Last year, digital analyst and technology speaker Brian Solis authored a piece in Forbes about the generational tensions that persist in the United States. He explored how the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X can forge productive relations in tandem with the next two generations – Millennials (also known as “Generation Y”) and Centennials (also known as “Generation Z”).
Broadly speaking, Millennials were born between the early-1980s (a subset to which I belong) and the mid-1990s. By contrast, the oldest Centennials were born in the late-1990s while their youngest members were born toward the end of “the Aughts” (aka that first decade of the 21st Century). True to our namesake, Millennials were the last new generation that came-of-age as the world shifted into a new millennium. Chronologically speaking, Centennials will be society’s elders as the 2080s and 2090s (within the first century of this new millennium) draw to a close. Together, these two generations will have driven a bulk of the human events that end up defining the remaining eight decades of our current century.
As many people know, I’m an ardent proponent of sustainable agriculture. I run a public awareness campaign titled “The REGIS Initiative” – an acronym that stands for:
REGIS emphasizes mainstreaming indoor forms of agriculture alongside ecological improvements to existing outdoor methods (i.e. conventional “field agriculture”). We encourage all citizens to become #AgriWarriors through a combination of state/federal public policy and local community engagement.
So what does the greater food sustainability movement have to do with acrimony between different generational cohorts? The life experiences of Baby Boomers and GenXers can be valuable when navigating a forward-thinking blueprint for our society. At the same time, the struggles and pressures faced by Millennials and Centennials only underscore why food sustainability (and the policies that would support it) must become a high-profile priority.
Together, we can work through our generational differences to collaborate in the name of forging a cross-partisan, multicultural path to revolutionize our agricultural sector. It will give rise to economic and sociological prosperity unprecedented in American history.
A recent study by the CryptoInformation online portal has found that Millennials and Centennials are more likely than their elders to invest in socially-conscious companies and stocks; Boomers and GenXers, on the other hand, practice more restraint in their overall budgeting and investment decisions. Yet, research data compiled by San Francisco-based business executive Sam Brasch indicates that Centennials and Millennials still broadly understand the importance of saving, even though older generations are often credited for possessing the time-honored value of a self-sufficient work ethic.
How can this translate to a smart legislative agenda over the course of the next decade? U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District introduced two drafts of base legislation that should be a springboard for the future of American agricultural policy: The Food and Farm Act (H.R. 4425) and the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 1337). These two bills merge the concepts of old-fashioned “rainy day planning” (making sure our farms and insect populations have the tools and support to survive into the upcoming decades) with youth-oriented social justice initiatives (environmental stewardship and diversity appreciation)
This emphasis shouldn’t be limited to just a singular new Farm Bill every five years. The successful measures that find their way into future Farm Bills can continue to be funded and implemented in various ways, as legislative action crosses over into other topical areas. On its face, agriculture might seem to exist in a vacuum vis-a-vis renewable energy, foreign affairs, trade, education, and health care. In reality, agri-sustainability has a role in each and every one of these realms. Its role can propel these issue-based concepts of protecting senior citizens and empowering young people into uncharted realms of human wellness.
THE 2023 FARM BILL
U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow was instrumental in adding some limited agri-sustainability measures to the December 2018 Farm Bill. Those provisions included funding for a new Office of Urban Agriculture & Innovative Production, along with boosting urban agriculture through conservation grants, supporting regional food co-ops by way of a Local Agriculture Market Program, and funding grant research to expand rooftop/indoor gardening. Although these measures were only a drop in the bucket as far as what we need, Stabenow’s hard work laid the groundwork to build upon them in the future. That was a far cry from the business-as-usual Farm Bills of previous decades.
The next Farm Bill, which will expire in 2023, should expand funding for these programs, but additionally incorporate more technology. For example, new grants to build greenhouses, polytunnels, hoop houses, LED lighting, and micropropagation structures would empower both large and small farming operations to shield their harvests from the elements. This should result in an agricultural sector where hydroponic, aeroponic, aquaponic, and vertical farming endeavors coexist with traditional field agriculture – often on the same property.
