The Food System: A Potential Future


May 18, 2010 - <>


As we think about the future of our food system and rethink food security, it is useful to consider the situation as it currently exists, threads of possibility, and a vision for what could be. Those before me have touched heavily on the problems that confront us at this point in time. Not to add to that picture greatly but to touch on a couple of often overlooked facets of current issues is instructive. Within the framework of food systems we tend not to talk about and not to think a great deal about water. I live in Michigan, the only state in the U.S. that is entirely within the Great Lakes Watershed. Michiganders think a lot about water because we enjoy it and many who live in water scarce areas want it. Globally, water is a major issue. Right now there are 48 countries that are either water scarce or water stressed; by 2050 another six countries are projected to be water scarce. If we compared food production with water stress/scarcity regions we would find significant amounts of food production in these areas—often for both indigenous consumption and for export. In addition, some water stressed areas of the United States produce large amounts of food crops that are shipped all over the country. Water stress in the western United States is somewhat congruent with areas of high fruit and vegetable production diversity. Further complicating the future productive capacity of highly productive lands are population growth and spread. Simultaneously one of the most beautiful and frightening pictures is a nighttime satellite photo of North America. Highly productive areas are overlaid with large population centers. It has been estimated that 86% of our fruit and vegetable production, 63% of dairy production, 39% of meat production, and 35% of grain production occur in urban-influenced areas.

We can think of this as both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, places with high food production diversity are under heavy threat of development. However, there is also significant opportunity to rediversify our agricultural production in these and other areas of the U.S. For example, researchers at Iowa State University have outlined the historical range of production in areas of Iowa and identified broad potential for enhanced diversity in production with linkages to more local and regional markets. Many areas that used to be fruit and vegetable production regions for local economies have largely lost their agricultural diversity but maintain the climate/soil opportunity to rediversify production. In other words, the future of our food system is intimately connected to development and land use decisions in communities across the country. These decisions tend to be very local decisions at the township, municipality, or county level. There are thus a tremendous number of decisionmaking bodies across the country determining the lay of our landscape over the next 25-30 years and on into the future.

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