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Elbert: The future of food


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.

Much of the text is about how farmers all over the world are using science and technology to work through the problems. 

Little explores the development of nontraditional sources of protein – think fish, insects and meat that is grown in laboratories without animals.  

She also meets engineers who are building smart robots that can learn to recognize pests and weeds and remove them with minimum chemical applications.  

In another chapter, she explores the development of high-nutrient foods that have virtually no shelf life, including a product called Soylent, which is named after the 1973 sci-fi movie “Soylent Green.” (I can’t explain it; just Google the movie.) 

In New Jersey, Little visited a vertical farm where vegetables are grown without soil in stacks of trays “in an old laser-tag building just a few miles from Manhattan.” 

The operation is similar to the greenhouse district that Des Moines leaders proposed a few years ago for a mile-and-a-half stretch between the Iowa Capitol and Meredith Corp. It was a good idea that was ahead of its time and is worth exploring again.

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