“If we are not careful, we could lose the farm and the food system on our watch.” That drastic warning came from A.G. Kawamura in 2005, when he was secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Kawamura was not only alluding to how important forward-thinking policy is to the food system, but also to the fact that people who grow food for a living are becoming a dying breed. Already, agriculture is greatly diminished in terms of economic measures: it represents just 1.2 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product; services make up 77 percent and manufacturing 22 percent of GDP. It’s becoming a forgotten career path as well.
Principal farm operators over age 65 now outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of more than seven to one. Over the next 20 years, 400 million acres of agricultural lands—an area roughly five times the size of all our national parks combined—will be transferred to new owners. But who will be those new owners? Youth continue to migrate out from the corn-rich “heartland” and leave agriculture altogether. Many interested younger Americans simply can’t afford the costs of entry into farming. Others won’t accept the economic instability of the job. Meanwhile, each year the United States edges toward becoming a net importer of foods; already we import more than $80 billion in agricultural products each year. (See “U.S. Food Trade on the Rise” in the Image Gallery.)
In short, we don’t have enough people becoming farmers, and we’re starting to import food to fill the gap. And yet few people are debating our flagging national food security with the fervor expressed about oil imports or manufacturing jobs shipped overseas.