by Kit Worzel, futurist
Last year, I wrote a blog about the future of food, and how we would need to use a number of alternative methods to farming in order to feed everyone. I didn’t manage to fit the rest of the information in that blog, about how we would still need to farm and grow food to feed a population of more than 9 billion. You’ll note I didn’t say “use traditional farming methods” there, because we will actually be using modern and futuristic methods instead.
Farmers in glass houses
Industrial greenhouse usage is fifty years old now, and only set to expand. As prices rise on produce due to water shortages and climate change, more people are turning to greenhouses to grow their plants. They’re not exposed to the wind, and can be climate controlled, to a degree. Water is kept in as part of a closed system, rather than allowed to run off or evaporate away, and they also have the advantage of being able to grow plants in otherwise harsh environments, such as deserts, assuming you can secure a water supply. As a matter of fact, if you combine solar farms and greenhouses en mass, you have quite the set-up, turning otherwise unusable land into profitable enterprises. So long as a water supply can be arranged, even hard, rocky soil can be home to delicate plants – in the raised beds of greenhouses.
Pretty in pink
The level beyond greenhouses are pinkhouses, retrofitted warehouses and buildings that don’t even need windows, and light the plants with red and blue LEDs, the wavelengths that plants absorb best. While there is a sharp cost up front to buy the property and lights, the increase in efficiency is enormous. Plants grow almost twice as well under these coloured lights rather than the broad spectrum light from the sun, and with complete climate control, it is possible to set up pinkhouses anywhere there is power, from Siberia to the Sahara. Rather than be at the mercy of the growing season, and produce at most two crops a year, pinkhouses can manage six harvests, since with complete climate controls; you don’t need to stop for the winter. As an added bonus, these setups will most likely exist in cities, greatly reducing the travel distance for the food, and the pollution associated with shipping.
From waste to waist
As my colleague Richard noted in a previous blog, water is going to be scarce in the future. Unfortunately, plants need three things – light, nutrients, and water. Light has been discussed, and nutrients come from the air and soil, but water is an issue. I see an opportunity here to kill two birds with one stone. Cleaned wastewater is being spoken of as the future of potable water, but it’s a hard sell to get it to consumers, no matter how much it’s been cleaned. It doesn’t matter that it is chemically cleaner than tap water; there is a psychological barrier that is hard to overcome.
But plants don’t care about the taste, so why not use it for them? Reclaim water from municipal waste and send it to pinkhouses and greenhouses for plant use. It doesn’t matter to me if my tomatoes were fed Perrier or poop-water, so it’s an easy work-around for two issues at once.
Vegetables of the sea
While it’s certainly not a new idea, algae farming, or algaculture, is taking off, and increasing in popularity due to a number of factors. For starters, algae is versatile. Various uses for algae include bioplastics, fuel, pharmaceuticals, pollution control, and yes, food. A number of traditional dishes from around the world include algae, including nori and laverbread, and algae with high levels of protein can be used as a nutritional supplement. But it’s the ability of algae to replace ethanol biofuel that I find the most exciting. Of the more than ninety million acres of corn planted in the US every year, 40% of that is for ethanol and biofuel. That’s almost forty million acres just for biofuels. If we converted that to algae for biofuel, we could grow that in two million acres, and we could do it in non-arable land, leaving an area larger than Greece free for cultivation of crops for human consumption.
Getting smart about the great outdoors
As much as pinkhouses and non-traditional methods of cultivating plants appeal, we will still need dirt farms. Grain staples, such as corn, rice and wheat, are grown on a small profit margin, and can only be profitable (and therefore have people willing to grow them) by growing in mass quantities. It’s just not feasible to do that inside, which leaves outdoor farming as the only real option for such things.
These are not the farms that some of you may have grown up with, or seen in TV. Just like telephones, farms have gotten smart. This includes tractors and plows with GPS and straight-drive programs, integrated computers to keep track of harvest and watering schedules, soil and temperature monitors that send SMS alerts, and a whole host of gadgets to make farming easier, faster and cheaper. Watering becomes automated, based on results from soil probes, even the distance between plants is carefully calculated to obtain maximum yield.
This is particularly needful in the less developed areas of the world. Large parts of the world are still using farming techniques hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. They are ignorant of the massive improvements in cultivation techniques, even non-technological techniques that could turn a mediocre crop into a moneymaking one. The changes to irrigation alone in the last hundred years could increase worldwide food production by a significant amount. Educating and assisting the less technological farms will have benefits for everyone, in the long run.
Orchards need more than roots
Orchards and vineyards suffer from the same issues as staple plants – need for space means interior growing is insufficient for most purposes. But they aren’t looking at a technological revolution – they’re looking at a mathematical one.
For at least fifty years, orchards and vineyards have been collecting data on what works best, and sharing it. Teams of scientists have developed models, which were then tested, and finally implemented, and the results are clear. By using these techniques, along with controlled breeding of the plants to emphasize desired characteristics, orchards have increased average tree density (in the US) from 40 trees/acre fifty years ago to over 3,000 trees/acre, in extreme cases.
This concept is interesting to me, because it doesn’t involve high-tech implementation. Once the solution has been found, it can be used anywhere. Yes, the same smart systems that I described above can be used for orchard and vineyard management, but trees are largely stable, once grown, and need less care than more delicate plants do.
Yes, we will have GMOs
Of all the topics I write about, GMOs are probably the most contentious. They are either heralded as a savior, as in the case of golden rice and Hawaiian papayas, or demonized as unethical and dangerous, as with certain companies, and the switch back to organic papayas in Hawaii. Many people hate GMOs, consider them unnatural, and don’t want them anywhere near their plates. But with climate change wreaking havoc on farmlands, and blights and viruses hammering crops, GMOs may be necessary to keep everyone fed.
Do not take this as a whole-hearted endorsement for all GMOs. I believe that while some are good, and even necessary, each one should be judged by its own merits, and care should be taken. Invasive species are a cautionary tale that all should heed, but letting people starve, or go blind because of dislike for a method is going too far in the other direction.
I believe we should promote safe and properly regulated GMO use, but use them all the same.
The United Nations estimates we will have a world population of 9.6 billion by 2050. That is nearly a third again of our current population. We currently have more than 10% of the world population suffering from malnutrition. This means that we need to feed over 3 billion more people in the next 35 years. That will be the single largest increase in food production in human history. But we can do it, we have the technology.
© Copyright, IF Research, February 2016.
Modernizing world staple farming practices
Algae vs other plants
Mathematics of Orchards