From prehistoric times until the 20th century, human beings have had to solve their building problems and make their tools from the materials and substances they found around them in the environment. Stone could carry great loads in compression and was used as building foundations. Trees held great loads under both compression and tension and were used as beams to hold up roofs. A plant tasted good and was cultivated for food. Grain was discovered to ferment and make enjoyable recreational libations, so communities were formed to cultivate the grain or grape and produce the beer or wine.
Indeed, at or near the center of every large human community, whether an archaeological find or a present-day living city, one will find a brewery, winery or distillery. It was not bread that brought us together into communities, it was the beer.
In the 20th century, humans began to experiment with resins and petroleum extractions to produce tools and items that bore no resemblance to anything in nature. Some of that history happened right here in Bryan County when Henry Ford experimented in his laboratory – now the day spa at The Ford Plantation – with soybeans to make plastic parts for his automobiles.
With the advancements in chemistry and manufacturing we – as a species – now have reached the point that we no longer are constrained by the natural raw materials around us and their inherent properties to meet our needs. Instead of saying “I need something to do this job; now what do we have that I can adapt to that purpose,” we now can say, “I need something with these properties; this is how I will design it.”
Human creativity no longer is chained to whatever is lying around. If we need something with entirely new and unique properties, we can design, engineer and build it. We even can design machines at the atomic level – nanotechnology.
New composites from engineered laminated wood products outperform any naturally produced wood. We design light but incredibly strong carbon fiber composites that find application in spacecraft and aviation, automobiles, sports equipment and protective armor. Kevlar has saved lives on the battlefield and on the mean streets as well as on the football field. Who would willingly use hemp rope as anchor rode or sail rigging when nylon and other engineered plastics are so much stronger, more dependable and more durable? Fiberglass and gelcoat made the recreational boat affordable for millions of people.
But you already know about these. Over the next few columns, I plan to show you how the same progression is occurring in agriculture.
From Mendel forward, we have bred better plants for our food and fiber needs. Yields increased, plant efficiency increased, disease resistance was bred in where it could be found. Along the way there have been mistakes, from which we have learned much, but we have secured even greater victories that have pushed the envelope and advanced human beings as a species.
Indeed, many of the great advances in human medicine started as research on agricultural crops and livestock. So here are just a few teasers for what is coming. How does a plant breeder celebrate diversity? How did we quadruple corn yields in America? What was the largest single loss of a single crop in the history of the human race? Give me the year, country in which it occurred, crop plant and disease. What plant disease was studied with cancer-research money and reinforced our understanding that cancers can be caused by viruses? What plant disease shows that transgenic plants are naturally occurring? What annual row crop is actually a small tree?
Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.