Jack's Insights December 2017

By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

This month, as I write my Jack’s Insights article, I’m enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday with family in Utah.  My wife Robynn’s family has gathered at her sister’s home for a few days of conversation, fun and getting better acquainted with each other.  It has been great to move beyond FaceTime and see my 8-month-old grandson and 11-month-old granddaughter smile at me in person.  In addition, to know that they really do recognize “Grandpa,” even when the miles between our homes don’t facilitate a daily, or weekly personal visit.

Dr. Jack Whittier

I’ve also been able to spend a day with my 91-year-old mother and talk of heritage and life when she was a little girl.  I’m thankful to family and the opportunity to enjoy time with them – to me this is one of the blessings of the Thanksgiving holiday.

I mention FaceTime above because it is a marvelous example of inventions and developments  which have occurred in a relatively short period of time for easy communication with family and friends.  I remember party lines for telephone calls, and when long-distance phone calls were reserved for very special occasions.  I’m not sure there is even such a thing as an extra charge on phone bills nowadays for long-distance calls.

Along the line of inventions and developments, I want to give a brief report on the 2017 Growing Nebraska Summit I attended in Lincoln in early November.  The UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) hosted this one-day event as a way to listen to and assure stakeholders that we are on the right path in IANR research, teaching and extension work, and to showcase some of the great things that are happening at your university.  Dr. Mike Boehm, Vice Chancellor of IANR, anticipates that the Growing Nebraska Summit will become an annual event to report to the people of Nebraska what their university is doing in the area of agriculture, natural resources and associated disciplines.  

One of the speakers, in particular, presented work I have thought of a lot since the Summit.  Amanda Ramer-Tait from the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases, a joint effort involving the UNL Department of Food Sciences and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, updated us on the exciting area of research which is happening between agriculture and health.  Amanda is part of the Nebraska Food for Health Center.  She used the term “gut microbiome” to describe how modulation of the vast population of microbes in our gastrointestinal tract is being explored in a research pipeline aimed at certain target diseases and health outcomes.  She drew the connection between the enhanced food production practices in agriculture and their beneficial effects on our bodies.  These impacts are driven largely by the microbial dynamics in our gut. 

Amanda began her presentation by referring to a challenge given to the Nebraska Food for Health team by Jeff Raikes, who at the time was CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The Gates Foundation is providing a portion of the funding for the effort.  Jeff, a Nebraska native, was the chief strategist for Microsoft and drove the product strategy and design of Microsoft Office.  He challenged UNL with a question from a computer terminology perspective: “How do we create Nebraska Agriculture 2.0?”  From what I saw in Amanda’s presentation, there is a great future for agriculture as version 2.0 evolves in the coming decades.

I’m convinced that there are many discoveries yet to be found in agriculture, whether as related to health, as Amanda outlined, or in the production of food generally to feed our growing global population.  For example, who would have thought that grain production per acre – whether wheat or corn – would have more than doubled during most of our lifetimes.  This occurred as a result of mankind using the resources, know-how and opportunities to develop and refine our food production practices.  As Agriculture 2.0 and similar initiatives are undertaken, I’m confident that we will rise to the challenge through research and development projects.

Wayne Woldt, UNL Water Resource Engineering Professor, made what I thought was a key statement during a segment of the Summit when we were having a table discussion.  As we were discussing the challenge of feeding the world as population grows, Wayne said, “I can’t think that the Creator would have developed a system that would fail before completion.”  I don’t think Wayne was in any way suggesting that we just sit back and expect food production to grow to meet the need.  Rather, I think what he was saying was with all of the resources, know-how and opportunity to develop and refine our food production practices, the Creator expects us to use these to meet the coming demands.

Back to my comment about FaceTime as a means of communicating with family members.  Few would have believed that this technology was even possible, yet it is commonplace now.  Similarly, I feel confident that we can play a key role in the system to feed the world to reach the designed completion.

Have a nice holiday season as you celebrate all the blessings we have been provided with.