The Future…It’s Here

Don’t ask me why, but somehow in the evolution of marital job splits, I got grocery shopping. I’ve tried to turn it into a manly game of shaving pennies and calculating unit costs, but at the end of the day, I’m still cruising the lines for cereal and baking soda.

Anyway, paying so much attention to it has given me some insight into the rising cost of food. I’ll share a few recent cases of sticker shock I’ve encountered. Bacon is up a buck for a 12-ounce slab in less than a year. A dozen large eggs that could be had for $1.09 less than a year ago are now $2.19. The generic version of the 5-pound flour bag is about $2.59, up from about $1.69 in a year. Meat, milk, cereal, coffee … everything’s higher.

To be honest, though, I shouldn’t be complaining. The price I was paying for these items only a year ago was not substantially higher than it was when I got married and started doing this chore in 1988. They’re probably getting closer to where they should be to support the massive food production machine that is agriculture. Doesn’t make me feel better, but there it is.

So I started to think about it. It’s a global economy, and countries like China and India are working to improve agriculture to upgrade the standard of living in their countries, creating a giant wave of demand both for crop inputs and the finished crop itself that did not previously exist.

But to date, every time agriculture has had a major pressure point that might have forced prices higher, a technology or idea has come along to release some of the pressure. Biotechnology, and just plain better and faster traditional breeding, has reduced the cost of production over the last decade and taken a pound of flesh out of the crop protection industry — a big cost saver. The Internet and digital technology has silently streamlined the input distribution and crop production channels. The Wal-Mart model has forced everyone producing everything to slash costs out of manufacturing, while revolutionizing best practices for efficient distribution. What’s left to do?

I was talking with Elliott Nowels, who grew up on a farm and works with me here, about the amazing change in fortunes for U.S. agriculture. Growing up in a rural Ohio town, he recalled some distant agriculture course and the instructor’s description of a future where the U.S. would be toiling to feed an increasingly growing world population. Ag would be a prosperous and critical part of our contribution to the world, and one worth choosing as a profession.

I can recall having some of the same discussions during my time at school in suburban Cleveland, although it was a lot more alarmist for us city kids. Having only a vague notion of how food was produced, it seemed to me that we were facing an impossible future of starvation and political conflict. The “bulb” would burn bright for agriculture for a time, but ultimately could never hope to stay lit.

After more than a decade of experience with this market now, I’ve been amazed at agriculture’s ability to evolve — it has been nothing short of remarkable. But I think the days of $1.09 eggs may be over. All that stuff our teachers talked about is here, today, now.

And if we can manage to meet the increasing demands of a food and fuel hungry world, it would seem that we’ll be in high clover for quite a while.

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