Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Future of Food

Since the time of Malthus predictions have been made that the earth will soon have more people than it can feed.  So far, those predictions have proved false, or, if you prefer, premature.  According to United Nations’ predictions of population and its growth we now have about 7 billion people to feed.  That number is expected to peak at about 10.85 billion by 2100.  That is a significant 55% increase yet to come. However, this is only an estimate. The UN dataset contains a range of possibilities from 6.75 billion to 16.64 billion (-4% to +238%). Consider what the population would be if the world went on its merry way procreating at the same rate as now; the UN’s constant fertility estimate would yield a population of 28.64 billion (+409%) in the year 2100. Human behavior must change considerably if we are to avoid a Malthusian future.

We have avoided catastrophic worldwide food shortages by extending and making more productive traditional agricultural techniques that were developed over thousands of years.  Lester R. Brown has made the case that we are reaching the end of the line with that approach in his book Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity.  Crop yields are rising slowly in developed countries and seem to be approaching an asymptote.   We are running down our water supplies and eroding our soil at unsustainable rates.  The agricultural techniques currently being used are polluting our waterways and destroying our oceans.  Climate change is raising temperatures and higher temperatures mean lower crop yields.  There is very little unused arable land, and what exists is in areas where the local population is already facing food shortages.  We cannot proceed in this fashion indefinitely.  Something has to change.

Population as a body count does not define the extent of the problem.  Humans like to eat meat.  Humans in wealthy countries like to eat a lot of meat.  As more people move beyond mere subsistence conditions, the demand for meat is going to grow—and at a rate greater than population growth.  Much of agricultural production is aimed not at feeding people directly, but at feeding the animals that produce the meat we so much enjoy.

Brown explains the extent of the problem:

“Worldwide, roughly 35 percent of the 2.3-billion-ton annual grain harvest is used for feed.  In contrast, nearly all of the soybean harvest ends up as feed.”

“A steer in a feedlot requires 7 pounds of grain for each pound of weight gain.  For pork, each pound of additional live weight requires 3.5 pounds.  For poultry it is just over 2.  For eggs the ratio is 2 to 1.  For carp in China and India and catfish in the United States, it takes less than 2 pounds of feed for each pound of additional weight gain.”

Brown argues that it takes about a pound of grain per day to meet nutritional requirements in India—about 380 pounds per person per year.

“The average American, in contrast, consumes roughly 1,400 pounds of grain per year, four fifths of it indirectly in the form of meat, milk, and eggs.  Thus the total grain consumption per person in the United States is nearly four times that in India.”

If the population is to continue to grow and more people will move into higher economic realms, something will have to change in the way we deal with our desire for meat.

Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century is a book by Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers with Paul Carroll.  These authors view the coming changes as a business opportunity rather than a potential disaster.  They provide us a means of appreciating how rapid is the change that is coming.

“The key fact for business for at least the next two decades is this: More than 2.5 billion people in China, India, and other developing countries are moving out of poverty and will urbanize and move into industrial and service occupations by 2030.”

“To accommodate all these people urbanizing, industrializing, and moving into the middle class, China alone will build two and a half cities the population of Chicago every year for the foreseeable future.  India will build one Chicago each year….Think of the amount of concrete, iron and steel in a bridge or skyscraper; the amount of copper in a power grid and the energy required to power the cranes, bulldozers, and other machines that build it—and multiply those amounts by tens of thousands.”

And think about how much more food those people will wish to consume as they move up the food ladder.  These authors recognize that food and its production will have to be reinvented.  Rather than dwell too long on how to go about this, they lay out the necessary target that it is assumed clever industrialists will be able to meet.

“….produce high quality food locally using one-tenth the water and energy of existing methods and deliver the food to customers with less than 20 percent waste….customize each person’s food with nutraceuticals and tailor diets based on genetic fingerprints to maximize longevity and reduce the risk of disease.”

The authors focus on technologies that have already shown promise in whipping up enthusiasm for the future.  In the realm of food, they highlight the efforts of various companies to mock the taste and texture of meat with plant products.

“….start-ups are attempting to essentially reinvent beef and chicken.  They have come up with ways to grow crops that provide the same protein but in a way that is several times more efficient in terms of land, water, and production.”

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler also face the future with enthusiasm in their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.  These authors not only wish to reinvent meat, they wish to reinvent agriculture.

They credit the US military with demonstrating the viability of hydroponics, the growing of plants in nutrient rich water, as a means of feeding troops on remote rocky islands in World War II.  However, the approach was shunted aside for more traditional agricultural advances after the war.  There was another breakthrough that occurred much later that has yet to be taken advantage of.

“In 1983 Richard Stoner made a major breakthrough, discovering that it was possible to suspend plants in midair, delivering food through a nutrient rich mist.”

These techniques free us from the need for soil and provide other advantages.

“Traditional agriculture uses 70 percent of the water on the planet.  Hydroponics is 70 percent more efficient than traditional agriculture.  Aeroponics, meanwhile, is 70 percent more efficient than hydroponics.  Thus if we used aeroponics for agriculture, we could drop water use from 70 percent to 6 percent—quite the savings.”

