Future Farm, Future Crop: Utopia or Dystopia? Part 4 of 5

August 12, 2015 |

farmer-sign-081315As AgTech software-as-a-service deploys, and Farm Belt job counts related directly to farming prepare to fall —  how will agriculture and industrial biotech command the attention they need?

Over at Monsanto, they speak in terms of reaching 300 bushels per acre in corn yields, and all this week we have been looking at an explosion of agricultural platform technologies — analytics, robotics, and genetics — that are rising in support of yield improvement for crops and animal operations.

Whether it is plant height, soil wetness, pest presence, or heat index — farmers of “smart fields” will produce more with lower inputs.

The Monster Impact of Farm Improvement on State-by-State Prosperity

In a state like Iowa (land of 185 per bushel corn yields),  a 62 percent lift in farming income translates into a $19 billion direct jump in state GDP, or 13.1 percent.

And also there’s the wealth effect.  The USDA estimates that for every $1 change in the value of real estate, there’s as much as a 9 cent impact on GDP. That’s for the housing sector as a whole — we don’t have a specific figure for farm-related real estate.  And as “Land values are determined by the income and the interest (discount) rate used,” according to Iowa State’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, we might add in another $13.6 billion in indirect impact, or 9.3 percent.

In all, that’s 22.4% real income growth.

(A wealth of Iowa farms stats are here).

If farm=prosperity, why do national political leaders ignore the agricultural sector?

Yet, we have 17 Republican presidential candidates tramping currently through Iowa in preparation for January’s Iowa caucuses, the first test of the election season, and only a handful offer more than tepid defense, if not outright opposition, to the Renewable Fuel Standard, directly credited by Iowa’s (Republican) administration as the state’s main engine of growth?

The problem of “never…have so many owed so much to so few.”

The problem of course is that presidential candidates have surmised that hardly anyone works directly on the farm anymore. It’s a Vote Desert, as we tipped earlier in our series (A desert is a place with land and no water; a vote desert is a place with land and no votes).

In Iowa in 2013, there were 1.76 million people employed in the state and 15,395 were employed directly in “farming, fishing and forestry occupations” according to the State’s 2015 Workforce Development report.

Which is to say, if prosperity is enjoyed because of agriculture’s success, the impact is indirect.

And, as we tipped earlier this week, if fields become “smart fields” and land becomes leased (as this generation of farmers makes way to a new generation of absentee owners), we may well see the old days of “Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville” become the new days of operators working out of data control centers that could be located anywhere.

And that’s Iowa, which we singled out because it’s hard to imagine a state where awareness and support of the agricultural-industrial complex is broader, better organized or better understood. 41 of the 57 business expansion projects which received state incentive awards were part of the bioeconomy in a direct production or support function, according to the state’s 2015 Workforce Development report.

Which is to say that the development of an advanced bioeconomy is not likely to prosper because majorities of the people are rallying in the streets over direct impacts are as plain as the noses on their faces.

The problem of real but opaque, indirect and intangible benefit

Instead, it is going to be a case where support must come from people who receive opaque, indirect and intangible benefit. The same kind of benefits that drive climate change activists crazy, because they are so indirect that few feel motivated to march for them.

So, given that we live in a world where many commodities are controlled globally by cartels, market structures for a successful advanced bioeconomy will not be imposed by a “majority that sees the obvious benefit”, the two usual conditions for political, social, or business action.

A lesson we can draw from societal changes is that statistics rarely move mountains, and neither do fact sheets. People change their minds, often in great sudden landscape-shifts (as we saw with gay marriage or votes for women, in the United States), because they tire of avoiding change demanded by an underclass more than they fear the impact of that change. “More of the same” becomes simply unpalatable by comparison.

That was then, this is now

Right now, we don’t see those conditions. There was a transitory time in 2004-2009 when, perhaps, the active hostilities in and out of the Middle East caused many, for a time, to consider that the risks of transformative change were more palatable than the risks of “more of the same”.

But the war faded, 9/11 has become a fainter memory, the Great Recession arrived, and new technologies unlocked a whole bunch of affordable oil & gas in the United States.

So, right now, “more of the same” doesn’t feel bad enough to people to restructure the economy to make way for an advanced bioeconomy, or much else either. There isn’t even enough support to restructure Major League Baseball so the Chicago Cubs can win a World Series, and they’ve been waiting 100 years.

Success stories or cautionary tales?

The desire for “change, vs more of the same” is rooted in now, not a conceptual future. Future Dystopia sells movie tickets, not societal change. Misery usually has to be present, and personal. So, at every stage a dialogue should be stated in terms of things people want, and can’t get. Sputnik was well positioned as an American technical failure by rocket scientists, rather than a Soviet advance.

But success stories are the catalyst for change, ultimately. Rockets that don’t blow up on the launch pad are essential components of the Race for the Moon.

In tomorrow’s Digest, we’ll look at a cautionary tale worth telling, and affordable, available, sustainable solutions that don’t blow up on the launch pad.

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