Over the past summer and fall, at farmers markets and food coops in New Hampshire and Vermont, I kept seeing small packages of “microgreen” products, with names like ‘black oil sunflower microgreens’ and ‘pea microgreens.’ I bought a few and found them delicious and delicate greens to place on salads or put into a smoothie. One of the vendors at a Vermont farmers market, an enthusiastic young woman, told me she produces them out of her house in the small town of Lebanon, NH.
I’ve since learned that there are dozens and dozens of these tiny producers around the country….. along with much larger producers operating out of old warehouses in assorted cities and suburbs. They use various horticulture and aquaculture approaches to grow their products, indoors or in greenhouses, all year round. A half dozen of the largest had attracted more than $5 billion in venture capital investment by the middle of 2021. Their products are already showing up in the veggie sections of Walmart and Whole Foods, among others.
This massive move toward technology-supported food production carried out in small towns and large cities alike includes new companies producing lab-grown ‘meat’ and various kinds of customized fermented foods. “This is the greatest change to food production since domestication,” says Azeem Azhar, a technology analyst and writer.
This move seems like a big improvement on continuing attempts at farming innovation going on internationally, some of which are spelled out in a recent New Yorker article that describes the pollution and high water consumption associated with new varieties of rice and wheat seeds in Africa and Asia designed to increase yields. These are similar to problems confronting American Big Ag.
It’s important to note that the tectonic shift in food production isn’t necessarily happening at the expense of traditional farming. Local food production by small farms operating sustainably and producing specialty products like raw dairy, grass-fed meats, and premium cheeses is being helped by moves to reduce stultifying regulation, such as Maine’s recently approved food sovereignty amendment that enables minimally regulated farm-to-consumer food sales.
This transformation is timely for reasons beyond the impact on our food system. For one thing, it’s part of a larger transformation in energy usage spearheaded by the shift to electric self-driving vehicles– all part of a move away from carbon-based energy toward renewable energy like solar and wind energy. Just in food production alone, newly produced foods from proteins made by what Azhar refers to as “precision fermentation” have the potential to reduce conventional energy costs by a factor of five, water requirements by a factor of ten, and land needs by a factor of 100. And that’s before any discussion about improvements in food safety.
Perhaps even more important, this transformation has the potential to support a massive and long overdue political and economic realignment. Over the next few years, for example, the densely populated Northeast will become ever less dependent on places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Saudi Arabia for its energy needs, and less dependent on California and Mexico for its vegetables, fruit, and dairy. Economic independence invariably translates into political independence as well, which to me is becoming ever more tantalizing as the U.S. moves toward increasing polarization, including even talk of civil war.
When you see these emerging opportunities for regional economic independence, you have to question the need for ongoing political tension and violence that seems a permanent part of our “united” states. Why should the ‘liberal’ and ‘diverse’ Northeast and West Coasts, for example, be confronted by the very real possibility of long-term minority rule by people scheming as I write, to ‘fix’ our elections in favor of ultra-conservatives? They denigrate public education, criminalize women who seek abortions, seek to limit the availability of life-saving vaccines, pooh-pooh the realities of climate change, and encourage the distribution of semi-automatic guns even for children….and in general seem to want to be guided by a kind fundamentalism akin to what drives repression and violence in parts of the Mideast, Africa, and Asia.
What’s been most discouraging to me is that a number of the most outspoken advocates of this brave new fundamentalist world are leaders of various types who were once active in supporting the availability of traditional healthy foods like raw dairy and direct sale of foods from small farms to individuals. Even as progress has been made on these fronts, these people have moved on to immerse themselves in the most divisive issues of the days—people like Sally Fallon of the West A. Price Foundation; Joseph Mercola, a mass seller of nutritional supplements and dubbed “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation”; and Rep. Thomas Massie (pictured above in his family Christmas greeting put out on Twitter a few days after a school shooting in a Michigan public school that resulted in four students being murdered). Massie had a few years ago been an advocate for raw milk sales across state lines and for reduced meat regulation to help small farms. He’s apparently discovered there’s more political opportunity in promoting ownership of semiautomatic weapons than healthy foods; his Christmas Twitter greeting about ammunition is apparently a cynical reference to reports that the accused student murderer was spending time in his public school class looking up sources for ammunition on his cell phone prior to the shooting.
As I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to reconcile myself to the normalization of such grotesque behavior, I’ve increasingly been drawn to an idea I would have found unthinkable not long ago: a national “divorce,” whereby various contrasting regions simply go their separate ways. The Northeast goes one way, the South goes another, the Midwest yet another, and so on. Decentralized food and energy production make such a divorce ever more realistic.
A creative blogger, Jared Brock, has already scoped out a redesigned America, divided into 12 countries. I’ve reproduced his map (above) to give a sense of the possibilities, and limitations (for example, as a longtime Red Sox fan, it’s difficult for me to stomach the idea of living in a country with the name “Yankeedom”). But those are details. What’s key is the notion that the whole of this new collection of American countries could be much greater than the sum of its parts, which right now feel increasingly alienated and embittered.
Each region could exploit its economic strengths, and nurture its political preferences as it sees fit. Maybe Thomas Massie becomes president of Southland, and gives preferential funding to private schools, where the kids can bring their semi-automatic weapons to school and play cops-and-robbers using live ammo during recess. The Northeast could continue doing what it does best, which is to nurture world-class colleges and universities that draw students from around the world and trains them to launch leading-edge technology companies. It may also become a food and energy exporter, taking advantage of the shift to new food and energy production technologies.
Life might be tough for Southland, since racial minorities would likely resent the new repression of white supremacists being in control, and head for better economic opportunities up north. Southland would also need to be much more self-sufficient than it is now—states like Kentucky and Virginia, for all their talk of individual rights and portrayal of the Northeast as a bastion of socialism, take in many more federal dollars than they pay in; while places like the Northeast could at long last stop supporting those on the dole down south and to the west, as this study indicates.
In the new decentralized America, when Massie visits Massachusetts in Yankeedom to attend reunions of his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, he is a graduate), he can leave his and his family’s weapons cache at the border, since the Northeast will have rational gun safety laws in effect that don’t include open carry.
There would, of course, be a huge number of financial and regulatory issues to work through, much like the United Kingdom worked things through with the European Union over the last couple years as part of Brexit. The big challenges could be to provide for a national defense and divide up the national debt, as well as establish priorities for national infrastructure (like the federal highway system).
To many Americans, working out new regional constitutions would be far preferable than arguing endlessly about fantasy conspiracies concerning vote fraud in the 2020 election and how Mark Zuckerberg is in cahoots with the Chinese to take over the U.S. (when Facebook isn’t even allowed to operate in China) and missing Democratic computer servers in Ukraine. Yes, a dozen new nations of urban entrepreneur farmers in friendly competition on behalf of their truly united small countries…..I like that idea.