Future of Food

The Future of Food

Almost at the end, then my readers can stop getting annoyed at my incessant posting as I go back to my bi-weekly or monthly schedule. (Even I’m looking forward to that.) This is sub-chapter #18, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


Food security is a very big deal these days, with many countries, most publicly the UN, trying to fix it to ensure future food security. Even my dad and girlfriend are helping, working at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to projections by the UN, by 2050, there will be at least nine billion people on this planet. Water demand will increase by 70-90% with current crop technologies. Agriculture, as it stands today, accounts for thirty-percent of human green house gases (more than the transportation, electricity, and manufacturing sectors, making it the single-largest contributor, as well as accounting for 70% of sustainable water use).

Each of these statistics is scary in and of themselves, and taken together, paint a bleak picture of the future of food and by extension, humanity. As a result, many countries around the world are actively implementing more of the same policies to ensure they get their slice of the pie, instead of embracing smarter technologies so that everybody gets a slice of the pie. (Did we need more evidence government is ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the 21st century?)

The Chinese, the Saudi’s, the Egyptian’s, and the Emirati’s, among others are buying up farmland in different areas of the world to supply food to their own populations. It almost sounds like they are trying to placate their people for fear of social unrest—undoubtedly the biggest motivator in revolutions past, and those ongoing in 2012 and 2013.

So where is all this extra food going to come from to feed these two billion extra hungry mouths, let alone the billion hungry people we have today?

It’s not like you can just grow food anywhere; you need certain types of soil, climate, sun-exposure, fresh-water, fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, plows, farm hands, trucks, and last of all, seeds. And those are only the vegetables. Animal-meat requires far more in resources: 15 oz of meat on average requires 100 oz of vegetable protein. None of that is easy.

Running any farm is a lot of work. Then there is the added factor that food today travels an inordinate distance before reaching its destination. Every one of the above factors is linked to the price of oil; from the petrochemicals in the fertilizer to the diesel that runs the tractors and trucks, to the delivery of goods to factories, to the packaging of those foods and re-delivery to distributors and then to supermarkets. Food is going to get very expensive the further we move away from peak oil, unless things are drastically changed. Thankfully, this is beginning to happen.

It is not a reasonable course of action to simply rely on big corporations and governments to solve the problem of these essential services. Especially as they mismanage our remaining resources and politically misprioritize urgent national agendas—well, from our perspectives, at least (climate-change has been on the agenda since 1992 with little—some may say, if any—progress since then).

On governments, people who usually don’t have a clue how things work have a funny habit of running for office in the latter stages of democracy, and people who want to use that ignorance to further a private agenda tend to surround them like leeches. Governments are also wasteful and prone to unending expansion, as Mother History tells us. As such, conscripting government is usually a dead-end, at least until after results are demonstrable by the private sector, where they’ll swoop in and claim some of the credit. This makes it easier to justify spending. It’s very similar to a tragedy that cost lives spurring legislation to be voted on. Before the tragedy; no politician cared. After the tragedy, they had to show they cared.

On corporations, let us not believe the over-generalized meme that all corporations are evil. The truth is more likely that some might be evil, others are good, and most are benign. However, individual corporate philosophies tend to favor maximizing profits in an ever-competitive and increasingly economically troubled world, and this does not bode well from a qualitative perspective with what we will want to put into our bodies. You are what you eat, and this author doesn’t want to be cheap genetically modified anything (without the relevant long-term scientific studies attesting to its safety), unless superpowers come with it. However, I make that statement with a caveat. Most people don’t realize that most food, even organic, is genetically modified. To be more exact, the process of natural selection by random mutation (evolution), has been co-oped by humans for ten-thousands years. We’ve been effectively breeding what we want into the plants, and leaving out undesirable traits. Genetic Engineering is merely the same process done on a condensed timescale. With our selective breeding, some of the plants we routinely eat would not have survived in the natural world; such as corn, which without us, would have gone extinct, though I hear of no anti-GMO activist pushing to let natural selection run its course for corn. In the beginning of the 20th century, mutation-induced radiation was all the rage (and still is), beginning in 1920 by Dr. Lewis Stadler at the University of Missouri and continuing still to this day in dozens of countries around the world. And thanks to this process, we now get to enjoy new varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, cassava, and sorghum. In the words of William J. Broad of the NYTimes, “The mutations can improve yield, quality, taste, size and resistance to disease and can help plants adapt to diverse climates and conditions.” Radiation breeding co-opts natural selection and accelerates it (not adding or removing anything that nature wouldn’t add or remove herself), and has saved hundreds of crops around the world from disease, potential extinction, and thus people from famine. GMO however, involves silencing genes (nature often does no different), or inserting foreign genes, which is what scares everyone. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with the process, it is how it is used. Technology has always been a double-edged sword; it can be used for good or bad. But since it exists and is not going away, we must endeavor to push the corporations using it to focus it on the good side, not merely to ban it. This chapter may at times seem anti-GMO, though I have endeavored for it not to, but that is just selection bias—I talk more about the bad GMO’s than the good ones.

