The Future of Food Requires Scalability

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  1. # INTRODUCTION: THE FUTURE OF FOOD REQUIRES SCALABILITY
    1. Today, we are the most food secure the world has ever seen!
      1. Global automation, concentration and consolidation of our food production system has equipped us the highest food productivity to feed and nourish our world.
      2. The issues within our food system that leads to widespread malnutrition across the globe arises from obstacles within the chain of distribution and economic inequalities making food unaffordable.
        1. “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2009a, 2009b) the world produces more than 1 1/2 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s already enough to feed 10 billion people, the world’s 2050 projected population peak. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land—cannot afford to buy this food,” (Holt-Gimenez et al 595).(fn)
    2. The current food system’s strength of its efficiency and uniformity also is its weakness. Consolidation of our labor, genetics, and land has resulted is a fragile system that is slow to adapt in the face of change.
      1. 1.5 billion produce half of the world’s food for sustenance. For these farmers “…monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Noncommercial polycultures are better for balancing diets, reducing risk, and thrive without agrochemicals,” (Holt-Gimenez et al 596). (fn)
    3. The world is witnessing one example of this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
      1. “It has only taken 6 weeks for the Covid-19 pandemic to bru- tally expose the flaws of our modern food system—flaws documented by scholars for decades. Produce destroyed in fields because restaurants and food services are closed. Covid-19 hotspots emerging in meatpacking communities forcing closure of up to 20% of pork packing in the U.S. Farmers in alternative agrifood markets pivoting to online ordering and reorienting their supply away from restaurants and to retail or delivery. Low paid grocery store clerks and meat packing workers deemed essential but provided little protective gear or means of social distancing. Farmers fac- ing euthanizing animals for lack of slaughter space. Food service workers losing jobs overnight fed through pop-up charity dinners. Farmworkers unable to cross closed borders in Europe or North America. Economic disaster forming long lines at emergency food distributions and potentially doubling the number of very hungry people globally to 265 million,” (Hendrickson 2020). (fn)
    4. Thankfully, the new age of implements and the coming technological advances in agriculture provide a path to scalable systems allowing the same tools to be used at both large and small scales.
      1. “Many of today’s food technologies seem to be moving in the opposite direction, toward methods and products that are economical for small farms as well as large corporate ones. This does not mean an end to big food: with the planet’s population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, agriculture and food production will still have to achieve a massive scale, with help from technology and innovative research. Still, evolving technologies, including inexpensive sensors, mobile devices, and data analysis, have helped an increasing variety of food companies, retailers, and producers lower their costs and compete in many specialty markets,” (Byrnes 2015). (fn)
    5. If utilized properly, these new technologies could open the doors for restoring an equal spectrum of farm sizes and reducing the inequality gap. Taken a step further, these new technologies paired with new systems of distribution can provide opportunity for more consumer agency in the food production process with individualized potential we have not seen before.
  2. # CONTEXT: CONCENTRATION AND CONSOLIDATION IN LABOR
    1. The consolidation of labor through the design of implements is creating larger inequalities in farm businesses.
    2. Labor makes up roughly ten percent of farm costs.
      1. “Although farm wages are rising in nominal and real terms, the impact of these rising costs on farmers’ incomes has been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross cash income do not show an upward trend for the industry as a whole over the past 20 years. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and cash fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.4 percent of gross cash income during 2016-18, compared with 10.7 percent for 1996-98.
        “However, these trends in labor cost shares differ by commodity. Labor cost shares have fallen slightly over the past 20 years for the more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors, although they appear to have been trending upwards again in the past few years. On dairies and in nursery operations, both of which also rely heavily on immigrant labor, labor costs as a share of income are at or near their 20-year highs,” (USDA). (fn)
      2. Modern farm practices and implements are designed for maximum output for one person in a day. Consequently, farm machinery have been made larger and larger over the years to achieve this result.
      3. Large machinery has been designed to maximize the harvest of one person in a day.
        1. Bigger tires, bigger tractors, more rows on planter head and harvester, etc.
        2. The drawback of this large machinery is the large corresponding cost.
        3. As machinery manufacturers develop larger and larger equipment for larger farms, the opportunity for new farmers to enter the system is diminished.
        4. Manufacturers prioritize these larger farms in their product lines leaving less effective solutions for small and mid-size farmers.
        5. (Tilmor 2020) (fn)
    3. Automating and optimizing labor through precision agriculture can change how we design implements.
      1. Drones
        1. Six Areas for Ag Drones
          1. Soil and field analysis through precise 3-D maps and planning seed patterns.
          2. Planting improvements to decrease planting costs by up to 85%. Drones would literally plant seeds.
          3. Crop spraying with hyper-focused application saving environmental and chemical costs.
          4. Crop monitoring.
          5. Irrigation improvements through hyperspectral, multispectral, and thermal sensors.
          6. Health assessments through scanning using visible and near-infrared light.
            “Mazur also discusses the potential for fleets/swarms of autonomous drones as hybrid aerial-ground teams. “…the biggest agricultural concern is the type and quality of data that can be captured. To address this, the industry will push for more sophisticated sensors and cameras, as well as look to develop drones that require minimal training and are highly automated,” (Mazur 2016). (fn)
      2. Automation
        1. By taking the operator out of the cab of the tractor, agricultural productivity is no longer dependent on human fatigue. One operator can now control multiple implements and risk can be reduced by deconsolidating implements. With fleets of smaller implements, one operator can simultaneously execute multiple operations.
