Future Farm, Future Crop: Utopia or Dystopia? Part 3 of 5

ag-dystopiaDYSTOPIA. As automation arrives in force (and we mean, in force) — who votes for farmers when there are no farmers to vote? 

Are there downsides for feedstocks and supply chain if a technology wave goes wrong?

“Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter when the promise of a brave new world unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?” Pink Floyd, Goodbye Blue Sky

So, the opposite of everything going right with technology, is that everything goes wrong, usually wrapped in a blanket of best intentions.

As we pointed out in part one of this series, one-third of farmers over the age of 68, as many as 75 percent of them not handing farm operations to the next generation. We pointed to “farm leasing” to giant operating companies as the most likely form of farm organization, in the next generation.

The Earlier Parts in Our Series

Future Farm, Future Crop, Part 1 of 5: The AgTech Revolution

Future Farm, Future Crop, Part 2 of 5: Utopia?

With a wave of automation arriving in new sensor, robotics, analytics and crop and soil technology — we have to consider the possibility that farm-belt population could fall to a fraction of today’s totals. And other things could go wrong. What might they be?

The demographics today: dwindling number of small farms actively and exclusively farming

The USDA reports:

Of the 2.1 million farms in the United States in 2012, 97 percent were family owned operations. Eighty-eight percent of all farms were small family farms, with less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income, and nearly 9 percent were midsize or large family farms. Only 3 percent of U.S. farms were not family owned, but they accounted for 16 percent of the value of all U.S. agricultural products sold. 

Even today, 1.4 million farms’ principal operator is “retired but continues to farm on a small-scale” or “has a primary occupation other than farming.”  Another 336,000 have gross farm income (that is, before inputs) of less than $150,000.

The Vote Desert

Deserts have land but no water, and Vote Deserts have land but no votes.

Consider this. 16 US states have more than 50% of their land devoted to farming, representing 639.6 million acres in all. But even these states have 1.11 million farms between them, out of 91 million in population. With 1.5 operators per farm, that’s around 1.68 million farm operators in those “farm states”.

Hmm, that’s 89.42 non-farm operators living in “farm states”, or 98.1 percent. In the “non-far,” states, 99.3% of the population qualifies as “people not operating a farm”.

So, the land has no vote; it’s a Vote Desert, and should 75% of family farms not be passed along to the family in the next 30 years — why, we may see the “farmer vote” drop well below 1 million, nationally. Controlling some 900 million acres of the US.

Fear of technology

dystopia-2Well, we’re depressed. But it could be worse.

After all, the wave of technology innovation could make it far worse, according to critics.

They cite potentially catastrophic effects from genetically modified crops, modern pesticides, and polluted run-off from farms into the water system.

Typical comment? How about that from Don Huber and GS Johal, of Purdue University, writing in the October 2009 issue of the European Journal of Agronomy on the effects of “glyphosate…used extensively with Roundup Ready genetically modified crops”:

[glyphosate] ‘can have serious consequences for sustainable production of a wide range of susceptible crops.’ The authors warn ‘ignoring potential non-target detrimental side effects of any chemical, especially used as heavily as glyphosate, may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious. To do otherwise might well compromise not only agricultural sustainability, but also the health and well-being of animals and humans.’ 

More pithy and more common, if less grounded in science, is Organic Authority’s “GMOs are bad for your body, bad for the community, bad for farmers and bad for the environment.”

True?

Nina V. Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the secretary of state from 2007 to 2010, and a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in the New York Times op-ed recently:

“Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, there was some rationale for a cautious approach. But now the evidence is in…The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods.”

Why the disparity between perceptions, and science?

At one level, technology change produces its own special kind of fear, technophobia. A study published in the mid-1990s estimated that 29% of first-year college students had “high-level” technophobic fears, and a 2000 study reported that 85-90 percent of new employees at a given organization “are technophobic to some degree.”

Off-shoring of jobs

But wait, there’s more. We get to tie into another macro-trend that people just hate. The offshoring of domestic jobs.

