Tackling the problem of food production

(And can indoor farming help us)

One very potential means of omnicide is losing our ability to adequately feed the humans of the earth which, given an adequate failure, could result in any number of armed conflicts that may even reach nuclear exchange.

To understand the importance of this issue we first have to look a bit at farming. Growing crops requires vast stretches of fertile soil, adequate water via rain or irrigation, adequate exposure to solar radiation and time. 

Soil

Fertile soil is hard to add in quantity to a region but fertile soil that is already present can be maintained (it takes thousands of years to create worthwhile amounts of soil, what we'd need for farming), however, poor management combined with environmental conditions beyond our control, can easily lead to events such as the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. (For those interested on a drought potentially causing this again see the BBC article 21st Century US 'dustbowl' risk assessed)

Water

Where adequate rain is not available for use water must be found in the local environment. This can be from above ground bodies of water such as lakes and rivers which can be channeled into fields via irrigation or by tapping aquifers for groundwater which can and is, leading to groundwater depletion

 https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html

https://water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html

Sun

This is something largely out of our control. The sun will do as the sun pleases. Rampant air pollution could negatively impact the amount of solar radiation reaching plants but the real threats here are supervolcanoes and nuclear winter causing mind-boggling levels of smoke and ash to enter the atmosphere blocking out sunlight for years or decades.

In our food system, we face various issues. Waste, heavy reliance on just-in-time delivery, access to adequate water, access to adequate solar radiation.

Waste

It might be shocking to learn that approximately 1/3 of food is lost to waste globally. This happens all throughout the supply chain and in our homes and businesses. In fields, crops can be lost to fungus/pests/weather damage/damage during harvest/inability to harvest in an adequate time frame. Damage can occur in transit from the fields to processing plants, from plants to warehouses, from warehouses to retail outlets. Then food gets purchased and not consumed, either neglected in your refrigerator (let's be honest, yours needs to be cleaned out doesn't it?) or prepared and discarded. One way to drastically reduce this would be to produce food much closer to the final point of sale, another to be more aware of the issue as consumers and try to eliminate the waste on our end by being more conscientious about our portions and by using as much of a vegetable, fruit or animal as possible (an easy way being stocks and soups). 

Supply chain

Just-in-time delivery isn't just an issue for food, it's an issue for nearly all sectors and goods and is something we absolutely take for granted and should not. It is cheaper for an entity to order a good just before it will be needed than to maintain a warehouse full of goods to draw upon as needed, even when this might mean shipping something from China to Indianapolis by air in 1-3 days.

The problem here is large population centers often have, at best, days of food available for consumption and in fact, the world only has 2-3 months of food reserves. One method to address this is to simply begin maintaining warehouses of shelf-stable food near large population centers. Another is to grow the food considerably closer to the end user to build better flexibility into the supply chain and allow for quicker delivery of goods.

Water

As I addressed above one solution to adequate water is accessing aquifers, however, as illustrated above this is already causing issues in the U.S. and basically everywhere else. Crops require obscene amounts of water, for example, you need an input of roughly 594,000 gallons of water for 1 acre of corn with a yield of around 200 bushels (11,200 pounds of corn). Now obviously this water doesn't cease to exist but you do need to bring it in one way or another, often we largely rely on rainfall but when rain is scarce we tap those aquifers. One way to drastically reduce the amount of water needed is by having a closed system.

Sun

Again, the sun will do what the sun wants but we do have grow lights now (and technically you can use orbital mirrors to reflect more sunlight on a given area as was attempted with the Znamya project). While the sun is the cheapest option grow lights allow many benefits such as controlling the duration and intensity, allowing you to grow indoors or even in space habitats in the future for outposts on the moon or Mars.

An interesting approach and part of a viable solution is to look at growing indoors in largely enclosed systems. 

There are three entities doing this right now that I'd like to use as examples.

Jeff, AKA, The Real Martian

 

Jeff and his wife have constructed a greenhouse on their property and are actively looking at this as a potential solution, Jeff's words say it better than I will:

Over eight years ago now, my wife and I started on a journey to design, build, and operate a sustainable energy and food production capability on our ranch. Since we started we’ve had quite the adventure as we try to develop our aquaponics system to grow plants, our microgreens for revenue generation, our automation equipment to control it all, the solar panels to run the system, and the anaerobic digester to help provide heat and energy. We’ve faced a lot of challenges and this year should be even better than last. Join us as we attempt to complete Hab 1 and accomplish our mission of providing sustainable food and energy to our local community.
— https://www.patreon.com/therealmartian/overview

His YouTube videos document the process of constructing Hab 1 as well as all of the challenges they are facing as they go through the process in a somewhat open-source fashion. His funding comes from his income and his Patreon donors. 

Jeff is relying on both grow lights and natural sunlight to some extent. His energy comes from photovoltaic panels and he also has a digester which he can harvest natural gas from to run a generator on. 

Square Roots, founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs

Square Roots is a company that is doing indoor farming in shipping containers. While I think shipping containers are an ok prototyping platform, and as an easily shippable educational/training environment, I think they are neither cost-effective or scalable for commercial capacity. 

Square Roots does recognize some of the issues this article have, in their own words

Our cities are at the mercy of an industrial food system that ships in high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed food from thousands of miles away.
— https://squarerootsgrow.com/purpose/

 

They appear to be marketing more towards the "let's give people 'healthy' food" and less towards the "let's feed the world" aspect for their business model. I think this is great for raising awareness to indoor farming but largely I don't see it as something that solves a problem. They will, however, be adding experience to the indoor farming movement which is always a plus and I will admit that the amount of press they've generated has likely turned minds towards the idea that otherwise would not have.

Beanstalk Inc, part of the Winter 2018 batch at Y Combinator 

Beanstalk Inc is an indoor farming startup that aims to grow produce at the cost of outdoor farming. They intend to grow food within 100 miles of their customer using zero herbicides, fungicides or pesticides and use automation for as much of the labor as possible. 

This is a company that is truly thinking towards the future. While energy costs still make it hard to compete with the sun for your radiation input, controlling the environment drastically reduces water input and loss prior to harvest. 

Their use of heirloom seeds is also interesting. This should allow for considerably more diversity, likely better taste profiles and allows us to maintain diversity in the event that a widely used commercial line of a given plant finds itself under attack by any number of pests. I think using heirloom seeds, along with genetically modified varieties, in growing is just as important as projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

I'm excited to see what Jack and Michael do over the next few years. 


Closing thoughts

I believe that indoor farming via aquaponics or vertical growing or some combination of both is going to be key to our future as a species. One of the biggest hurdles at the moment is energy. We need photovoltaics to continue to increase in efficiency while their price continues to come down to make this viable at scale until a time that fusion might be a viable means of power (for fusion see Helion Energy, ITER, Tri Alpha Energy etc). Continue to improve LED diodes for use as grow lights should also see this become considerably more viable at scale. Genetic engineering may also provide a means for developing plants that require less input for similar or even higher yields and potentialyl even faster yields.

We also need to be very mindful of our current farming habits and very quickly make some changes both at a farm level for more sustainable practices, throughout the delivery change to minimize as much loss as possible and at a consumer level to only buy what we are going to use to drastically reduce the amount of food that needs to be grown in the first place.