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Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 2

Blog Post | Food Production

Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 2

The eco-modern farm revolution is here.

I argued in Part 1 of this essay that the modernization of American farming in the twentieth century helped alleviate multiple social ills. Powered tractors and harvesters reduced the physical burdens of most field work, but labor requirements were lessened by another innovation as well: the raising of farm animals like chickens, pigs, and dairy cows inside modern, biosecure automated barns.

My grandfather’s traditional Indiana farm in the 1930s raised five different kinds of animals (in addition to ten different crops). The feeding, watering, managing, and cleaning up after all these animals was a never-ending chore, one frequently assigned to the children. Modern livestock barns, which began arriving in the middle decades of the twentieth century, saved labor by automating most of the feeding, watering, and cleanout. In the late 1930s it required eight and a half hours of human labor to produce 100 pounds of broiler chickens, but by the early 1980s this had fallen to just six minutes.

Modern livestock operations have been dismissed by critics as “factory farms,” but bringing the animals into temperature controlled, biosecure environments protected them from nature’s extremes, provided safety from predators and reduced their exposure to disease. Tapeworm parasites were not eliminated from the meat supply in Europe and North America until small-scale pig rearing was replaced by confined production. Between the 1940s and 1980s the incidence of trichi­nosis in pig farming also fell, from four hundred clinical cases annually to sixty cases. The pathogen T. gondii was found in one out of five marketed hogs in the 1980s, but it has now been reduced by over 90 percent. Dr. Rodney Baker, a former president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, asserts, “By bringing the animals indoors and creating biosecurity, we’ve truly eliminated about 15 diseases and parasites we had back to the 1980s.”

Today’s livestock systems also emit fewer greenhouse gasses for every pound of production, thanks to better genetics and improved feeds. More efficient feed use brings more rapid weight gain, less manure, and less belched out methane for every pound of production. According to United Nations data, livestock production in the United States has more than doubled since 1961, yet direct greenhouse gas emissions from livestock have declined 11 percent. In 1950 the United States had twenty-five million dairy cows; now the number is only nine million, even though milk production is 60 percent higher. Frank Mitloehner, a professor of animal science and an air quality specialist at the University of California Davis, concludes that the climate burden of a single glass of milk in the United States today is two-thirds smaller than it was in 1950.

For pork production since the 1990s, average feed requirements for every added pound of weight gain have fallen by almost half. For chickens since 1950, average feed requirements per pound of live-weight broilers declined more than one third. In beef production since the seventies, every pound of meat now requires 12 percent less water, 19 percent less feed, 30 percent fewer animals, and 33 percent less land, while generating 18 percent less manure. Americans are eating too much meat—five times as much as they did in 1940—but until this excess is corrected the environment will gain better protection from modern compared to traditional systems.

One livestock system failing has been weak protection for the welfare of the animals. For pregnant sows in tight gestation crates and egg-laying hens in cramped cages, extreme confinement makes these animals easier to manage but it frustrates their instinctive behavior and compromises their physical and emotional wellbeing. These are failings that need to be corrected, but that can be done without a return to yesterday’s less productive and less secure barnyard and pasture systems. Recent experience in Europe shows farm animals can be given a good life indoors if barns are enriched and more spacious. Thanks to a 2008 European Union directive, European pigs are now required to have ample light, less noise, more space to lie down, and pregnant sows cannot be confined in crates. To help overcome boredom, the pigs must even be given objects they can manipulate—in other words, toys. In Europe, which actually raises twice as many pigs as the United States, these welfare enhancements have proved to be affordable.

It’s fine to be sentimental about our loss of farming traditions, but we should not view traditional methods as better for the environment. Farms in America today produce three times as much as they did in 1940. If we had tried to triple production using the low-yield, low-tech methods of the past the environmental damage would have been many times greater than it is today. In fact, we had already reached the environmental limits of traditional low-yield farming in the 1930s, when cropping was extended onto the drought-prone Southern Plains. When drought struck the soil blew away, creating a disastrous “Dust Bowl” and a stream of 400,000 environmental refugees. Only after 1950 did cropped area stop increasing, thanks to the uptake of nitrogen fertilizers and hybrid seeds.  Corn production in the United States increased fivefold after 1940, yet the area planted to corn actually decreased by twenty percent, saving land for nature.

