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Fewer Americans live on farms than ever before. As a result, "produce" becomes those fruits and vegetables we buy at the store rather than items we pull out of the ground or off a tree. That's not the only issue. With booming population growth that shows few signs of slowing down, not only are people becoming less connected to where their food is coming from, concerns are piling up as to whether we will have any food at all.
The new generation of farmers wants to address both those problems. Nikiko Masumoto, of the organic Masumoto Family Farm in California, and Zach Hunnicutt, a fifth-generation farmer from Nebraska, sat down with Smithsonian.com in advance of the Smithsonian Food History Roundtable taking place this weekend at the National Museum of American History.
How can we responsibly feed seven billion people, providing them with not just with enough food but with food they want to eat? And how do we do it without harming the planet?
Zach Hunnicutt: We need to have all the tools at our disposal. There’s a lot of controversy around crops, whether it’s people being opposed to GMOs or chemicals or organic methods that are more resource-intensive. We need to make sure that all the tools are available, because what works on my farm might not work on one that’s 100 miles away or one halfway around the planet. People need to farm in a way that fits the environment that they’re in.
Nikiko Masumoto: Lots of big thinkers are trying to address these questions, and I don’t think we have all the answers yet, but I can say that sustainable agriculture is the only way to continue, and we have to employ organic methods and methods that conserve water in order to continue to live.
What are some of the biggest changes that we’ll see in farming in the near future?
ZH: I think you’re going to see a lot of innovation in where and how we grow vegetables. The biggest problem is that growing enough food, growing a balanced mix of food, isn’t useful if people can’t get to it. Food is available more places than it’s ever been, but if you’re in an urban center, the only place to buy food might be a convenience store. But things like vertical farms provide lots of new options for getting vegetables in the hands of people who might not otherwise have them.
NM: In 50 years, we’re looking at around nine billion people. And as I look at our food system, I see the problem of distribution, and in our global consumption of meat. I’m an omnivore, I’m not against the consumption of meat personally. But the growing demand for meat seems to be a result of cultural ideas of what meat signifies as something of wealth and status, rather than looking at meat as a small part of a sustainable diet, but not a main staple.
What will the average farm look like in 20 years? What about the average farmer?
ZH: I think there will be quite a bit of difference between what we see now. As technology improves, I think we’re really going to be seeing a diversification in what’s being grown and where it’s being grown. I farm in the middle of Nebraska, and it’s really harsh. It’s good for growing corn and soybeans, but for growing other vegetables, not really all that great. But with various advances, we’ll not only be able to grow vegetables here, but also in New York and Chicago.
NM: We’re looking at kind of a two-tiered agricultural system. One is tracking with the larger public consciousness of farmer’s markets and local people connecting to their food producers and growers. And then in our neighborhood, a lot of the mid-size farms are disappearing while the large farms are getting bigger. I’m not sure 20 years is going to be enough time to turn this around. I think maybe in 50 or 100 years, we’ll be tracking towards smaller agricultural systems that are more resilient to climate change.
What foods that are not commonly grown or produced now may be produced in a big way in the future, such as crickets or seaweed?
ZH: It’s going to be real interesting to see how the idea of crickets or mealworms plays out. Bugs can thrive anywhere, and we’re learning about the efficiency of making them available for protein. But the palatability, that’s a different story. It’s going to be a long road to get people to get their protein from crickets.
Farmers are also turning to ancient varieties of grains, like kamut, and figuring out how to grow them without losing their beneficial or unique properties.
NM: I have yet to be able to decipher which among these futuristic food predictions are food trends that will rise in popularity and then disappear when the next thing comes along, versus something that takes hold in a more transformative way. There seems to be a growing trend towards legumes and grains that haven’t in the recent past gotten a lot of attention, like heirloom lentils that are resistant to drought.
On that note, what are we all going to eat? What will the average Westerner's plate look like?
ZH: It’s tough to forecast what someone’s dinner plate will look like without knowing what kind of decisions they’re going to make. A candy bar generally tastes better than spinach, and we need proper education, like home economics and consumer science programs, to make sure that plate is balanced and robust.
NM: We’ve become really accustomed to shopping based purely on economic value of food. People want the most bang for their buck. That’s the larger issue. If we invest in sustainable agriculture, which also means investing in our own cooking, it means that our plates are grains and legumes that are easily stored, with locally produced vegetables or fruits and maybe a small portion of protein or meat that was sustainably raised or caught.
What do "ugly" or heirloom varieties have to offer us?
ZH: Damaged produce is a major source of food waste. We’ve been conditioned to look for perfect fruits and vegetables. When people start growing their own food, they start to get a better idea of what it naturally looks like and that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
NM: The idea that ugly fruit exists as a category is a product of our manufactured food system. We have a program where teams of people adopt one tree for one year, and we do all the work except for harvest. And in that process, people learn the incredible diversity of what a peach looks like in its natural environment. Instead of judging their fruit, they’re embracing what their tree offers.
Beyond filling our bellies, what's important about food?
ZH: There’s a communal aspect of raising and consuming food. Rich or poor, everyone has to eat. Food provides common ground.
NM: Food carries with it stories of culture and people. Food is a symbol of the sacredness of our connection to each other, and our interdependence. Food is an ingredient of culture. So many rituals, traditions and identity of families are rooted in food practices. I think of farming as an aesthetic practice of culture-making. It’s not just calories on a plate. If it were, we’d all be drinking Soylent, right?