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The Future of Food

Climate change has and will affect how crops are grown.

New crops will be grown that will adapt to droughts and floods.

Diets will change as tastes evolve.

Farming will need to adapt to both climate change and the diminishing of soil fertility.

Substitutes to meat and fish will be developed.

Food waste is closely linked to distribution.

These are some of the areas that we will explore.

Many of us look at climate change as something that breeds bad results, but that is not always the case. In the 1830’s and 1840’s the Gulf Stream changed its course. It opened up areas in Canada, the Ukraine, Russia and the US Midwest to wheat. This was a good result. Yet it also led to the potato blight in Ireland which created starvation and Irish emigration.

To measure how horrid this situation was, read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, where he suggested that Irish children should be fattened up rather than be starved and then be served to the English as food. His satire was sometime thought of as real.

Regardless on where you stand on the change in climate, you need to accept a world in 20 to 30 years that will have both drought and flooding (and sometimes at the same locations, but at different times), soil depletion, infestation of insects and rats. The real question is how the world will adjust to these challenges.

Currently 3 ½ Billion people in China, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Vietnam and Indonesia get 20% of their calories from rice. Yet years ago production was not meeting needs.

Then Norman Borlaug bred high yielding crops and India and Mexico became self-sufficient. Here we are speaking of wheat, but rice development followed. Borlaug headed up the Rockefeller Foundation’s work in Mexico in 1944 to improve wheat. First he created wheat that was resistant to stem rust. He increased yields that were 10x higher than what was grown. He is said to have created the Green Revolution by inventing new breeds of wheat and rice. His work saved almost a billion people.

Now scientists are working to grow rice in salty water and with less water. Rice and wheat will be genetically created to include vitamins and medicines. This will supplement diets and reduce disease. Iodine was added to salt in the 1980’s to reduce iodine deficiency and to improve the functioning of our thyroids. It has been a great success. The Mekong Delta is open to salt water, so new varieties of rice are being developed to exist in salty waters. Sahbhagi Shan is drought tolerate rice. It grows in 105 days and needs two irrigations versus 120 to 150 days and four irrigations. That is quite an improvement. Scuba rice has also been created. This rice has a tolerate gene which can survive in water up to 2 weeks versus the normal 3 to 4 days.

One of the “secrets” for the success of innovation in US agriculture can be traced to the use of education through agricultural extensions. Farmers are by their nature conservative and make change with difficulty. Our Agricultural Extension system sent advisors to the field to work with farmers and to create demonstrations to illustrate what can work.

I predict that many emerging nations will adopt and expand of this form of education for their farmers. What crops will be grown in the future that are drought and flood resistant? Science News (May 7 & 21, 2022) ran an excellent article on Six Foods of the Future. These include: mussels, kelp, enset, cassava, Bambara ground nut and millet. All of these crops currently exist.

Mussels and other bivalves such as oysters, clams and scallops may make up 40% of all seafood consumed by 2050 (Nature). Overfishing is and will cause the reduction of fish. We might even have passed the point of no return even if we go to fish farming. Interestingly, kelp and seaweed can be grown with mussels. Kelp takes in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and also can lower water acidity which bivalves generate. While kelp and seaweed have long been consumed in Asia, their adoption in the West may take some time. For instance, caviar and lobster were once only fed to slaves and the very poor. It was only when the wealthy adopted these foods that they were over harvested and became scarce and expensive. So the question for the future is: how will new foods be accepted? Habits are hard to change. Perhaps this is where education and marketing will help.

Much of what I have discussed assumes that populations will continue to increase and that may not be right. Many demographic experts indeed believe that population will stabilize. So let me offer a truth here. As people become wealthier, they have fewer children.

Certainly the example of China points this out. The one child policy (or technically the “one birth” for twins) started in 1979 and ended in 2015. But even before this policy Chinese were having fewer children. My own opinion is that the one child policy (even after some abuses) was good for China because it enabled the country to bring almost half its population into the middle class by 2018. The middle class was only 3% of China’s population in 2000. Now couples no longer need or want large families. China, like the United States and most of Europe, has a negative birth rate. There are negative and positive aspects for this trend. Wealth equals security and can and does stabilize and lower population growth. Yet with fewer younger people and the growth of older people, parts of the economy cannot function as well.

The US population is a classic example of this. In 2008, unemployment was at 14% but I predicted it would be at 5% by 2015. This prediction was not widely believed at the time, but it was obvious. The baby boomers born after WWII were at or approaching retirement age. Social security, pensions, 401k’s and savings (mostly in housing) allowed the baby boomers to retire and they did. They were the largest part of our population and often equated to a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Families were forming later, and having children later. Immigration was restricted (under George W Bush and Obama). This was an easy prediction to make and was accurate. Now we have more jobs than workers. But we will be more like the Japanese who have supplemented their “work” force with robots and machinery.

But the need to increase food production hides a major challenge that is how food is distributed. There is significant waste in storage and distributions of grains. I predict that better packaging of grains, better ways to transport foods, and better care in assuring that food shipped is eaten by others. When food is distributed as relief, it can make folks dependent rather than independent. It can depress local prices and hurt farmers’ income. It is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish, as the saying goes. But sometimes drought, flooding, and other natural disasters, such as earthquakes demand foreign assistance. Then there are other problems such as corruption, wastage at the point of delivery, limited absorption capacity. Civil war and other governance problems also hinder food relief.

There will be major changes in how food is farmed. I attended a World Future Society meeting in Chicago a few years back and we were treated to a presentation on urban farming. Crops were grown using less water, no insecticides and less “fertilizer”. Hydroponics is costly to set up, requires much power (and is affected by outages) and requires monitoring and maintenance. Some crops actually need soil to grow: carrots, beets and turnips, for example. The Christian Science Monitor mentioned (Jan 23, 2023, page21) that the Netherlands might become the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products. Their greenhouses now grow 10x as much food as traditional dirt farming. One benefit is the use of less water: each pound of tomatoes uses ½ gallon of water versus the global average of 28 gallons.

California has a water shortage and there is competition between farming and the cities. Imagine, as I am, the use green houses and hydroponics which use less water in these drought areas. These methods of farming are more labor intensive, but robotics could lower that cost. In Bangladesh, farmers have changed to planting cabbage, radishes, gourds and tomatoes. These crops use far less water and farmers can make more money.

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