Drones, robots, and humans collaborating from a control room monitoring the wheat crops? Vat-grown “meats” in factories? Drinkable nutrients for the on-the-go “consumer?” People swinging pitchforks and scythes at compost parties? Tomato plants floating atop tanks of tilapia in greenhouses filled with solar-powered lighting systems?
It’s all possible, and most of the scenarios above could likely be on their way. I am torn about it.
That’s because I struggle with the concept of a technological “fix” for how we produce and process and distribute food. Technology and science and innovation are clearly one of the most important investments in how to move forward for modern society (I’m tempted to say “civilization” here, but I’m holding back). And yet, the direction of that complex of innovation investments can lead to some awful outcomes.
Take the scientific fix of how to solve the problem of sick pigs when you put thousands of them in enclosed factories. Give the pigs a steady stream of antibiotics so they don’t get sick. It’s a logical scientific response to a very narrowly defined problem. But then, years in the factory farm pig production system with people and pigs bio-accumulating the antibiotics, scientists and society have raised real concerns about the utility of our antibiotic strains remaining viable. Viruses and bacteria have evolved to become more resistant to our antibiotic supply. What happens if there is a disease outbreak and we need those valuable medicines? Too late. We used up the biological supply to prop up factory farm pig production for past thirty-odd years.
I suppose we all have our favored notion of what’s to come, what’s preferable, how we should move along the path. Mine is more people on the land farming a mix of crops and livestock, minding the recycling and biological renovation of nutrients while producing healthy food for people, and leaving room for the wildlife with whom we share the planet. That’s already a mouthful, I know, but there also needs to be something said for economic fairness, decent pay, and incomes sufficient to support these food producers and conservationists.
The swirling of these issues comes crashing home sometimes when a news article or study or something comes along. Yesterday was such a day for me, reading a new study that offers up some interesting data for those of us wondering if our dream of local food systems could actually meet the food needs of modern America. Turns out that the answer is pretty much, “Yes.”
Professor Elliott Campbell, with the University of California, Merced, School of Engineering, discusses the possibilities in a study entitled The Large Potential of Local Croplands to Meet Food Demand in the United States. Dr. Campbell’s new farmland-mapping research shows that up to 90 percent of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes.
It’s an interesting piece of work. It turns out that most metropolitan areas (other than some parts of the New York-New England Megalopolis) have plenty of productive land around that can be used to produce most of the food.
Here at home in West Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, that potential is clearly evident. Lots and lots of land lies in an “unproductive” state. Most of the land is grazed by herds of cattle, the nursery for the beef industry. Some land raises corn and beans and wheat. Some is bottom land hardwood forest. Very few acres are used to produce actual food for people. Instead, our local area provides raw material for the industrial economy (feed and calves for the feedlots out West, corn for the ethanol plants, etc.).
And the thing that most of us in the local food movement fail to realize is that this industrial commodity system is in place for some understandable reasons. First, the conventional system works in a way. It functions in that there is an understandable system for producing goods (corn or calves) and then selling them into a marketplace with local access points. Second, there is an existing capital system in place to keep the commodity production system chugging along. Third, there are policies and incentives and regulations in place that support this industrial commodity structure.
We can, and should, certainly argue that the industrial commodity system is problematic. It’s dependent upon a steady supply of cheap fossil fuels and lack of accountability for pollution to air and water. It discounts soil health and conservation activities (mostly, but with some exceptions). It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already wealthy and the food processors, and tends to pay farmers poorly for their efforts and risk over time. This corresponding wealth accumulation and capital flight to the food processors leads to lack of economic opportunity and depopulation of many rural communities. On and on it goes.
So what’s the future of agriculture, then, if we hope to use the opportunity of transitioning agriculture to more of a focus on raising healthy food for people in the cities near us? The technological and innovation engine needs to keep chugging along for sure. But more important than these technological considerations might mean building a policy framework and developing market opportunities and infrastructure.
You know, truly sexy things like food processing shops and developing trucking routes. That along with making sure that the newly developed infrastructure doesn’t steal off all of the income from food production and leaving farmers with too little income once again.
Feeding the metropolitan areas with locally raised goods is a wonderful opportunity and a goal worth pursuing. We can do it if we choose that path. We just need to make sure that when we’re building out that re-localized system we “innovate” with community and ecological health as critical ingredients for success.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
(Top) Photo by Emily Eagan
(Second) Photo by Jean Markko Tikusis
(Bottom) Photo by Shutterstock
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