Farming & Food Production- 2040 Part 2 

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. I decided to share the scenario I developed for him through my website blog. I want to reemphasize, the future depends to some extent on what people do between now and then, and people are inherently unpredictable. This is the second in a three-part scenario of food and farming in 2040.  John I.


Beginning with where I left off in Part 1, 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. With the growing popularity of sustainable local food systems, many people are healthier and happier in 2040 than they were in the early 2000s — when they were eating more “cheap” food.


Even those who could afford to buy all the food they wanted in the early 2000s are actually better off now than before. The foods they are now producing for themselves in home gardens and buying from local and regional farmers posed fewer health risks and are far more nutritious than the industrial foods shipped in from major production areas in the past. Even though overall food costs have risen a modest 10% or so in deflated U.S. dollars for sustainable eaters, diet-related healthcare costs have fallen by more than enough to offset their rising costs of food.


Continuing public concerns about environmental risks, including global climate change and diet-related public health risks, such as obesity, are rapidly bringing the industrial era in American agriculture to an end. However, most Americans still depend on industrial agriculture for a large portion of their daily calorie intake. Most so-called developing countries never bought into industrial agriculture, and they are finding ways to increase agricultural production to provide food for their still-growing populations without resorting to industrial agricultural methods. However, the transition from industrial agriculture is a slow process because it depends primarily on the imagination, knowledge, and skills of sustainable farmers – knowledge and skills that take years to develop. The major concern now is whether the alternative paradigm or model of sustainable agriculture can be fully developed and implemented in time to avoid major food shortages in the U.S. and famines elsewhere.


For the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans are confronted with the real possibility of massive hunger and even starvation at some time in the not-too-distant future. No one knows with any degree of certainty just when that possibility might become a reality – or at least their individual reality. The Great Economic Stagnation of the 21st century, which is still ongoing, has made a “comfortable retirement” a memory of the past and most federal and state economic safety nets have been removed in a futile attempt to stimulate the private sector of the economy. There were still many wealthy people in America – at least wealthy on paper or in electronic digits. However, the wealthy are still unwilling to support government programs with their tax dollars – and they still control the government.  A grass-roots movement is building to restore democracy in America, but no one knows how long will take. The only real source of food security is within local communities and many local food systems have still not evolved to the point where they can ensure survival of a national or global food crisis.


The Great Stagnation has dramatically changed both the natural and developed landscapes of the U.S. over the past 25 years. The large irrigated fields of industrial agriculture in the West and Great Plains have been returned mostly to grasslands for ruminant livestock – cattle, sheep, and goats. The digestive systems of ruminants are designed by nature to digest grass rather than grain. Buffalo again roam in many of their original home territory. They are harvested selectively and carefully, also and with great respect, because they may be the primary meat source of the future in many areas of the country. Dairy operations are mainly clustered areas around cities in order to minimize transportation costs. Dramatic rises in fossil energy prices have again become a major factor determining location for all “bulky” food products.


With dramatically raising agricultural production risks associated with unreliable weather patterns, major production areas of most farm commodities have retreated to their traditional growing areas – although perhaps slightly further north. Central California has returned to producing olives, bio-dynamic grapes, and other drought-tolerant or “desert” crops. Wheat has come back to the High Plains of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska. Corn and soybean production has retreated from the South and other marginal areas to the North Central region of the Midwest. Cotton has returned to the Southeast – abandoned the now water-less areas of Arizona and Texas. While most of the farming operations in 2040 are far smaller than in the early 2000s, most are still industrial in nature, meaning they are dependent on mechanization, agricultural chemicals, and fossil energy and thus are not sustainable. The transition to sustainable crop production is still far from complete.


Hogs and chickens are returning to their natural roles as scavengers of waste. This means they are scattered among different types of farming operations to utilize crop wastes and byproducts. Many are concentrated in and around cities to utilize human food waste. With growing concern for food scarcity, Americans are no longer ignoring the 40% or more of total food production that once was wasted. Much of the waste was intentional or was designed into the production process in order to maintain growing consumer demand for food and the associated profitability of the food industry.

Virtually every household in America now grows some food at home or has some type of home garden. For most, it is a kitchen garden that provides their favorite local fresh produce in season. For many families, the garden has become a second job. Many second incomes of families never returned after the Great Recession of the early 2000s. Short-run food security and long-run sustainability are no longer “fringe” movements but are major concerns for mainstream America – particularly for those living in urban areas. (Part 3 will begin with a forward look at food and farming in urban America in 2040.)

John Ikerd