If we are freed from the need for soil, then we are also freed from the constraint of two dimensional plots of land.  The authors suggest switching food production to vertical, multistory structures which can be located where the customers live rather than where the soil is good.

“….the average American foodstuff now travels 1,500 miles before being consumed….As 70 percent of a foodstuff’s final retail price comes from transportation, storage, and handling, these miles add up quickly.”

The authors describe the studies of Dickson Despommier and his students.

“’One thirty-story building,’ says Despommier, ‘one square New York block in footprint, could feed fifty thousand people a year.  One hundred fifty vertical farms could feed everyone in New York City.”

“Vertical farms are immune to weather, so crops can be grown year-round under optimal conditions.  One acre of skyscraper floor produces the equivalent of ten to twenty traditional soil-based acres.  Employing clean-room technologies means no pesticides or herbicides, so there’s no agricultural runoff.  The fossil fuels now used for plowing, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, harvesting, and delivery are all gone as well.  On top of all that, we could reforest the old farmland as parkland and slow the devastating loss of biodiversity.”

Diamandis and Kotler have described a new way to grow plants, but they must still face the issue of what to do about meat.  They reject out of hand ranching and grazing as too inefficient, and feedlots as too dangerous in terms of generating diseases.  Their short-term solution is to invest more in aquaculture and eat more farmed fish.  The long term solution they anticipate involves in-vitro (cultured) production of meat. We don’t need soil for agriculture so why not get rid of the animals as well.

“….an economic analysis presented at the In Vitro Meat Symposium in Norway showed that meat grown in giant tanks known as bioreactors could be cost competitive with European beef prices….”

Meat produced in this fashion could, in principle, be tuned to produce healthier meat products.  Whether taste and texture can be reproduced is another issue. 

In any event, the authors believe it will take ten to fifteen years for both in-vitro meat and vertical farms to begin to be significant factors.  One suspects that Heck, Rogers, and Carroll would have more faith in what industry can accomplish in a short period.  The world may not have ten to fifteen years to wait.

We’ve discussed proposals that eliminate meat, and eliminate traditional agriculture entirely.  There is another direction in which we could proceed, that would be to eliminate food—or at least food as we know it.

Lizzie Widdicombe has produced an article in The New Yorker titled The End of Food.  She describes the activities of a young entrepreneur named Rob Rhinehart who one day concluded that food was a terribly inefficient way of acquiring nutrients.

“Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. ‘The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it’.”

Rhinehart has been living on what he whimsically named Soylent for a year and believes he could live on it indefinitely.

“Drinking Soylent was saving him time and money: his food costs had dropped from four hundred and seventy dollars a month to fifty. And physically, he wrote, ‘I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone’.”

Just as no two people have exactly the same diets of traditional food, there is no unique formula for a product like Soylent.  Rhinehart has published his formula and apparently has generated a lot of interest in people who want to experiment with their own formulas to produce a product more suitable to their tastes.  Those attracted to the product apparently like to save the time now consumed by meals for other purposes.  They also like the guarantee that what they do consume is nutritionally balanced.  Widdicome provided an entertaining encounter with some students who were Soylent devotees at Caltech.

Rhinehart’s product may become a commercial success, but he may have even a bigger plan: to eliminate traditional farming entirely.

“During the next two months, Soylent plans to ship its product to all of its twenty-five thousand initial backers. The company has ten thousand dollars in new orders coming in every day, and has started to become profitable. U.S. military and space programs have asked to run trials on Soylent. Rhinehart’s real goal, however, is more ambitious: the company has been testing an omega-3 oil that comes from algae instead of from fish oil. Eventually, Rhinehart hopes, he will figure out how to source all of Soylent’s ingredients that way—carbohydrates, protein, lipids.  ‘Then we won’t need farms’ to make Soylent, he said.”

Liquid concoctions that provide necessary nutrients are not new.  They are usually consumed for health reasons and are often combined with some quantity of traditional foods.  Others entrepreneurs are focusing not so much on replacing traditional food as on providing a product that is healthier than natural foods and perhaps tuned to an individual’s body chemistry.

One problem with all of these possibilities is that we cannot possibly know what the long-term effects might be.  Soylent-like approaches eliminate many things that we normally ingest with our food.  What if the “35 nutrients required for survival” are really 36?  And surviving and thriving are not necessarily the same things.  Even the “clean room conditions” in the vertical farms might prove dangerous.  We evolved in an environment laden with bacteria, viruses, and parasites.  Some of those we normally encounter in farmed food might prove valuable.  It will take a long time before any subtle effects become known.

Political and cultural inertia will be difficult to overcome if we are going to reinvent agriculture.  We messed with agriculture once when we encouraged the conversion of corn to gasoline.  That soon became a dumb idea, but now we are stuck with it.  There is a money-making industry out there that fights to maintain itself and we seem to be powerless to counter it.  How many stake holders would be hurt in the conversion to a system of vertical farms is difficult to even guess.  We would be living in interesting times.

In any event, it is encouraging to realize that there are options out there.  Let the times be interesting!

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