More recently, American farms have protected nature by adopting a wide range of new techniques, including no-till seeding, GPS-steered equipment, digital soil mapping, variable rate input application, drip irrigation, drones to scout the fields for pest pressures and crop disease, big data to calibrate an optimal response, and genetically engineered seeds that self-protect against insects with fewer chemical sprays. Thanks to such innovations, farming in America is far less energy and resource intensive today. Compared to 1980, corn production by 2015 required 41 percent less land for every bushel of output, 46 percent less irrigation water, 41 percent less energy use, and it emitted 31 percent less greenhouse gas. Total crop production in America increased 44 percent after 1981, yet total fertil­izer use scarcely increased at all. Total pesticide use fell 18 percent in absolute terms, with insecticide use falling to less than 20 percent of the 1972 level. Modern agriculture is less resource intensive because, like much of the rest of our modern economy, it has become better engineered, GPS-located, more digital, sensor-informed, and computer-networked.   

Modern farming in America has also become “multi-agricultural.” Most of our food is now being produced on large high-tech farms using eco-modern “precision agriculture” equipment, but this has left plenty of room on the land for other kinds of farms, mostly small farms that do not use high-tech production methods.  Many of these are “life-style” farms. They make very little money growing food but are able to sustain themselves with off-farm income or retirement savings. In 1929, only 6 percent of American farms reported 200 days of work off the farm every year, but by 1997 this had increased to 35 percent. As of 2016, three out of five farms in America (defined as operations with at least $1000 in sales every year) were either pure retirement farms with little or no farming income, or hobby farms where agricultural production was not the primary occupation. These smaller farms produce very little food, but they keep people on the land and help sustain rural communities.      

Many rural communities are struggling today, but it isn’t because today’s farms are struggling.  Rural counties are coping with aging populations, job loss, family breakdown, and substance abuse, yet today’s job losses usually occur in the manufacturing and service sectors, not in agriculture. The rate of farm consolidation has slowed considerably over the past two decades, so few farms have been “lost” recently. In 2000 America had 2.16 million farms, and two decades later the number is only slightly smaller, at 2.02 million.

Many rural counties are relatively poor today, but few of the poor households live on farms. Only 2 percent of America’s farm households fall below the poverty line, compared to 14 percent of all U.S. households. The average income for farm households in America in 2016 was 42 percent above the average for nonfarm households, and the median net worth of households operating farms was an impressive $912,000. In Indiana where I grew up, some small farms may look poor from the road, but every acre of average-quality farmland in the state is worth about $7,000, so even small homesteads can be sitting on a considerable cushion of land wealth. Farmers in the state like to joke about living poor but dying rich.     

Big farms produce most of our food today, but our more numerous small farms produce other things of considerable social value. In New England, where I now live, the total commercial sales made by all the farms (large and small) in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island combined represent less than 1 percent of total national farm sales. Yet these New England farms are now drawing progressive young families into the countryside, anchoring local communities through regular CSA and farmers market sales, and attracting seasonal visitors from urban America by preserving a well-tended rural landscape. 

In one fortunate respect, modern farming patterns in America have scarcely changed at all. The USDA defines a “family farm” as one where the majority of the business is owned either by the operator or by individuals related to the operator, even if some may not live in the operator’s household. By this definition, 96 percent of America’s farms and ranches today—including both large and small, modern and traditional—are still family farms. Family values thus continue to fuel the success of both large and small farms in America, no less than they did in our fondly remembered agrarian past.  

Robert L. Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Wellesley College. This two-part essay is based on his new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Blog Post | U.S. Agriculture

Straight Talk About Modern Farms and Rural “Decline,” Pt. 1

Thanks to agricultural innovation, America’s large modern farms have learned how to grow more while using fewer inputs.

