Can We Insulate Ourselves From Food Shortages?

A food systems and security researcher responds to Charlie Jane Anders’ short story “The Minnesota Diet.”

Mason and friends congregate over a simple meal.
Laura Callaghan

An expert on local food systems and food security responds to Charlie Jane Anders’ short story “The Minnesota Diet.”

As the global population grows rapidly, feeding everyone will require significant technological advancements. This is especially true because much of humanity continues its march toward urbanization, and therefore away from the farms and food sources on which it depends. A U.N. prediction suggests Earth will be home to almost 10 billion people by midcentury, and more and more of them will depend almost completely on highly efficient and hopefully sustainable food production from afar. So it will not just be the food itself that sustains them—it will require a supply chain that delivers, without fail, a daily variety of foods sufficient to meet the nutritional needs and cultural expectations of their diet.

Unfortunately, competition for land and water grows fiercer and more costly by the day, thanks in part to environmental pressures from climate change. All this probably means we need to become even more efficient with the land we’re already farming.
So the advancements required to grow upward of 50 percent more food than we do now will be many and varied—and will in many cases stir up controversy. Precision agriculture and better-designed, perhaps even automated farm machinery and delivery systems are exciting ideas to get behind. But genetic modification to adapt crops to changing climates or ever-larger, more industrialized production and distribution systems are perhaps less easy to swallow.

This future promises both agricultural risk and reward: Industrial efficiency can produce more food for more people so long as those people cede immediate or even proximal control over how and what foods are produced, how they are made available, and for whom. None of this is really novel, of course, because this also is the state of the global food system today.

This is why I was struck by “The Minnesota Diet.” The more standard sci-fi trope imagines a future plagued by food scarcity due to climate change–driven crop failures and other environmental disasters. Anders’ story is different; “The Minnesota Diet” portrays a future urbanized world that is, thanks to the technologies we see emerging even today, better insulated from the risks of agricultural disruption—better insulated, that is, right up until it isn’t. Assuming a more centralized, automated, and efficient agricultural system can produce enough food for a larger number of people in the future is not at all outlandish. But take that future food system—limited as it may be by a lack of local or regional farms as well as by competition from nonfood agricultural production—add in a technological failure or two, and you have New Lincoln: a high-tech metropolis with a hunger problem.

As a nutrition and food systems researcher, I spend a lot of time thinking about this type of situation. Maintaining a geographically diversified food system, one that includes local, regional, national, and international production and distribution, means that we as individuals and communities have the opportunity to enjoy a certain level of choice about our food. The majority of us can find a banana to eat almost any time of the year, though it might be shipped in from another continent. Or we can eat food that was grown or raised by farmers who might only be minutes or hours away.

But that diversity of production represents a potential trade-off. Local farms and local food programs have been shown time and again to contribute to the health of a community, to community connectedness, and to an improved understanding about food and where it comes from (which itself can play a role in adopting healthier diets). But small-scale and midsize farms can also be far less efficient, at least in terms of volume of production, and so reach far fewer people at a potentially higher financial cost.

The question of how we balance our farm and food system between large-scale and smaller-scale production is as yet unsettled. But Anders’ story gives us insight into a different way of considering the problem. It might not be only about how efficiently we can grow food or how mechanized and automated our delivery systems can be. She also invites us to think a bit deeper about the choices we make with the resources we have at our disposal today. What does it mean to commit agricultural land to nonfood applications, like the inedible “biosynthetic precursor” crops surrounding New Lincoln, given the global pressure to produce more food? Should we reconsider the convenience of abundant and varied food choice if that choice means a considerably more resource-intensive food system, one that has less of a chance to be sustained for future generations?

“The Minnesota Diet” also offers us the opportunity to backcast to present day. Seeing a realistic depiction of a future city so easily brought to its technologically advanced knees helps us think about the choices we make now. Resources are finite, and as such they are precious. But because food remains about as cheap as it’s ever been, it’s easy to forget its value. The result: Americans waste 133 billion pounds of food every year, representing 30–40 percent of the American food supply. And because we eat a diet far higher in animal food products than much of the rest of the world (although the world is working hard to catch up to us), ours is an extremely resource-intensive diet contributing to the rapid use of vital but limited resources, such as high-quality, mineable phosphorus.

Anders’ startlingly clever conclusion to “The Minnesota Diet” encapsulates all of these themes, literally within the walls of New Lincoln’s modern buildings. And as we watch New Lincoln’s denizens seek food in unlikely places, it gives us a chance to pause for a moment in our own insatiable consumption and consider: What do my food choices mean, not just for my health but for the world around me? And what might future generations be faced with should I make the unfortunate assumption that whatever problems our food systems will face, technology will provide all the answers?

Powerful solutions to problems of both health and sustainability exist already, right now, in our own behaviors. Those solutions are embedded in the food choices we make and, by extension, what sort of food system evolves to support those decisions. It turns out, for example, the majority of food waste in the U.S. is driven by us, the consumers. And because food rotting in landfills represents one of the largest sources of anthropogenic methane emissions, it really is the case that how we treat food as individuals could have dramatic impacts on health, food security, and environmental sustainability in aggregate. We can also change the makeup of what we eat: A more plant-based diet requires significantly less phosphorus to produce than an animal foods–heavy diet. It can also be far healthier and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. These are decisions we can make whether our government continues to suffer from its present-day gridlock (or worse, Anders’ future “DeathGrip”).

Technology is important and will play a greater role in dealing with the food-system constraints of the future. But in the end, it comes down to us. Our food choices today sow the seeds of hope for the future.