. There are two areas where this will be especially important: water and climate.
A battle over 100 years of Oregon water law is underway. There is no doubt that water availability is constrained. The primary factor is that there is less snowpack in the mountains. We literally watch the water flow by into the ocean without looking for ways to store winter water when we need it. We will not get that opportunity if we don’t first find ways to objectively measure how much water is available in the first place.
Measuring water use is a political football. In Oregon, fringe environmentalists assign the blame for water shortages to agriculture, when in fact agriculture has become increasingly efficient with water reuse and drip irrigation.
State Rep. Mark Owens, a Republican farmer out of Crane in Eastern Oregon, is a leading voice on water. His district — comprised of Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — has very challenging water issues.
Rep. Owens is working with the agricultural community to find a better way of measuring water, in the hopes this will prevent conflict. Evapotranspiration includes water evaporation into the atmosphere from the soil surface, evaporation from the capillary fringe of the groundwater table, and evaporation from water bodies on land. Evapotranspiration also includes transpiration, which is the water movement from the soil to the atmosphere via plants.
Regarding carbon, the big issue before us is to quantify the carbon sink of what the nursery and greenhouse industry grows every day. Where there’s a need to sequester carbon, we and the forest products industry are a significant part of the answer.
Working lands do more to help, but they get little or no credit, so the OAN will focus on changing that in 2023. Our members grow green goods from propagation to sale to a retail garden center or rewholesaler. Then our landscape partners get the plants into the ground, where they continue to sequester carbon throughout their entire lifecycles.
We will make the case to elected leaders from Salem to Washington, DC that working lands are not corporate polluters. Instead of throwing a regulatory hammer at natural gas and fossil fuels to make the source more expensive, we should all work to find alternatives and have a transition plan to get there. Together, we can literally help the planet grow its way out of the crisis.
Let’s use all the science and innovative spirit that we can muster in this new year.
Jeff Stone, OAN Executive Director
Director’s Desk from the January 2023 issue of Digger magazine | Download PDF