New students at the Friedman School have just arrived, and students everywhere are thinking hard about a lot of things. I often get emails from like the one below but they almost never ask so many great questions at once. After replying, I realized that this exchange would make a good blog post. It’s posted here with Abigail Auner’s kind permission and lightly edited for readability: a good intro to a great year of research and discovery ahead.
From: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 8:33 AM
To: Masters, William A. <William.Masters@tufts.edu>
Subject: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Good morning, Dr. Masters,
I am Abigail Auner, Joe’s niece. He told me that you study many of the same topics that I am learning about in school and want to learn more about, so if I may, I would like to ask you a few questions. First off, I study plant sciences at the University of Missouri with an emphasis in greenhouse management, and I am minoring in sustainable agriculture. My career interests include vegetable production and integrated pest management, but I am also trying to learn more about the economics of food, as that is often the weakest link in discussions of sustainability.
The main thing I want to ask is how do you see the future of agriculture? What, in your estimation, are some of the solutions that society must adopt to feed itself without bankrupting itself?
There are certainly countless attempts in progress to solve the food security problem. Lately I have read a bit about indoor agriculture powered by LEDs. This technology has become much more affordable in recent years, and one of the purported benefits is that, since the systems are not weather- or light-dependent, they can be used anywhere in the world. Some companies are creating modular “farm” units in shipping containers, and in Japan there are indoor farms in abandoned subway tunnels. I think this idea holds promise, but I have not seen any numbers on the cost and energy requirements, and these seem like limiting factors, along with training people to use the technology and adapting the systems to regional staples. What do you think of these developments?
Another facet of food in which I am intrigued is entomophagy. I studied abroad in Thailand over an intersession a couple of years ago, and there I had the opportunity to eat roasted crickets. They were surprisingly like potato chips, only with more crunch and protein. And recently there have been several new companies starting to purvey either food-grade insect products (like flour, protein bars, or corn chips) or insect-rearing kits for home production. Do you think that insect production has a viable future in the United States?
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
I appreciate your time.
B.S., Greenhouse Production – Expected May 2016
President, University of Missouri Horticulture Club
Greenhouse Assistant, University of Missouri
From: Masters, William A.
Sent: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 11:35 AM
To: Auner, Abigail Lacey (MU-Student)
Subject: RE: Hello! (And Sustainability Questions)
Hello Abigail, nice to see this from you. All great questions. Way too deep for email… more like phd dissertation topics, but here goes:
— future of agriculture
Much like the past, only more so: that is, agriculture’s share of human activity has shrunk to occupy about half of world’s total workforce, and that share will keep declining as economies develop. For those who remain farmers and others involved in agriculture to meet the needs of all those non-farmers, within planetary boundaries, we will need lots of innovations tailored to ever-changing local conditions. Much of that innovation will be about producing more with less, but higher-income consumers also demand a lot of things other than food from our farmers especially animal welfare and the maintenance of traditional methods, as well as basics of water quality and other ecosystem services. So agriculture as a whole is a big and diverse thing that meets a lot of human needs, in different ways, and there is room for many seemingly contradictory things at once.
— urban farming, LEDs and hydroponics etc.
One key need being met by modern agriculture is a sense of control, as people seek more closed-loop systems, and momentum from novelty and innovation. Hence urban farming, driving photosynthesis with artificial lights and deliberate dosing of plant nutrients. Another deep human need is a sense of connectedness to nature, hence organically farmed community and school gardens etc., as well as suburban farm-stands and pick-your-own operations. But as you might guess, these are all pretty expensive ways of producing food as such, and in places where niche agriculture is cost-effective it often exploits an unusual local opportunity such as using waste disposal to heat greenhouses. So if one is actually talking about food security for the US or the world as such, almost all peoples’ dietary needs are now and will continue to be met from the vast expanse of natural soil, bathed in sunlight and rainfall and irrigation, with increases in output per acre and per worker coming from innovations such as precision farming and satellite/drone imagery etc. as well as crop genetics, veterinary techniques, disease control etc. that help us grow more on the fixed stock of natural land and water. That’s not to say that high-tech urban farming with LEDs, alongside organic farms and gardens, are not really important parts of the food system. It’s just that they should be understood as part of agriculture that gives it richness and diversity, not the main source of sustenance. They are the appetizer or dessert rather than the main course. I am glad we have them and they fill real needs but I don’t eat them every day.
Very fun. Humanity is still young and it is very important to keep trying new foods, which are often old but neglected ones like crickets and also plants such as amaranth, as well as new food processing tricks like turning peas into egg-like substances. Regarding insects in particular, it is conceivable that crickets or other species will take off. The last huge breakthrough in the mix of species that we use for food happened in the mid-late 20th c. with hybrid corn and then soybeans and canola providing the vegetable oils and animal feeds that had earlier been super scarce and are now much cheaper… Changes in the mix of species tend to happen gradually, e.g. the rise of chicken relative to beef that is going on now, partly as a slow response to the corn-soy-vegetable fats revolution. And because agriculture is such a geographically patchy, diverse thing, even a niche enterprise can survive and become a pretty big business. So there will be plenty of interest in new sources of protein and higher-quality fats. I don’t think that I personally would invest my own time and money in an insect farm, since there is so much room for expansion of fish from aquaculture to meet similar needs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if insect-based dishes show up on more and more restaurant menus. There are plenty of obstacles to both raising and processing them — which is part of the point whenever one is pursuing something challenging.
Also, what is the food system like in Zimbabwe?
Terrible. Really tragic. And it looks like things will get worse before they get better:
Now back to work for me, but these are really interesting questions so merit much thought than email allows. Please stay in touch, maybe especially if you’re considering going deeper into all of this with grad school!
All the best,
William A. Masters
Professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
and Department of Economics (by courtesy)
Tufts University, 150 Harrison Avenue, Boston MA 02111
Office: Jaharis Building room 140, phone +1.617.636.3751, fax +1.617.636.3781
Mobile: +1.617.575.9050 (forwards to cell/home and converts voicemail to email)
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