Urban and Suburban Americans are seldom well-informed about what goes on in rural America—a.k.a., “Flyover Country.” One prominent but mistaken urban legend is that rural America is in decline because small, diversified “family farms” have been replaced by large modern “industrial” farms. Time magazine said in 2019, “The disappearance of the small farm will hasten the decline of rural America.” This common view gets a number of big things wrong.

To begin with, the “decline” of rural America is in part a statistical illusion. Counties close to cities that were once classified as rural (“non-metro”) have regularly been reclassified as urban (“metro”) because of a steady spillover of new residents from cities. Between 1963 and 2013, 24 percent of all counties in America were for this reason reclassified as urban. Younger Americans may still be moving into cities, but more established American families are spilling outward at the same time, bringing their money with them, which enriches rural counties while eventually re-classifying them as urban. These more prosperous areas are then no longer counted as rural, so the improvement fails to show up in the data.  The counties still classified as rural today hold only 14 percent of our population, and many are indeed struggling, but this is usually due to their distance from cities rather than a disappearance of small, traditional family farms.     

Traditional small farms actually began disappearing in America a century ago, and the process is now nearly complete. Farm consolidations began when gasoline powered tractors dramatically reduced labor requirements on farms. This, combined with growing employment opportunities in urban factories, triggered an historic rural-to-urban labor migration.  America’s farm population fell in the twentieth century from twenty-nine million down to just five million, even as the nation’s overall population was tripling. At the beginning of the twentieth century, farms were employing close to half of the entire U.S. workforce, but today it is just 2 percent. This labor shift proved to be an economic blessing because it made both urban and rural America more prosperous. Struggling small farms were replaced by more prosperous large farms, and the poor farm workers who left made a much better living in town.

The expensive new powered tractors and combine harvesters paid for themselves quickly on farms big enough to give them greater use, so it was larger farms prospered first from mechanization, then they bought out their smaller neighbors and got bigger still.  Between 1910 and 2002, the total number of farms in America fell by nearly two-thirds while average farm size more than doubled. America’s larger farms today—the 146,568 farms with annual sales above $500,000—make up only 7 percent of all farms but account for 81 percent of all farm product sales.

This large farm bias in American agriculture is frequently criticized by those who associate small family farms with important cultural values such as personal dignity, community solidarity, basic equity, and local pride. It is also lamented because farm consolidation also put small rural towns at risk. A recent book by Ted Genoways, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, describes what was left behind in the town of Benedict, Nebraska:

The school stands empty and abandoned; the only restaurant has been for sale for years. There’s a grain elevator, two well drillers, a feedlot outside of town, but otherwise there’s no work, nothing to do, no reason to be there instead of anywhere else.

De-populated towns like Benedict challenge my own optimism about modern farming. When I return to Indi­ana now to visit relatives, my back-country detours take me through empty rural hamlets with names like Barnard, Raccoon, Parkersburg, and Lap­land. There is still a road sign pointing toward Raccoon, but the post office closed in 1934 during the Depression, and the town itself has long been abandoned. In the small towns still struggling to hang on, some people still show up for church on Sunday morning, and the main street café still serves some locals coffee and a sandwich, but it seems only a matter of time before these too will be gone.

This always makes me wistful and nostalgic, but I remind myself that nostalgia is just “memory with the pain removed.”  The family farms and small towns of rural America brought painful memories along with the blessings.   

For the farmers themselves, the most obvious drawback was unrelenting physical toil, which punished the body and often deadened to both mind and spirit. Albert Sanford’s 1916 book, The Story of Agriculture in the United States, records this truth through the eyes of a young boy. He saw his mother, “sober faced and weary, dragging herself, day by day, about the house with her entire life centered upon the drudgery of her kitchen, and all the rest of the world a closed book to her.” This boy also saw his father “broken down with long hours and hard work, finally relieved of the task of paying for the old place—just a few months before he died.”   

Traditional small farms trapped large numbers of Americans in deep poverty. In 1910, despite favorable commodity prices and land values, the average household income on farms was still less than two-thirds that of non-farmers. In the 1930s, when prices and land values fell, farm income briefly dropped to just one-third of the non-farm level. On my grandfather’s small Indiana farm, despite the free labor provided by four healthy sons, his net return to labor and management in 1932 was a loss of $1,203.

