The Future Of Food

Farmers will have to stay on top of market trends to provide the products desired and required by consumers.

Megan Wallendal is helping to oversee the conversion of nearly 1,000 acres to organic at Wallendal Farms, Image by Des Keller

Jayson Lusk’s intention isn’t to diminish serious concerns about crop and food production in the world and its availability to hungry populations. Those economic and logistical problems are real, the head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University explains. But, they aren’t the fault of agriculture itself, which has defied dire predictions with its ability to innovate and produce more with less land.

“The typical point of view today is not that we should be thankful, but that we have a broken food system,” Lusk says. “That is the general theme that runs through a lot of this type of writing.”

Compared to the late 1940s, farming uses 26% less land, while total farm production has increased 169%, says Lusk, who is also the author of several books including Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology are Serving up Super Foods to Save the World. In the process, today’s farm production uses 76% less labor.

“We now get 500% more corn and 280% more wheat per acre of planted farmland than we did a century ago,” Lusk points out. Yet, he doesn’t necessarily fault the naysayers of years past.

“We were headed for doom,” he says. “We would have witnessed mass starvation if the status quo had prevailed. What made the prophets wrong was how people responded to the challenges they faced.” In fact, Lusk credits the prognosticators with jolting the desire to change and innovate.

The innovation can run counter to the “romantic traditionalism” that many people feel toward agriculture as well as other things of the past, Lusk explains. “There is this notion that, somehow, agriculture was in an ideal state 40 or 50 or 60 years ago--slow, natural, unprocessed.”

That ideal isn’t the reality. “I’ve seen the photos of my dad and his brothers on the farm in the 1940s near Silverton, Texas,” Lusk says. “They aren’t wearing shoes, there is no electricity or running water in the house. This was not a high-quality life.”

Today, consumer tastes, food trends, genetic modification and precision agriculture help provide for diversification in the market, he says.

FARM RESET. That’s the plan at Wallendal Farms, Grand Marsh, Wisconsin. On this multigeneration row-crop and produce farm, the owners are plotting the future and are in the midst of converting 1,000 of their 3,300 acres from conventional to organic production. Growers of commodity corn, as well as sweet corn and various types of produce, the Wallendals see expanded diversification and stabilization of income as the end game.

“The market for organic commodities and produce has been very stable in recent years, whereas the prices for commodity crops are very volatile,” says Megan Wallendal, research and technology manager. As an example, she says the conventional sweet corn they grow will sell for about $65 per ton. Their organic sweet corn sells for $200 per ton.

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Of course, there are additional compliance and labor costs involved with growing organically, but the organic price can be counted on as harvest approaches, Wallendal says. Not so for conventional sweet corn, whose price can continue to move lower or higher depending on the market price for conventional commodity corn.

Lusk sees farms like the Wallendals’ taking advantage of diet trends that are moving toward more “plant-based, more fruits and vegetables,” he says. “People need to be aware of opportunities that capitalize on niche markets.”

Otherwise, the movement toward more “local food and farm-to-table restaurants may have reached its zenith,” Lusk says. And, the growth of farmers’ markets has started to level off, he contends.

That doesn’t mean that the growing and production process isn’t going to involve more traceability to the market. Identity-preserved grain for various markets is already in common use, and those processes may involve all crops eventually.

PAPER TRAIL. Such accountability is business as usual for Ross Williams, of Titan Farms, the second-largest privately owned grower-packer-shipper of peaches in the country, based in Ridge Spring, South Carolina (the largest is in California). The company maintains 6,200 acres of peach orchards in South Carolina and ships up to 115 million peaches as far west as Colorado annually.

“In the early 2000s, there was a movement in farming in regards to food safety, particularly for specialty crops,” says Williams, director of packaging operations and food safety. “We needed to be able to identify where the produce came from in case there was an issue downstream.”

Titan enlisted the help of Idaho-based EnvioAg, whose system uses so-called “license plates” and bar codes to track individual crates and pallets of its peaches anywhere they go. Individual peaches themselves aren’t tracked.

“The system is not only valuable for food-safety reasons,” Williams says, “but for quality purposes, as well. We can trace issues downstream with fruit defects or rot, or bacterial spots on the skin all the way back to a particular field, and provide that info to the growing team.”

The type of system could absolutely be adapted for commodity crops, Williams explains. “As long as the proper tracking information goes in, you can trace that grain back to particular farms. As it is, we keep all the data from this system from past years, as well as images, to keep data from every harvest in every field.”

A GREAT DIVIDE. This desire for accountability comes from a public that is increasingly distant from commercial farming, Lusk says. Farmers need to be aware of the divide.

“Influencers in the industry are higher income and often young and urban,” Lusk says. He calls this the “growing divergence between eaters and growers.” The values of the two camps are not necessarily the same, setting up an urban versus rural outlook on how food is produced.

The perceptions are clouded by the fact that while there are technically 2 million farmers in the U.S., only a small number (7.5%, or 159,000) accounts for 80% of U.S. farm output.

The urban and more affluent have food preferences that differ from those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. The interest in production that has an aura of “naturalness” increases with disposable income. “This is something that commercial ag needs to take into account in its rhetoric,” Lusk stresses.

For his part, Lusk has spent considerable time talking about agriculture to non-farm audiences, often on college campuses.

“My perspective that agriculture is up to the technological and quality task facing future food production is often one they’ve never heard,” he says. “Humans are inherently risk-averse when it comes to food. Agriculture has delivered many benefits that aren’t obvious to consumers. Apples that don’t brown so readily isn’t the same as the technology of a new cell phone.”

Dire Predictions Prove False:

Historically, gloomy predictions that humans will come up lacking in the quest to feed their burgeoning population have been wrong, explains Jayson Lusk, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University and author of Unnaturally Delicious, How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save The World. Those predictions include:

> In 1798, the English cleric and scholar, Thomas Robert Malthus, published An Essay on the Principle of Population that postulated, among other things, that population multiplies geometrically while food supplies multiply arithmetically. He predicted that the growth of the world population would outstrip our ability to provide food for that increased population.

> One hundred years later, in 1898, the noted chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes wrote: “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle. Land is a limited quantity, and the land that will grow wheat is absolutely dependent on difficult and capricious natural phenomena … ”

> Futurist Paul Ehrlich, who authored The Population Bomb in 1968, wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

In general, Lusk explains, those predictions have failed to account for the ability of technology and science to allow agriculture to continually produce more with less. Fewer than 1 billion people lived on Earth during Malthus’s time, and another 600 million more when Crookes wrote about population and food. Today, more than 7 billion live on the planet.

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