food for thought



edible food of the future

Our present food system is highly energy intensive. Planting, irrigating, harvesting, shipping, processing, packaging, distributing, and preparing all require energy to the extent that by the time the food is on a fork, it has taken more than 100 calories of fossil fuel to produce 100 calories of food. We eat petroleum, one step removed.

The fossil fuel economy that has been underway for the last 100 years is now starting to wind down. Petroleum and its products will become increasingly scarce and expensive. That has implications for all facets of our lives, including what we eat. Starting from this premise, I would like to hazard 10 predictions about how our food in the Sacramento region will change in the next 50 years.

1. Wheat, rice, and barley will remain the same. The technologies to produce these important crops are so efficient and refined that the only change I foresee is the replacement of diesel fuel with biodiesel. Corn, which is more energy demanding than other grains and which has a less critical market, is likely to see diminished production.

2. Overall, we will eat less meat, and in the arid lands of the West, less beef and more lamb. Beef, pastured when young and finished by corn feeding in feedlots, is both energy- and water-demanding. Cattle ranching will retreat to the regions where it is ecologically appropriate (the South, from Florida and Georgia to East Texas). In the arid West, sheep and goat ranching will replace cattle ranching. Expect the lamb burger to replace the hamburger.

3. Some new foods, algae and insects, will enter our diets. At first they will be avant garde, then hip, then common. After all, a grasshopper is not that different from a shrimp — people will adapt.

4. Fast food, which depends on the autonomy of people with cheap personal transportation, will suffer. There will not be a seamless transition to electric cars, and trips by car will have to be carefully planned — no spur-of-the-moment run to the drive-through. Now might be a good time to unload those Burger King stocks.

5. Food will be more expensive. This will not affect all foods equally; the most highly processed foods will have the highest increases. Americans spend about 9 percent of their average household budget on food. This is in keeping with federal policy of the last 80 years: cheap energy/cheap food. In Europe, where energy and food are more realistically priced (i.e. higher), families spend about 20 percent of their household income on food. Expect our food costs to become like those of Europe.

6. There will be a resurgent interest in home gardening. Ornamental plantings will be removed in favor of edible plantings. Partly this will be driven by economics and partly by questions of food security (see prediction 8).

7. Keeping backyard chickens and ducks will become increasingly common. Ducks, at present, are underappreciated in our culture, but they are healthier than chickens, better foragers, and more productive egg layers. And the ducklings are irresistibly cute.

8. The food system will be less secure. There will be occasions when the supermarket shelves are empty. The dependence of the food system — and indeed the whole economy — on petroleum, on the grid, and on the Internet creates great efficiencies and also great vulnerability. A mistake, a malicious act, unprecedented weather, and cities can quickly run out of food. Food rationing under government control is likely at times. (Consider the case of Venezuela, which quite recently was a prosperous country and which now has a failed food system and a starving populace. There are many slippery pathways to such an outcome.)

9. In response to a less secure food system, people will store more food at home. Preservation of garden produce by canning and drying will be popular. In our climate, many foods can be dried for long-term storage. We think of figs and apricots, but it is easy to dry tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, persimmons, apples, and many other foods. The well-stocked pantry with a few months’ supply will be an indispensable feature of good housekeeping.

10. Expect a retreat from globalism and a resurgence of regionalism. We now have a national food culture, but with diminished movement of both food and people because of increased costs of transportation, we may see the emergence of regional food cultures. With our diverse agriculture and varied ethnic populations, I would expect Sacramento to have an especially rich food scene.

Not everyone would agree with these predictions. Some embrace a techno-fantasy in which solar-powered robots do the farming, and urban high-rise hydroponic factories with LED lighting crank out an unstoppable river of kale and rutabagas. I’m not buying that vision; too many stubborn facts are arrayed against it.

Whatever food system we end up with in 2068, some things will remain the same. The family will get together for a special meal. The sketchy uncle will be telling off-color jokes, the gossipy aunt will be running her mouth, and the children will be kicking each other under the table. And then platters of food will be brought from the kitchen and passed around, and everyone will enjoy good things to eat. Ooh, grilled grasshoppers … my favorite!

Mike Madison operates a family farm near Winters, Calif., producing olives (Yolo Press Olive Oil), figs, apricots, melons, and cut flowers. His books about Sacramento Valley agriculture include Walking the Flatlands, Blithe Tomato, and the recently released Fruitful Labor.