Cost-cutting of corporations is the biggest issue we have from a nutritional standpoint, with the plethora of unhealthy foods so prevalent in the western world and working their way into the developing world, causing obesity and diabetic health problems that ‘encourage’ economic expansion in the form of insurance and medical expenses—hardly frontier pushing. It is rather disturbing that eighty-percent of the 600,000 items in the US food supply are laced with added sugar. (I can’t help but feel that most anti-GMO activism is rooted in the false equivalence of cheap, unhealthy food with GM food. Indeed, you can engineer unhealthy garbage, loosely refer to it as food, and sell it, though that in no way, makes the case that all GM food will likewise fit under such an umbrella.)

In the end, a corporation’s goal is to reduce the cost of production, in the process undercutting competition. In food production, the methods used to achieve such aims (so far and in the majority) are deleterious on all save the short-term economic viewpoint our capitalism has seemingly devolved into.

On the production of meat: animals are kept rounded up in factory-farms their whole lives, never see the sun, are injected with antibiotics, often live in their own feces, and are pumped full of steroids and growth hormones. All while eating an unnatural diet that makes them fat and sick instead of strong and healthy. While these methods are detestable, it’s all part of cutting costs and providing to the consumer a cost-effective product. It’s up to the consumers to vote with their wallets. As far as the corporation can tell, their product is selling. And so far, it seems, people either don’t know yet,  are ok with it, or are unable to afford better-quality food. Not to mention that the practice of giving animals antibiotics (as well as human abuse of antibiotics) is causing normal bacteria to evolve into antibiotic resistant super-bacteria. In the next decade or so, if we are lucky, our current crop of antibiotics will cease being effective worldwide. (That is almost the only reason needed to overturn the meat industry: worldwide pandemic? No thank you!)

On the plant side, it’s much more cost-effective to plant a lot of one variety of plant than a multitude of different varieties as the industrial process can be streamlined to fit one crop type. As we produce more and more food, and as the farming business becomes ever more dominated by big agriculture (Big Ag), crop diversity is decreasing. And as we increase usage of arable land due to geographic reorganization, companies like Monsanto are genetically engineering plants to increase yield and resistance to insects to stave off naturally declining yields, which are only adding to the problem (think of the soil as a drug addict: petrochemical fertilizers are added to increase yields, but more has to be added every year as the soil becomes even more dependent on the fertilizer, as improper crop rotation is not allowing the soil to replenish itself naturally, and ever more amounts of fertilizer are needed). In India, 200,000 farmers have taken their own lives since 1997 because of the debt they have to take on to afford these seeds and fertilizers, and unable to pay back their debts, they end their own lives instead.

Decreasing crop diversity is dangerous in so many ways, as it is inherent in nature for a reason; everything in this world is susceptible to something else. The less variety there is within a particular species, the more likely its extinction is. There are billions of different types of fungus, bacteria, and insects that eat, affect, or infect different types of plants; some plants are resistant to some but not all. The danger in reducing our crop diversity is that it increases the chances that a singular cause can wipe out a huge proportion of our food supply, and mass famine would ensue.

Small farmers, such as the Indian farmers, contribute to this important crop diversity by virtue of being decentralized relative to each other and they are being driven out of business due to the economies of scale that work in favor of Big Ag. And Monsanto isn’t helping by not allowing farmers to re-use their seeds, eating into their already razor-thin profit margins, thereby increasing the dominance of the handful of companies that can afford them and the Roundup pesticide that only Monsanto sells, which only works with their seeds.

