The Future of Food

In the last chapter of Unnaturally Delicious, I contrasted two issues of National Geographic about food and agriculture that appeared roughly 44 years apart.  The first story, written in 1970 by Jules Billard, was titled "The Revolution in American Agriculture."

Here's what I had to say:

Yes, some futurists teeter on the edge of technological utopianism (where is that flying car we were promised in the 1950s?), and today’s farms may not have the modern architectural flare depicted by the artist. But the reality is not that far off. Soil sensors, drones, satellite images, soy burgers, contour plowing, efficient irrigation, chicken cages, and mechanical harvesters all
were discussed as the future of food nearly five decades ago, and they are now a regular part of farm and food practices on what are larger, more specialized, but still family-owned farms. GPS signals drive today’s tractors, and fertilizer applicators and planters distribute their payloads based on digital input from soil sensors and crop consultants. Farmers watch the evolution of crop prices and thunderstorms on their smartphones. Farmers apply livestock waste as fertilizer or use it in anaerobic digesters to create energy for the farm. Drones track crop yields, cattle location, and animal health. Farming innovators are moving high-value crops indoors under blue and red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that give off precisely the wavelengths the plants need in environments that use recycled water, reduce water losses from evaporation, and prevent pests and thus the need for pesticides.
U.S. agriculture largely delivered on the hopes of the 1970s to satisfy the growling stomachs of a growing world, primarily through innovation and technological development. Yet, it seems
Americans are hardly content. While an abundant food supply sufficient for an expanding population remains a top concern, the 1970 and 2014 stories in National Geographic also reveal shifts in the food problems that occupy our attention as well as changes in how we envisions addressing them. The 2014 special edition of National Geographic argued that “agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming” and the “environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food worldwide.” Other articles in that issue worried about corporate control, hunger, deforestation, nutrition, food deserts, waste, and more. Yet it’s not clear whether our cultural food pessimism is warranted.


Technological advancement and industrialization have been great food equalizers—freeing peasants and serfs from the demands of the land and letting them eat like the royalty they once served. [Rachel] Laudan correctly observes that “were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need.” What we need is a recognition of the ability of technology to help solve our food problems along with wisdom about how to ensure against
the risks that technology can create.

I conclude the book by saying:

I have no idea whether the particular products and technologies will ever make it to our farms and kitchens. But that’s not really the point. The point is the process. Experimentation and innovation are what will ultimately help address our food problems. If we’ll let them.