Sustainable agriculture would create millions of new job opportunities, especially appealing to Millennials and Centennials. Whether it’s the DARPA-style ag-tech, R&D in food production, infrastructure for ag-labs, more urban agriculture programs, supply-management retooling, or progressive farm co-ops – plenty of great ideas have been circulated that can be easily integrated into the next USDA agenda. Creating these vocational positions would immensely boost nationwide employment.
Of course, Baby Boomers and GenXers who are approaching retirement certainly would be able to assume upgraded occupations within the agricultural sector, as well. But when it comes to facilities management, operational control, product marketing, and the underlying “hands-on” science required (not to mention the initial construction of agri-infrastructure), Generations Y & Z will be the natural fit to lead these roles with the greatest longevity.
Obviously, passion for environmentalism amongst young people can intersect with a heightened agri-sustainability platform. Even for the crop production that remains primarily outdoors, techniques such as biodiversity, regenerative soil practices, advanced composting, and use of straw mulch will ensure that fields and orchards thrive. State and federal governments just need to make available these resources for improving soil health and nutrient quality.
But the affinity Millennials and Centennials have for ecological protection wouldn’t stop there. Emerging science in thermal decomposition, mixed-waste segregation, and chemical recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ocean acidity. Fewer pollutants in the air and less trash being dumped into our oceans have a net-benefit to our planet’s health. In many cases, water can be recycled and rechanneled (through the use of cisterns, monolayers, bioswales, and rain barrels). Biodegradable forms of “faux-plastic” will emerge as scalable alternatives to standard single-use packaging. GenY/GenZ will undoubtedly leap at the chance to be at the forefront of such innovation and scientific breakthroughs. And, where eco-friendly products – including edible foodstuffs – become feasible for mass-production, the flourishing sales and profits will naturally follow.
Environmentally-safe commodities should open the door even wider for clean energy developments. When you consider how farming operations could arise or expand – via “hybridized facilities – where fruits and vegetables are harvested alongside raw materials for energy production (with such energy sources often powering the infrastructure itself!), that will pack a “one-two punch” on behalf of crop production and fuel sources.
By linking food harvests to clean energy modernization, we could muster unprecedented synergy between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy. The energy sources themselves can become quite diverse. Beyond the known quantities of solar, wind, hydrogen, and geothermal power, newer fuel types would arise, over time. Biomass-generated electricity will inevitably be developed from a wider range of organic substances. “Green ammonia” – a methane-hydrogen-carbon mix for energy storage – is being researched by scientists worldwide…and has the potential to be an energy game changer if brought to scale.
Seeing how many people value the idea of free market competition, wouldn’t a broader diversity of competing energy sources lend itself to such a framework?
While perhaps not as apparent, agri-sustainability can also transform the U.S. education system. For starters, the U.S. Department of Education should financially support curriculums promoting entomology (insect science), whether it’s in public, private, charter, or parochial schools. Pollinator protection is essential to make sure that bees, butterflies, moths, and beetles don’t stop revitalizing the world’s flora and vegetation. Natural habitats prosper alongside new indoor agriculture facilities, helping us to hedge our bets against Mother Nature’s volatility.
Millennials will become the next wave of top educators within K-12 and college-level American schools. The youngest of the Centennials will be finishing up their own post-secondary educations through the mid-2030s. Hillsdale Academies and Montessori/Waldorf schools would be the perfect venues for promoting STEM while offering electives in botany, introductory entomology, or culinary arts. Seeing how communities of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity (in either rural or urban enclaves), agri-sustainability grants could be a key part of future racial reparations programs. These educational opportunities could be supplemented by community activities, including the existing model of “agri-hoods” found in metropolitan areas such as Detroit, Kansas City, and Atlanta. Providing daily experiences in this vein will spur agri-science interest amongst more people who go into education – whether it’s elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, or colleges. Remember that those of us born after 1980 inhabit (and have the potential to educate peers in) rural, suburban, and urban areas alike.
