Growing Food For Our Future, Part One

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It’s an ugly but unavoidable truth that the systems producing much of the Earth’s food supply can no longer sustain themselves. Not only does industrial agriculture place an enormous strain on the environment, but ironically, it also destroys the very resources necessary for farming, like soil and water.

The trucks and planes that shuttle produce to urban centers—where 65 percent of the global population lives—leave an ineradicable carbon footprint in their wake. With the planet expected to host an additional 4 billion mouths by 2100, we’ll have to get crafty someday very soon about how we continue to grow our food. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this will mean developing a system that can accommodate a 70 percent increase in food production within the next decade.

But with the pressures of climate change and water scarcity bearing down on the horizon, how can the industry appease a swollen, city-bound population without wreaking further havoc on the planet’s resources?

All over the world—in small labs, on warehouse rooftops, in abandoned back lots—a revolution brews as engineers and plant scientists work side-by-side to create sustainable, technology-driven indoor agriculture initiatives.

These farms of the future grow crops without any soil, in a sensor-networked habitat where every input that affects the plants can be remotely controlled and meticulously refined for 365 days of pristine growth.

By using hydroponic and aeroponic techniques, these farming strategies offer highly scalable solutions to the paradoxically inefficient methods of agriculture that serve the planet today.

A Broken System
At the heart of the $400 billion agriculture industry lies the practice of monoculture, or intensively growing a single crop over a long period of time. Most major “commodity” crops—corn, wheat, and soybeans, for example—are grown in this way. As a method of farming on a large scale, however, monoculture is inherently unsustainable.

When the same plant is repeatedly cultivated on a solitary swath of land, it saps topsoils of certain nutrients, ultimately causing the fields to go fallow. According to the USDA, topsoils are disappearing at a rate 13 percent more rapidly than they can be replaced, with a loss of around 1.73 billion tons every year. This depletion is particularly disconcerting when considering that it takes over 500 years for a single inch of topsoil to replenish itself.

Faced with increasingly infertile lands, farmers must douse their crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to stimulate growth where it can no longer naturally occur. Poor land management strategies allow for runoff from these fertilized soils to leach into groundwaters and to bleed toxic amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into lakes and rivers.

But the industry’s impact on water extends far beyond pollution. The most comprehensive study on global water consumption, conducted in 2012 by the Department of Water Engineering and Management at the Netherlands’ University of Twente, found that agriculture accounts for 92 percent of total freshwater use in the world.

Of that usage, only three countries—China, India, and the United States—were responsible for over 38 percent. While the U.S. is far smaller in terms of population, it surpassed every other country in terms of per capita consumption.

The analysis also concluded that a single dollar’s worth of grain requires an astounding 5,300 liters of water to grow and process. In arid countries where water scarcity asserts itself with the greatest urgency, commodities that require a high level of irrigation must be imported from abroad. Researchers call this flow of water-intensive crops from one country to another “virtual water.” On the whole, exportation causes more pollution and demands more consumption than internally produced goods.

Bound By Oil
To make matters worse, the entire system depends on crude oil, from the manufacture and operation of industrial farming machinery, to the production of fertilizer and pesticides, to the transport and worldwide distribution of produce.

When you eat a banana from Costa Rica, or drink coffee roasted from Kenyan beans, the caloric energy that you consume comes at the cost of ten times as much in fossil fuel energy. This system, which is not only unsustainable but also highly illogical, continues to dominate the nation’s agriculture industry largely because most Americans are unaware of the role that they play within it.

Many of the issues posed by commercial agriculture practices are only perpetuated because of the growing distance between producer and consumer. In America alone, 80 percent of the population lives in cities. Bringing the production process to the consumer would immediately diminish the impact of food distribution on the environment.

“Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just,” said United Nations special rapporteur Olivier de Schutter in a presentation regarding forthcoming agriculture initiatives.

“We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East,” he continued, “and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”

The flaws inherent to conventional agriculture cascade from one tier of the industry to the next, resulting in a mounting food crisis that will have adverse effects for billions of people. The bottom line for our global evolution will be developing scalable solutions that do not destroy the resources they rely on.

Enter, the farms of the future.

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of Growing Food For Our Future, when we meet the pioneers of the high-tech indoor agriculture movement.

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