In our future farm, future crop scenario, we see an awful lot of computing power required — screens of data assembled from sensors in the ground and drones in the sky — asessing soil health, water, pest threat, heat, plant development — and operating unmanned vehicles harvesting in the field.

Where might those arrays of data be best interpreted? Perhaps not in the living room of the family farm. Perhaps instead at international operations centers where decisions are made, and equipment operated, via algorithms. Split-second timing and direction of irrigation, for example, far too finely directed to be done by human hands. Or instant application of a pesticide based on actual threat. Or, optimal timing of harvest date and harvest patterns.

After all, robotics are routinely deployed in advanced manufacturing — think, General Motors.

The Rise of “General Farms”

Consolidation may well be the trend. Where access to advanced technology is the key to achieving competitive costs and yields. The hand in the field may emerge as more of a maintenance and security officer — while decisions on machine control, planting, growth management, nutrient load, crop defense, water, and harvest are made in the operations center, generally by computers running algorithms. Above all, finance — after all, the ultimate product of the harvest is the money, and why wouldn’t growth management and nutrient loading be tied back to commodity price?

The sound of voices on the farm may well be limited to periods where hardware is installed or upgraded.

An OPEC of food?

It was once unthinkable that the global energy supply — keeping in mind, the world once ran on wind-power and firewood — could become controlled by a handful of people at a handful of small nations; yet, it happened. Happened in diamonds, too, for that matter. And, only a handful of nations are food-secure.

Could rampant consolidation of land ownership — potentially cross-border — lead to price-controlling cartels? Or, the rise of farm-based equivalents of the East India Company, which once as a private company controlled the world’s largest standing army?

The consequences for industrial biotechnology, the food supply chain and more

For most, farm products are the raw materials for the production of food, fibers, feed, food, pharmaceuticals and fuel. They are the basis of the material world — excepting metals and materials fashioned from petroleum, and even against petroleum the farm is making some headway.

Does it directly matter, in the production of downstream products, how the supply chain is organized? Ethically, it is important to all, not just the supply chain customers.

But consider “leverage within the value chain.” In 1917, many thought that the most important transfer of power was Lenin’s “All prower to the Soviets!”. But looking back over the century, perhaps it was the transfer of pricing power upstream in the energy business. It ushered in a generation of new and tough economics in the developed world — and we’ve had war for two generations in the Middle East.

The Value Chain

Consider this.

Price of a gallon of gasoline in 1930: 20 cents

Price of a barrel of oil in 1930: $1.19

Gas price / oil price ratio: 1 to 6

Price of a gallon of gasoline in 2015: $2.71

Price of a barrel of oil: $43.87

Gas price / oil price ratio in 2015: 1 to 16

And this, in an era of very, very low oil prices. Value power has transferred upstream. Priced the same as the gas/oil price ratios of 1930, oil would be pricing at around $16 to the upstream producer. The impact of cartels? Rampant demand? You choose.

But we may well see, with consolidation of supply, a value transfer upstream.

Consider this.

Price of a 16oz box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1930: 15 cents

Price of a bushel of corn in 1930: $0.98

Corn / Corn flakes price ratio: 1 to 6.5

Price of a 16 oz box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 2015: $2.98

Price of a bushel of corn in 1930: $3.85

Corn / Corn flakes price ratio: 1 to 1.3

Value power has transferred downstream. Priced the same as the corn/corn flakes price ratios of 1930, corn would be pricing at around $19.37 to the upstream producer. The absence of cartels? Rampant over-supply? You choose.

But with consolidation and technology coming quickly to the farm sector — as it swept over manufacturing sector in the 1970s and 1980s — we may well see two sectors (energy and food pricing, within the value chain) going in the same direction instead of the opposite ones.

The Bottom Line

We’ve presented you today with the dystopian point of view, all the reasons to fear it might all go wrong. But don’t forget, it might be a lot more Utopian, after all.

For Further reading? The 5-Cs: A Modern Framework for Consolidation of Fragmented Industries

 

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