Don’t be misled: we still need actual health care reform in terms of our nation’s medical delivery systems. But it’s indisputable that nutrient-rich American diets would improve overall preventative care. A population with fewer bodily ailments would result in less overwhelmed clinics or hospitals. Chronic medical conditions and overall health care costs would decrease, while we figure out which additional improvements might best strengthen individuals’ or families’ health care plans.
As human resources expert Sandy Calandra recently discussed, Millennials and Centennials endure unique struggles related to enrollment, affordability, and interactivity when mulling over our personal health provider options. Months earlier, FoodNavigatorUSA editor Elaine Watson studied GenY/GenZ eating habits, and found that the Millennial and Centennial generations are prone to snacking in lieu of consuming three square meals per day; the reasons for this can be habitual and/or cultural. “Food deserts” and income disparities, especially among communities of color, often result in such snacks being less nutritious. Given these realities, a robust agri-sustainability agenda that makes whole foods more accessible and affordable would clearly lessen the burden on health care professionals.
The no-brainer here is simple: if America produces more of its own vegetables and fruits (and breeds more seafood, even aquaponically), we will be better equipped to feed ourselves and export more food commodities to other countries. That should give us greater leverage in future trade deals with new international markets. Once we become integral leaders in food sustainability, Americans can help spread that technology to lesser-developed nations.
With U.S. debt now in the trillions, I recommend we transition from straight monetary foreign aid to a model where we form proactive partnerships with our allies. Imagine how many nations could alleviate hunger and poverty if international scientists collaborated to perfect the technology optimizing an output of fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Although I’m not an expert on the inner workings of the United Nations, I’d like to see something along the lines of a U.N. task force on Agri-Tech & Innovative Harvests.
In Congress, spending bills need to secure the support (or consent) of at least 60 U.S. Senators to avoid a filibuster. However, the reconciliation process is a workaround in the event that 41% of the Senate chamber opposes specific appropriations. This type of scenario took place in December 2017, when Republicans used reconciliation to pass widespread tax cuts. Prior to that, Democrats used a similar reconciliation process (in March 2010) to make fiscal modifications to the already-passed ACA (also making minor tweaks to student loan debt).
Reconciliation could be a critical tool to enact agri-sustainability when so many U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives will be in the pockets of those special interests, who, by whatever rationale, cannot see the forest for the trees. Even if it’s part of a scaled-down version of the “Green New Deal” (most likely titled something different, to remove the current stigma), food service technology and agricultural infrastructure must be a part of the package. State and local municipalities simply don’t have the capital to fund these projects on their own. In this spirit, agri-sustainability funding could also be tacked onto future Infrastructure Bills or Transportation Bills. States and cities/towns would then presumably apply for available funds or grants to prompt their own local/regional endeavors in the name of food sustainability.
Let us not forget the next generation who will succeed the Centennials. They are known as “Generation Alpha” (or GenAA), although that moniker could evolve in the coming years. Members of Generation Alpha are children born approximately in 2010 or later – the oldest of whom are currently in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Grades. Obviously, many of them haven’t even been born yet! Only time will tell the common generational attributes of the Alphas – and how they’ll differ from us Millennials and Centennials who’ve preceded them.
To the Baby Boomers and GenXers: we value the strength and vigor of your historical initiatives, which have steadily improved our society. We younger folks need to become more proactive and engaged – however, you Boomers and GenXers possess weighty levels of authority that we simply haven’t reaped. Your presence in legislative, corporate, and administrative leadership positions equips you with the institutional power to flip that switch, as we all venture into this next decade together.
And, for those of you who care about your political images: the cumulative benefits of agri-sustainability, as outlined above, would enable your popularity (via bragging rights) to skyrocket among your own constituents.
It isn’t just Millennials and Centennials who are counting on you. It’s the Alphas. It’s the generations that arise after them, over the course of the next 50-100 years. Do you really want your legacy to be global food shortages, uninhabitable oceans, and mass extinction?
I know I wouldn’t.
Featured image by: Oregon State University via Flickr.