Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File Photo)

RANCH MUSINGS: Technology and visions for the future in food and agriculture

David Zirnhelt looks at the future of food, agriculture and societal organization in rural areas

David Zirnhelt

Observer Contributor

As we grapple with the social and economic consequences of the current pandemic, my interest in the future of food, agriculture and societal organization in the rural areas is piqued, to say the least.

I don’t just sit around and read and dream, although that might be a nice escapist thing to do. Rather, I spend most of my time working on the land and with animals. I tinker fixing older technology, which we use on the ranch. In business terms, we are not “overcapitalized” with new technology.

While we fiddle (as Rome burns, as it is said), the five fundamental sectors of the global economy are in a heightened stage of disruption at an unprecedented speed and scale. Those sectors are: information, energy, transport, food and materials. Mostly, I wonder what the changes in these sectors means for ranching and land-based businesses.

I don’t see silver bullets in any of these, but I am trying to keep my mind open to embrace technological changes which might help us be more effective and more profitable. So far, much of new technologies have driven cost ups but margins down.

Recent articles in the Western Producer, a mainstream Prairie newspaper, featured two think tank reports that might give us pause to think about the future.

One article featured a headline like this: “Getting ready for lab-grown food probably a good idea.” Central to the story was a recent publication by RethinkX (rethinkx.com).

RethinkX is billed as “an independent think tank that analyses and forecasts the speed and scale of technology- driven disruption and its implications across society.”

The title of the report is “Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030: The second domestication of plants and animals, the disruption of the cow and the collapse of industrial livestock farming,” available at the link above.

The U.S. meat industry could lose as much as 50 per cent of its revenue by 2030.

Gene-altered microorganisms will produce through fermentation whey and casein that can become lactose-free cheese, yogurt and ice cream. Just one example.

Several universities and companies are working on improving the taste and texture of meat and dairy product substitutes.

In time, the exorbitant costs will come down, as they have for solar panels and electric cars, making them affordable for consumers.

Another futurist piece has been published called “A 2050 Food System Vision for Treaty Four Territory.”

This piece was written to guide developments in the northern plains.

“It is 2050. A bird’s eye view of Treaty Four territory, the heart of the northern plains reveals the endless varied, fluid contours of a resilient prairies agribiome. Prominent now are expanses of native and restored grasslands and aspen parkland, linked by green corridors. Dotted by a million sloughs, the landscape is laced together by serpentine swales and creeks. Half the territory is now natural and restored ecosystems. Hedge-surrounded farmland traces the natural contours of watersheds. The features of intensive, well-treed foodsheds stand out around cities, towns and villages. The iconic grain elevators may be gone, but the bison are back.”

This think piece goes on for 68 pages. This vision would be a radical moving away from the big farms of today and a revitalization of the rural societies, post decolonization and post reconciliation with Indigenous people.

In the process of realizing this vision, there will be a rebuilding of the economy shattered by globalization and pandemic.

Food for thought, both of these pieces.

I won’t see the fullness of either or both of these visions, but like all of us, we have a role in helping prepare positive outcomes for our children and our children’s children. It begins at home. Let’s have a good look around to see what we have and what we need to have — all of us.

What does your ranch look like in 2050?

David Zirnhelt is a rancher and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake.

READ MORE: RANCH MUSINGS: When the pressure is off, what is there to muse about on the ranch?


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