Farming & Food Production- 2040 Part 1

A few weeks ago I was asked by a writer of a novel to speculate about what farming and food production might look like in the U.S. in the year 2037. He was particularly interested in the potential impacts of climate change. I decided to share the scenario I developed for him through my website blog. I want to stress that it is a scenario or a realistic possibility, not something that I am necessarily predicting. The future depends to some extent on what people do between now and then, and 15 years of forecasting livestock prices convinced me that people are inherently unpredictable. I will share the scenario in three parts to keep the blogs to a reasonable length.  John I.

Looking back a quarter century to 2015, the U.S. was then a nation where few people were concerned about food security, other than those living in chronic poverty. More than 30% of U.S. farm income came from agricultural exports, and farmers in the Midwest were expanding pork production to supply the rapidly expanding market for pork in China. About 40% of the U.S. corn crop was being used to produce ethanol to fuel automobiles rather than either feed for livestock or food for people. U.S. supermarkets were filled year-round with a wide variety of foods from around the world.

Most Americans were oblivious to even the remote possibility that by 2040 the American middle-class and even affluent Americans would be concerned about food scarcity if not actual hunger and starvation. Those in the then-fledgling sustainable food and farming movements had been warning of the risks inherent in the lack of sustainability in American agriculture. Agricultural sustainability was just an environmental movement, it was about the long-run food security of the nation. All the signs were there in 2015, but few people were looking.

Events of the past 25 years, however, have erased Americans’ complacency about food. The first obvious signs of real change appeared in the early 2000s. Unprecedented droughts followed by record-breaking floods became almost the meteorological norm. Earlier undeniable signs of global warming and associated climate change had been the melting ice shields in the Artic regions. The later failure of winter snow packs to develop in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range left the giant irrigation projects that had sustained the agriculture industry of California without water. The lack of production from the Central Valley of California brought the first real concerns about food security to many Americans.

To make matters worse, so-called normal weather patterns that supported unprecedented growth in agricultural productivity during the 20th century turned out to be an aberration. The change wasn’t just a simple matter of shifting USDA Plant Hardiness Zones further north, as some as naively predicted. Unseasonable temperature swings left farmers with little guidance as to when to plant or harvest. Droughts and floods plagued areas of the country that had formerly been labeled wet or dry.

Plant diseases brought on by persistent rains eventually decimated both the vegetable and citrus industries of South Texas and Florida. Irrigated crop production in the High Plains was the next to feel the impacts of climate change. The Ogallala Aquifer which once seemed inexhaustible had been depleted at a time when High Plains corn and soybean producers needed it most to cope with undependable weather patterns. The flash floods that punctuated otherwise persistent drought did little to sustain crops that needed regular supplies of moisture.

Without a ready supply of feed grains, the industrial livestock industry of the High Plains eventually was forced to close down.  Livestock production retreated to areas that could produce grain without irrigation, which were becoming fewer. In the Midwest, the corn-ethanol industry was the first to go – to leave enough feed to support the remaining livestock feeding industry. Rising prices of feed grain and grain-fed animal products also priced U.S. exports out of reach of consumers in the struggling Chinese and Pacific Rim economies. Livestock and poultry diseases ran rampant through the large confinement animal feeding operations or factory farms that had once seemed the future of animal agriculture. By 2040, meat, milk, and eggs from grain-fed animals have become an occasional luxury even for the American middle class.

International agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions came too late to avoid major changes in global climate and global agriculture. Most people in the U.S. still have enough to eat, just not the same kinds of things to eat that they had in earlier times. The transition in eating has been challenging, particularly for the millions that were addicted to the quick, convenient, cheap foods of the industrial era. In most respects, they are actually better off in 2040 than they were in the early 2000s, although many are still unwilling to admit it. It eventually became obvious that the outdated market economy was never going to feed the hungry because most people who were hungry were hungry because they were poor. It is taking longer for people to admit that the industrial food system didn’t even meet the basic food needs of the middle class or affluent.

The Local Food Movement, which emerged in the early 2000s, continues to be driven by a commitment to agricultural sustainability. Sustainable agriculture is about meeting the basic needs of all – including their need for good food – without diminishing opportunities for those of the future. In the sustainability movement, food security, meaning enough good food to support healthy, active lifestyles, is seen as a “right” – not a privilege. People are actually healthier and happier in 2040 than they were in the early 2000s, when they were eating more “cheap” food. A constitutional reform movement is underway to establish the “consent of the governed” that food security should be a constitutional right in the U.S. – not just left to local communities, the vagaries of charity, or the indifference of markets.

John Ikerd