These few companies will—and basically pretty much already do—control our food supply with present processes and methodologies, and have little incentive to update their processes for as long as it is profitable.

A few examples of cost-cutting strategies used today:

  • Honey is cheap, ultra-filtered, and pollen-less to mask its origins. Pollen-less honey is not considered honey by the FDA (hint: shady companies in China)
  • Plumping chicken-meat with saltwater solution to increase the weight and therefore price (average weight increase is thirty-percent)
  • Meat scraps which would otherwise be thrown away are being glued together and sold as prime meat (yes, glued. Though the glue is not the problem, but the leftover scraps being misrepresented)
  • Farmed salmon are artificially dyed to make them pink, making it appear to be wild salmon that is considered healthier
  • Majority (75%) of the world’s olive oil is diluted with sunflower oil. Real olives only making up between 10-30% of the product

It’s all a bit depressing, but this chapter is titled, Future of Food, so let’s move on to the optimistic side for the positive news.

There are three new and exciting technologies and methodologies that will allow us to feed everyone with healthier, cheaper food while having a drastically smaller environmental footprint, perhaps even a surplus of food, which would alleviate the motherly induced guilt of having leftover food on the plate when there are starving kids somewhere else. In time, it might even lead to the demise of the multinational conglomerates of the food industry if implemented correctly, as food production would (or should) naturally move into the local arena. All of the following three solutions to be discussed are parts of what is called Vertical Farming (farming upwards in skyscrapers as opposed to outwards in land).

First up, the low-tech solution: aquaponics. It is, at its simplest, merely two pools of water, one with small fish in it and the other with floating pods in little pods, with plants growing out of them. The water circulates through the two pools in a circle-of-life manner. It can be in a spare bedroom, outside in a greenhouse, or on acres of space outside. It can be as small or as big as you like.

The fish poop in the water, and that water is routed to the plants, where the plants use the poop as fertilizer, cleaning the water to be circulated around back to the fish. In this manner, the fish aren’t poisoned by their own feces and have clean water to live in, and the plants receive free fertilizer, filtering the water, and grow.

Water is only added to compensate for what the plants themselves use, or the small amount of evaporation that happens. Aside from this, it is essentially self-maintaining and uses very few resources. It also becomes in time, an organic environment that supports itself, much as a lake does, creating a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other life forms that support the healthy development of both plant and fish.

An aquaponics system uses about five-percent of the water that in-ground farming uses for the same output, has 90% less land requirements, uses electricity instead of diesel fuel (so it can be coupled with renewable energy if need be), eliminates waste, and even with the right kind of fish, can eradicate mosquitoes in a large surrounding area if its usage is widespread. All the while growing dozens of different types of fruit and vegetables from bananas to lettuce to tomatoes and many more.

Aquaponics is a cheap, economical, sustainable method of food production that anyone can learn and set up, either in a spare bedroom, backyard, skyscraper, or on a farm. No stage of production is utterly reliant on oil or fossil fuels unless that’s where your electricity comes from, and this can be just as easily converted to run using renewable energy sources. On top of aquaponics, there is also aeroponics (pioneered by NASA). Instead of plant pods floating on water and sucking up the nutrients expelled by the fish, a watery mist is used to deliver nutrients to the plants in an indoor environment that has the same benefits of aquaponics, using UV lights for the plants to perform photosynthesis. They are similar processes, though aeroponics requires more high-tech equipment than does aquaponics.

The second solution is a little on the high-tech side. In the Netherlands, a company called Plantlab has created an entire underground farm lit up by blue and red LED lights specifically tailored to each plant, such that it instigates the fastest growth possible.

It turns out that plant cells are more effective at converting certain wavelengths of light (in combination with carbon dioxide and water) to energy than others. The underground setup of this Dutch company is designed to maximize those wavelengths of light tailored specifically to each plant, providing the perfect conditions in every respect in order to get us the food we need faster, with less energy, no pesticides, reduced fertilizers, no tractors, no plows, or pollution, ninety-percent less water, and a fraction of the required labor. They also use plant science, mathematical models, and carbon dioxide models to regulate the fresh weight, dry matter, and developmental speed of their plants. They also use automation to control the climate so it stays perfect, and record thousands of data points for each growing cycle to distill and capture the most efficient patterns of growing. Pretty much a farm on steroids, using Big Data to create ever more efficient models of plant growth, nutrient feed, and food quality.

