Elbert: The future of food
By Dave Elbert, Columnist, Business Record (IA)
January 8, 2021
To Iowans it often appears that modern agriculture is built around four commodities – corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle – although that may be changing.
To be sure, there are reasons Iowa became a focal point for those particular products.
Our soil and weather are among the best in the world for growing corn and soybeans, and we’ve put much research, not to mention federal subsidies, into the crops. The same is true for hogs and cattle, which are major consumers of corn and soybeans and a key source of protein for humans.
Because of our concentration on those four commodities, fruits, vegetables and nuts are mostly grown elsewhere and imported to Iowa, although it wasn’t always that way.
As climate change becomes more obvious and soil depletion becomes more of a problem, many assumptions about Iowa agriculture will change.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s column.
Science writer Amanda Little, who teaches journalism at Vanderbilt University, wrote a fascinating book two years ago called “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”
While many of us think of our state as the center of the food universe, Iowa plays a very small role in Little’s book, capturing only two mentions in 340 pages. (One was to illustrate how rainfall patterns have changed; the other was about how nitrogen-rich fertilizers can contribute to blue baby syndrome.)
The book’s title, not to mention the absence of Iowa stories, might lead some to believe that Little does not appreciate the role Iowa farmers play in feeding the world. That would be a mistake, because she clearly understands and acknowledges the role commodity agriculture, with its genetically modified crops and cloned animals, plays in feeding the world’s ever-growing population.
“As many as two billion people might not exist if it hadn’t been for the advent of agribusiness,” Little wrote. Increased production, she added, has dramatically decreased the cost of food around the world.
But it has also produced “massive waste, overconsumption, [and] poor nutrition,” along with fewer farms and supply problems.
“The United States imports more than half of its fruit supply and about a third of its vegetables,” Little wrote. That’s a situation that was easier to shrug off before a worldwide pandemic showed how vulnerable we are to foreign suppliers for items as basic as face masks and other essential medical supplies.
Changing weather patterns are already causing problems and can be expected to reduce global crop yields by 2% to 6% per decade, a U.S. Department of Agriculture expert told Little.
For as many problems as modern agriculture faces, Little’s book is surprisingly upbeat...