Future is unknown, always has been


I read once about a study done by an American economist around 1875.

He projected the U.S. population into the mid-20th century. Then, he calculated the amount of food that the country’s population would need.

He estimated the number of horses it would take to work the land to raise that amount of food and came to an alarming conclusion: The number of horses required to work the land to produce enough food to sustain America in 1950 would themselves eat all the food we could produce.

He predicted widespread hunger and – of course – an awful lot of working farm horses.

Well, we may have a lot of horses in this country nowadays, but they’re the pleasure kind and not the draft horse kind. In 1954, the number of tractors exceeded the number of horses on farms for the first time.

And we have far fewer farmers than we did in 1875, but we still eat pretty well, don’t we?

This study immediately came to mind when I read about a report, “50 Trends Shaping the Future,” prepared by futurists Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies, and published by the World Future Society.

Their “startling” prediction is this: “To meet human nutritional needs over the next 40 years, global agriculture will have to supply as much food as has been produced during all of human history.”

I put the word “startling” in quotation marks because that’s what the American Farm Bureau called the prediction. In light of the 1875 study, I view this prediction with a little more of a “so what” attitude.

I, for one, have no concept of what this country will be like in 40 years. I plan to be around, so I’ll write about it then. (OK, let’s make that retired, but still writing.)

I also have no concept of what technologies will be the “tractors” of tomorrow, or the “artificial insemination” of tomorrow. Or what discoveries will rival the discovery of DNA. But I do know that those technologies, those discoveries will happen, and they will impact agriculture in ways we can’t imagine.

In 1950, the average dairy cow made 4,000 pounds of milk in a year. Today, annual production of 22,000 isn’t out of the ordinary and the world record is nearly 68,000 pounds.

A good farmer in the 1930s produced 20 or 30 bushels of corn an acre; today, 150-bushel yields are not uncommon.

It took 130 years, starting in 1820, to raise the number of people fed per American farmer from 4.1 to 15.5. Fifty-three years later, that number has risen to 129 people.

Are farmers working harder? Are they smarter? Probably not. Just like every other part of our lives, agriculture has advanced with new knowledge and technology.

In 40 years, the concerns, the problems we have now may seem as ludicrous as planning how we’re going to feed millions of draft horses.

And that’s something to look forward to. As the 1980s hit song went, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”


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