Life on a small farm also meant social isolation during much of the week, and the work was physically unsafe, with roughly three thousand deaths every year from farm accidents at late as the 1950s. In addition, some of the cultural values embraced by small family farms were far from admirable. Chil­dren were valued more for their labor than for their learning, so education was sacrificed. As late as 1950, farm children still received, on average, three fewer years of schooling compared to urban children.

Farming communities and most small towns in rural America also lacked racial tolerance and cultural diversity. Descendents of white northern Europeans owned nearly all of the farms plus the shops in town, and they typically looked down on everybody else. In 1920 fifteen percent of all farm opera­tors in America were nonwhites, but three-quarters of these were impoverished tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the South, abused and often terrorized by an all-white power structure.         

Gender equity was missing as well. Women always did their share of the work on farms, but a cen­tury ago the role of farm operator was almost always reserved for the man. A popular newspaper described life on one early Illinois farm as “a perfect paradise for men and horses, but death on women and oxen.” Farm children could be put to work at an early age, so farm women were expected to produce children in large numbers. In 1900, they were raising twice as many children as their urban counterparts. Women were consistently more likely than men to leave farming, and less likely to come back.  

It was the modernization of America’s farms in the twentieth century that finally alleviated most of these rural economic and social ills. Farm households in America today earn 42 percent more than non-farm households. The largest seven percent of these farms, those that produce more than 80 percent of our food, are the biggest earners, but the other 93 percent are usually far from poor, as we shall see. The income of this group is often derived from activities other than farming, which is often just a part-time hobby, but they too have found attractive ways to enjoy a country life.

But what about damage to the natural environment? Here, as well, modern modern farming has proved to be more of a blessing than a curse. From today’s vantage point, pre-modern farming methods can appear more “sustainable” than today’s methods, because they were mostly chemical free, but the drawback was how little food they produced for every acre of plowed land. Agricultural output in the United States has tripled since 1940. If we had tried to triple production using the low-yield methods of the past, we would need to plow three times as much land, cut more forests, and destroy more wildlife habitat. Fortunately, thanks to an introduction of hybrid seeds and greater use of manufactured chemical fertilizers, America’s farms found a way to increase crop yields dramatically on lands already plowed, enough by 1950 to halt agricultural land expansion entirely.

This saving of land as production increased was achieved initially through increased applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, bringing a new kind of environmental risk. Yet beginning in the 1970s these excesses began coming under far better control, thanks to new breakthroughs in agricultural science such as GPS-steered equipment, digital soil mapping, variable rate chemical applications, and genetically engineered seeds that contained insect damage with fewer chemical sprays. Water use was conserved through laser-leveled fields and drip irrigation, and less diesel fuel was burned thanks to innovative no-till seeding methods. America’s large modern farms today have learned how to grow more while using fewer inputs, thanks to innovations in what is called “precision agriculture.”

This beneficial shift toward eco-modern farming will be described in greater detail in Part II of this essay, scheduled to appear next week. The supposed environmental costs of farm modernization, it will show, are just one more urban legend, along with the supposed rural “decline” brought on by modern farms.     

Robert L. Paarlberg is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Wellesley College. This two-part essay is based on his new book, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Blog Post | Labor & Employment

How Work Got Good: Safer, More Interesting, More Intense

Overall, jobs have become safer, more interesting, and more intense.

Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi’s John Sculley to Apple by asking him if he wanted to spend his life selling sugared water or if he wanted “a chance to change the world.” Sculley took the chance. In all his enterprises, Jobs offered his employees the same. They were on an intense mission, where much was asked of them. The work was hard, and they were expected to care about it and devote themselves to it. But they could grow and be justly rewarded for their contributions. They were expected to question their boss, who would sometimes change his mind based on the questioning.