          1. One example of this execution was the augmentation of small Kubota tractors with autonomous precision systems. In the field demonstration, three small tractors seeded 500 acres of soybeans using five-row planters. In fleeted systems, autonomous units can refill one another and can adapt to compensate for one another in the circumstance one unit fails or is damaged (Wilde 2020). (fn)
          2. A fully-autonomous concept from Fendt proposes new specialized implements. Its Project M.A.R.S. (Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms) research with Ulm University of Applied Science, conceptualized a commercial system of “…small robots operating in swarms and a cloud-based system control,” (Project Xaver: Research in the Field of Agricultural Robotics 2020). (fn)
    4. New opportunities for labor.
      1. One of the next important skillsets in agriculture is data analysis. Some of the top agriculture manufacturers including Case IH are increasing their resources to educate farmers on how to process data to gain new insights and drive change on their operations (Grain Central 2019). (fn)
    5. The consolidation of labor in agriculture has increased its brittleness, but this is not irredeemable. The changing landscape of skills and increased automation of agriculture is inevitable for the sake of reducing production costs so people can afford food as our world changes. The next generation of farming may look very different from previous generations and that can be empowering for all sizes of farms!
  3. # ISSUES: CONCENTRATION AND CONSOLIDATION IN LAND
    1. The consolidation of land and farm size is creating larger inequalities in farm businesses and increasing barriers of entry to the field.
    2. The people that produce our food is increasingly consolidated, with about 6% of farmers producing over 50% of our food in the United States. The number of farms has stayed constant due to an increasing number of bigger and smaller farms, but a large disparity is left between these as the number of mid-size farms is decreasing.
      1. “A 2013 Department of Agriculture report, for instance, found that, in 2001, farms of 1,000 acres or more accounted for 5.6 percent of all farms and controlled 46.8 percent of all cropland.3 In 2011, those large farms still represented 5.6 percent of all farms, but now they controlled 53.7 percent of cropland. During that same time period, the number of very large farms — 2,000 acres or more — grew from 1.7 percent of all farms to 2.2 percent. In other words, a relative handful of big farms are getting even bigger, even though the amount of land being farmed stayed about the same…But one of the most prominent measures of farm consolidation remains the number of farms — it’s right there in the first sentence of the Agricultural Census report. That figure has remained more or less flat through all the upheaval. That’s because the number of very small farms has been growing: In 1982, there were about 637,000 farms of 49 acres or less. In 2012, there were more than 800,000, a 28 percent increase. So while there are more big and small farms, there are fewer farms in the middle,” (Koerth 2016). (fn)
    3. In recent days we have seen an increase in small farms, and larger and larger farms, but a disappearance of mid-size farms.
      1. Lack of mid-farms means there is no transition between small and large farms. Niche, small specialized farms and large, corporate farms.
      2. Upward mobility is far from the norm of possibility within farming.
  4. # ISSUES: CONCENTRATION AND CONSOLIDATION IN GENETICS
    1. The consolidation of genetics due to the patenting of GMOs is creating larger inequalities in farm businesses and decreasing the agency of individual farmers.
    2. Genetics
      1. History of personal genetic lines
        1. The prevalence of weeds in agriculture used to be a major inhibiting factor to high yields. Practices such as tilling—turning over the soil to bury weeds—and heavy amounts of herbicides—to kill all of the remaining weeds—were common practices to produce an ideal flat, barren field before planting. Tilling releases carbon dioxide sequestered in the soil into the atmosphere.
        2. The advent of Round-Up and Round-Up Ready genetically modified crops changed the agricultural landscape making no-till production feasible and reducing the amount of chemical herbicides needed.
      2. Advent of gene patents
        1. Staple chemical resources such as Round-Up that have heavily impacted our potentials for high yields.
        2. negative consumer perception of GMOs
      3. The death of ownership over genetic lines
    3. Biodiversity
      1. The demand for crops is driven by distributors rather than consumers or by producers.
      2. This leaves producers with less agency over what they plant due to large contracts with producers. And consumers are left with less variety in their options from distributors.
      3. One-size -fits all approaches of plants leads to augmentation with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides
        1. Leaves us more open to disease, increases our use of chemicals, .
    4. New opportunities for genetics.
      1. Spray-on RNA
  5. # EFFECT/CURRENT: BRITTLENESS DURING COVID-19
    1. Need for redistribution
      1. Restaurants buy the veggies
    2. Barriers to redistribution
    3. Successes in redistribution
  6. # INTERRELATIONSHIPS: TOWARDS A MORE FLEXIBLE FUTURE IN PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION
    1. Deconsolidating labor
    2. Deconsolidating land
    3. Deconsolidating genetics
  7. # CONCLUSION: ENVISIONING A RESILIENT FUTURE FOR FOOD
    1. Opportunities for Design
    2. Importance of Geographical Diversity Among Designers