It looks like the effervescent fauna from Pandora in the movie Avatar, with fluorescent vegetables, herbs, and fruits abounding.

Above-ground farming is dependent on nature, and is surprisingly inefficient; from the water runoff, soil depletion, inability to grow at night, vast land requirements (forty-percent of the world’s land surface), geographical reorganization (contributing to desertification and droughts), and the oil-dependent machinery to plow, seed, and harvest the food. Then natural photosynthesis converts approximately nine-percent of the available light into energy, while Plantlab is able to currently convert approximately twelve to fifteen-percent, with a goal of eighteen-percent—doubling the yield, using a tenth of the land requirements and water, and no negative environmental impacts. Amazing!

Lastly (and luckily scientists didn’t forget about us meat-lovers), current research is pointing towards the inevitability of In-Vitro Meat (IVM) to accommodate those who will never, or can’t ever, give up their meat.

First, let’s look at the price we pay for meat today. The full price, not just the supermarket price, which doesn’t account for externalized costs such as CO2, environmental degradation, and so on:

  • Worldwide meat consumption was approximately 326,200,000,000kg of meat in 2011, and increasing every year, expected to double by 2050
  • Each kilogram of meat (2.2 pounds) requires 6.6 kilograms (14.5 pounds) of plant protein
  • Eighty-percent of the worlds antibiotics are used on livestock, and seventy-five percent of those antibiotics are not absorbed by the animals, leading to the evolution of super-bacteria, which will render conventional surgery obsolete in ten-years
  • Factory farms contribute negatively to surrounding environments by creating dead-zones in rivers and oceans (killing millions of fish), and are known to poison fresh-water supplies
  • Worldwide, livestock accounts for eighteen-percent of greenhouse-gases, 40% of methane gas emissions (twenty-five times more potent than CO2), and sixty-five percent of nitrous oxide emissions (three-hundred times more potent than CO2)

There is a growing organic movement in the West to move towards more sustainable practices. With meat, that entails switching to pasture-raised animals that have been fed real food (by real, food that they are evolutionarily programmed to eat, i.e., grass, not corn or grain) and have been given freedom to wander around in the sun. While this is a step-up for human health, it is not for environmental health. These animals generate more emissions (per animal) than those cooped up in the factory farm hell hole, and require even more land. We currently use forty-percent of the world’s arable land for farming and raising animals for meat consumption. If we switched to pasture-raised animals in the West (where we eat the most amount of meat), that forty-percent would most assuredly increase along with the environmental consequences that go with it.

So let’s start with IVM; first by detailing what it is. It involves growing meat using stem-cells that envelop and grow around a string of animal-tissue (this is what nature does if it sounds gross, using DNA instead of tissue). Scientists take a string of tissue from an animal painlessly (and without killing it), from an area such as the rump or breast or any such desirable area. Simultaneously, they’ll extract the animals own stem-cells, or reverse-engineer stem-cells from other cell-types (a Nobel prize was given out for demonstration of this process in 2012), and put the two together in a scaffolding that binds them. The stem-cells naturally take on the exact genetic properties of the meat, and begin to grow out onto a biodegradable or edible scaffolding, which feeds nutrients into the meat, and stretches and twists it, stimulating muscle development and increasing tissue-strength. The result? A steak, chicken breast, or pork sausage indistinguishable from a cut of meat that came from a living, breathing mammal. And this is where some get a bit confused, it will actually be indistinguishable at a genetic level; it won’t be imitation meat, or fake-meat, but real meat!