Some of the rewards were intangible—the “flow” of losing oneself in an important and challenging but doable activity. Other rewards were tangible. When the first Macs were shipped, Jobs took the Mac team to the parking lot, called each by name, and handed him or her a Mac with the signatures of the 46 main team members engraved inside.

Many of the higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good life are the same higher needs that move us in pursuit of a good job. The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed that after we satisfy physiological needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, we seek to satisfy higher needs, such as fulfillment, meaning, control, and creativity, through the choice and pursuit of challenging, meaningful projects. Too often a life of leisure does not allow sufficient satisfaction of the higher needs. It is telling that Europeans have much more leisure than Americans, but Europeans report being much less happy.

Having a challenging job where you are in control of your time is not only important for satisfying the higher needs; it also is important for satisfying the basic need for good health. One cause of constant long-term stress is boredom, which has been shown to adversely affect hormone levels and heart rates. For men, another cause of constant long-term job stress is lack of control over what projects to pursue or tasks to prioritize. According to a 2011 study published in the journal Health Psychology, men who lacked control in their work had a greater risk of death.

At first glance, it is surprising that among retirees with $1 million to $5 million in assets, 33 percent retire from one job only to then transition to working in a new one. Even among retirees with more than $5 million in assets, 29 percent continue to work. At second glance, these findings are not so surprising in a labor environment where a growing percentage of jobs are good jobs: creative, challenging, satisfying.

A skeptic might object that these findings only apply to the rich. But jobs in construction and trucking are increasingly hard to fill, suggesting that poorer workers who otherwise might build and drive also are finding better alternatives: safer, less physically exhausting, less routine.

Farm to Factory

Innovative dynamism, sometimes less aptly called creative destruction or entrepreneurial capitalism, has a long history of creating new, better jobs and also of nudging old jobs toward the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. In much of human history, the powerful have been tempted to force slaves to do the most dangerous, exhausting, and boring work. But then inventors created machines that could do these tasks, reducing the temptation to enslave and hugely bettering the work lives of some of the worst off.

An early specific example of innovative dynamism improving jobs happened when kerosene replaced whale sperm oil for high-quality lighting. Collection of sperm oil required the collectors to spend days scraping spermaceti from the brain cavity of the decomposing carcass of a huge whale. Work in oil fields was far from perfect, but it was better than work in decomposing brain cavities.

Some have suggested that some of the early machines of the Industrial Revolution mainly hurt workers by replacing skilled artisans with unskilled factory workers. But most of those who worked in the factories had earlier worked on farms, not as skilled artisans. Victorian-era economist Nassau William Senior observed that the Industrial Revolution’s factory system had improved the conditions of these former farm workers. He described their new conditions as “the comparatively light labor which is exerted in the warm and airy halls of a well-regulated factory.” Charles Dickens, famous for defending the poor in his bestselling novels of the mid-1800s, praised the clean, comfortable working conditions of former farm girls in a Boston textile factory. Before they had the option of mill work, their labor on the farm would have been dirty, physically exhausting, and often dangerous and lonely.

Around 1858 in England, one 8-year-old girl did farm work 14 hours a day; she later testified that “it was like heaven to me when I was taken to the town of Leeds and put to work in a cotton factory.” By today’s standards, the conditions of the early factories were awful, but they were still better than the even more awful conditions that had prevailed in the countryside. The factory was progress, a stepping stone but not a stopping point. In the 1800s a great many people of all ages and genders voted with their feet for the factory over the farm.

Innovative dynamism also eventually greatly improved the conditions of work for those who remained on the land. Railroads opened up the possibilities for farming at a greater distance from the cities. On the fertile and less rocky fields of the Midwest, farmers could now grow more with less effort. Their work, pain, and danger were also reduced by farm innovations such as the McCormick reaper.

Today, many farmers have drones for monitoring crops, computers for calculating yields, air-conditioned tractors for comfortable plowing, and the internet for information and entertainment.

Office to Home

Over the last six decades, more and more workers have been employed in jobs emphasizing expert thinking or complex communications tasks, while fewer have been employed in jobs emphasizing routine or manual tasks.

Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps noted that innovative dynamism “has so far been an extraordinary engine for generating creative workplaces” where workers can discover and explore in the pursuit of challenging projects. Walt Disney Productions was once such a place while its founder was in charge, but it declined after cancer took him. Decades later, officials at the Walt Disney Company offered John Lasseter significantly higher pay to work for them. He declined, choosing to stay at then-independent Pixar, which, though strapped for funding, had become a new exemplar of a creative workplace. Computer-enabled innovations gave Lasseter a job at the challenging, meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs, where he had the freedom to create a new kind of film, starting with Toy Story.

In the past, home workers were paid significantly less than in-office workers because it was harder for firms to measure and manage home workers’ productivity. The internet made this much easier, and the at-home wage penalty substantially fell between 1980 and 2000.

Another example of gains from technology is Amazon Mechanical Turk. The original Mechanical Turk in 1770 was a chess-winning “robot” eventually revealed to cleverly conceal a human chess master within the box allegedly holding the robotic mechanism. Amazon’s version is an internet platform that allows firms to hire participating workers from around the world to perform various online tasks. The surprising punchline is that Amazon Mechanical Turk was rated by its workers as treating them slightly more honestly and fairly than in-person employers in the workers’ home countries.

Almost everyone would like work that is satisfying and doable but challenging; that is in the upper meaningful peak of the hierarchy of needs. Besides that, some people want a difficult project that they can throw themselves into with intensity—what strategy gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call “big, hairy, audacious goals.”

Big, intense projects appeal to our desire for exhilaration and total engagement. They are especially appealing to those who feel that their lives will be worthwhile only if they “make a ding in the universe.” Many breakthrough innovations are more dangerous at their early stages. But some workers enjoy the adventure of risky jobs, take pride in their ability to get those jobs done, or feel satisfaction at being a part of an important project.

When Joe Wilson committed his little Haloid Photographic Company to develop xerography, it was a big, intense project. Horace Becker led the team tasked to produce the first commercial Xerox machine: the model 914. His account captures something of what it feels like to be part of such a project. By the time they tried setting up their first 914 assembly line, he says, everyone was fully immersed in the project, forgetting grievances and performance ratings. All workers, from engineers to assemblers, were indistinguishable in pulling toward the common goal. They would even sneak in on Sundays to make adjustments or to admire the progress.

Big, risky dreams do not appeal to everyone. But an advantage of innovative dynamism is that it allows everyone to be intense without forcing intensity on anyone. And even though many of us will prefer a more relaxed life, we often benefit from the fruits that the intense create.

This first appeared in Reason.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

Forget the Hunger Games, Greet the Driverless Tractor

Feeding humanity does not require a permanent underclass of modern-day helots

If you are a sci-fi fan, then you have probably noticed the dystopian character of movies about the future. From the classics, such as Soylent Green and Blade Runner, to modern hits, such as the Matrix trilogy and District 9, Hollywood’s take on the future is almost invariably negative. The story lines tend to centre on depletion of natural resources, like in the Mad Max movies, the emergence of highly stratified societies, like Elysium, or both.

In Hollywood’s rendition, the future consists of a few people at the top, who partake in the good life and enjoy what’s left of earth’s resources, while the much more numerous masses suffer some form of enslavement and destitution. That is, until one day, a messianic figure emerges to overthrow the existing order, slaughters the oppressors, liberates the untermenschen and ushers in an era of peace and prosperity.

One of the most recent installments in Hollywood’s ceaseless torrent of dystopianism is the widely popular Hunger Games franchise. The plot warns of the dangers of authoritarianism and of the utter failure of central planning. Thanks to capitalism, the future will look very different. Before we get to that, here is a quick summary of the plot.

The Hunger Games is a book trilogy by Suzanne Collins, consisting of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. These books were adapted into four popular movies, with the last book split into two feature films — Mockingjay Part I & II. The books sold more than 65 million copies in the United States alone, and have been translated into 51 different languages. In total, the movies made almost 3 billion dollars worldwide. In an NPR poll, The Hunger Games were second only to Harry Potter in popularity among teenagers. The three-finger salute used by the revolutionaries in The Hunger Games series became a real-life symbol of defiance in Thailand, where people were imprisoned for making the gesture.