Once we get over the fact that IVM is oddly disembodied, we’ll be thankful that it doesn’t shit, burp, fart, eat, over graze, drink, bleed, or scream in pain.” ~ Humanity+

The only way that this process differs from nature, is it’s done without the biological machinery of two parent animals, using human-engineered machinery instead. Otherwise, it is the same process that nature uses. The mother and father animal pass on their DNA via egg and sperm, and nature employs stem cells and nutrients to grow a new animal that’s a genetic variant of the inputted DNA. We’ll take a tissue sample of an animal along with its stem-cells, and create more tissue just like that without artificial chemicals, antibiotics, possible transmission of disease (bye-bye mad cow disease and salmonella), and without the waste and pollution that current practices emit.

In-Vitro Meat Facts:

  • Reduce energy use by 7-45%
  • Reduce greenhouse emissions by 96% (the emissions that remain can be used to generate electricity potentially allowing 100% reduction)
  • Reduce land-use by 99%
  • Reduce freshwater use by 96%
  • Genetic manipulation to speed up life-cycle or ratio of edible meat to weight would be unnecessary
  • No more outbreaks of swine flu, mad cow disease, avid flu, tuberculosis, brucellosis, or any other animal-to-human plagues
  • No more unnecessary suffering for animals and people like. There’ll be no need to kill animals, and the transmission of diseases to humans will essentially cease

Coupled with agricultural vertical-farming, forty-percent of the Earth’s arable land currently utilized for agricultural and livestock purposes, could be returned to nature increasing biodiversity, pollution sequestration, and perhaps put a damper on the sixth great extinction, occurring overwhelmingly due to habitat-loss (a Belgium-sized chunk of the Amazon rainforest is cut down every year to be used as grazing grounds for cows to name one example among many). All that is being done with IVM is the same process and outlook humanity used to invent and propagate agriculture some twelve-thousand years ago. That is, appropriating nature’s laws in such a way as to be conducive to humanity, and which will, unlike with agriculture, reduce our ecological and environmental footprint. Healthier humans. Better off animals (and less disease). Happier planet! Who could object to that?  More pointedly, who’d want object? There will come a time soon when IVM becomes economically competitive with slaughterhouse-steaks, and I’ve a feeling people in the future will look upon us as barbarians for killing our food. Even Winston Churchill saw it coming six-decades ago.

“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” ~ Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister)

Very soon, we will be able to economically grow any type of food locally using climate-controlled, 24/7 underground/indoor farms and save all that energy we currently use shipping exotic foods from one side of the planet to the other, on more productive pursuits.

This food revolution is long overdue. Above-ground farming has a cost, from increasing desertification, to agricultural runoff creating dead zones in our oceans, plus the inordinate amount of energy required from start to finish that drives up the base product that our economies run on: oil.

In late 2012, Singapore unveiled its first Vertical Farm (VF), growing half a ton of vegetables per day, at just 10-20 cents higher than conventionally farmed produce shipped in from overseas, with a goal of two-tonnes of fresh, local chemical-free produce by mid-2013. The VF uses 120 twenty-feet tall rotating cylinders, and is rated at between five to ten times more productive than agricultural farmland per square foot. With just a small-scale implementation, the price differential is astoundingly small. Imagine how cheap it would be on a larger scale, when economies-of-scale takes over?

The traditional farm may very well become a distant memory, as it moves into skyscrapers, people’s homes and into underground basements in various locales around the world in cities providing fresh, chemical-free, cheap, and local organic food all year round without the waste or the environmental degradation that accompanies traditional agriculture. This will simultaneously alleviate the concerns, often unfounded, of anti-GMO activists, of our bodies, of our dear planet Earth, and our wallets.

Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Food”

  1. Great writing. I am still reading the post but there is one bit near the start that is confusing me.

    “In the next decade or so, if we are lucky, our current crop of antibiotics will cease being effective worldwide. (That is almost the only reason needed to overturn the meat industry: worldwide pandemic? No thank you!)”

    By ‘if we are lucky’ you mean that it might happen even sooner, I’m guessing, but I had to do a double take on that line. In the next line I am not sure exactly what is being said. Are you saying that the risk of super-bacteria is reason enough to overturn the meat industry? Or the only reason?

    Hope that helps, if I missed something then please disregard.

    1. Hi Jordan. Thanks for the comment. Yes, that’s exactly what i mean and I’ve edited the chapter now to better reflect that.

      For the next line, i meant it could be the only reason to instigate changes in the meat industry, though of course there are many more. 🙂

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