The Hunger Games is set in what used to be the United States of America, but has transmogrified into an evil authoritarian regime called “Panem” (from Latin “panem et circenses,” or “bread and circuses”). In an extremely wealthy city located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains called the Capitol, the wealthy live impossibly lavish lives and rule over the surrounding districts. They wear elaborate make-up and bizarre modes of dress very loosely reminiscent of the opulence of French courtiers right before the French Revolution. They have constant parties with much pageantry and impressive technology (e.g., their food dispensers and showers have hundreds of buttons, etc.). At their parties, when they become full, they drink a liquid drug that causes them to vomit, so that they can enjoy more of the fine food that is available to them. Most do not produce anything and those who do “work” perform jobs like “TV host” or “fashion designer” – mainly for their own amusement.

Each of the twelve surrounding districts has a single centrally-planned economic specialization. Some districts are richer than others, but most are very poor. District 7’s people, for example, cut trees for lumber all day. The people in District 4 catch fish, while District 9 produces grain, District 10 raises livestock, and District 11 maintains orchards. The poorest district is District 12, located in Appalachia, whose people are coal miners and frequently starve. They are not allowed access to advanced technology, although they have old television sets to view government propaganda and the Hunger Games.

The people of the Capitol host a reality television show called the Hunger Games, where children from the different districts must battle each other. The children have to survive without food in a large forest-like domed arena filled with genetically engineered monsters, and kill each other as well as the monsters. The last child alive is set free to return to his or her district. The Capitol’s residents see no moral problem with the Hunger Games – the lives of the poor laborers’ children mean nothing to them.

Over the course of the series, a girl, Katniss, and boy, Peeta, from the poor Appalachian mining district manage to survive as contestants on the Hunger Games twice. That forms the plot of the first two books. In the last book, they become involved with a violent revolution against the ruling class in the Capitol. The boy, Peeta, is captured by the government and tortured, but the revolution eventually succeeds. The Hunger Games are abolished and a new government is installed. Katniss and Peeta survive the war, grow up, and eventually have children together.

If you are looking for drama and excitement as dished out by the talented Ms. Collins, feel free to watch all 548 minutes of the four movies combined. If, on the other hand, you are interested in taking a peak at the future as it is being currently created by ordinary human beings, watch this 2-minute video of a driverless tractor developed by Case IH, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment.

Chances are, fully autonomous robots will complete the process of mechanization of American farming in our lifetime. Already less than 2 percent of the American labor force works in agriculture – many as tractor and truck drivers, not manual laborers. This tiny fraction of American workforce produces enough food to feed not only the United States, but also, through American food exports, much of the rest of the world.

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Put differently, feeding humanity does not require a permanent underclass of modern-day helots, as Hollywood would have you believe. Programmers and innovators in urban centers (i.e., the Capitol) compete with one another to produce labor-saving machines that make the lives of the people on farms (i.e., the districts) easier. Far from preventing the latter from acquiring new technology, the livelihoods of the former depend on the purchasing power of the farmers – who have higher incomes and more wealth than the American median.

hunger-games-2

Finally, consider agricultural productivity in the global context. As Professor Jesse H. Ausubel of the Rockefeller University writes, “agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left.” Thus, if humanity can further increase crop yields – since 1940, the American farmers have quintupled corn production while using the same or even less land – some of the agricultural land could be returned to nature.

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Globally, therefore, adoption of American farming techniques could increase agricultural productivity so much that a landmass the size of India could be returned to nature, without compromising the food supply to our apparently “peaking” global population – the world’s population is likely to peak at 8.7 billion in 2055 and then start to decline. Last, but not least, tens of millions of agricultural laborers in Africa and Asia will be freed from back-breaking labor, migrate to the cities and create wealth in other ways.

If you are truly concerned about the future of humanity in general, and hunger, poverty and equality in particular, forget about The Hunger Games and embrace the driverless tractor instead.