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Solutions to the Global Food Crisis

Algae could become the world’s biggest cropping industry.

Algae could become the world’s biggest cropping industry.

By Julian Cribb

Julian Cribb continues last month’s review of global food security issues by looking at some of the big-picture solutions that can make the world’s food and energy more secure.

The first task in solving the growing crisis of global food insecurity is to reinvent how we produce food. We need an entirely new agriculture founded on ecosystem thinking, which produces more food while using far less soil, water, energy and other inputs and is resilient to climate shocks.

The invention of this eco-agriculture has already begun among farmers and scientists worldwide, but to occur before dangerous tipping points are reached requires massive re­investment in knowledge, both in discovery and especially dissemination.

Food itself must change. A hot world of 10 billion people will not eat the same foods as a cooler world of 2.5 billion. Yet this future diet will be more diverse, interesting, tasty and healthy. It will kill far fewer consumers than our present diet does. It will contain more vegetables as well as novel and unfamiliar foods.

Driven by the intransigent economics of globalisation, much of this future world diet will come, not from farms, but from factories. And cities themselves will be completely redesigned to recycle their water, nutrients, carbon and energy back into food.i

It is probable that by 2100, less than half the world’s food will be grown on farms. The reason is simply that economic competition between giant supermarket chains and food firms will destroy most farmers and farm-based systems, favouring the production of the cheapest possible food by whatever means. This may not be desirable – but it will happen.

The future farms that remain will blend the very best ideas from modern intensive agriculture with organic and permaculture methods – using systems that are evidence-based and scientifically proven. They will operate at both large and smallholder scales.

They will weave together soil biology, crop science, nutrient recycling, soil, water, energy and carbon conservation with new thinking about sustainability and robotics. They will embody new concepts in landscape-scale management. They will adopt entirely new paradigms like solar farming with salt water in the deserts. Indeed, such solar farms can help defuse food time bombs in the Middle East, Africa, India, Central Asia and western China.

Urban Farming

To avert megacity famines, new food industries will arise in our great cities. Giant vertical farms and forests are already being planned and built in far-sighted cities in Sweden,

The Netherlands, Italy, Canada and the United States.ii They will use hydroponics, aquaponics and similar intensive approaches, as well as smallholder agriculture, to revolutionise urban food production. They will recycle urban organic wastes back into food. They will be largely “climate proof”.

This is a colossal opportunity for new and existing farmers and investors, large and small.

As ocean fish catches dwindle, aquaculture will expand fourfold to become the world’s largest livestock sector by 2050 – in lakes, rivers, along coasts and in the ocean itself. In Australia, for example, aquaculture could be a $5 billion industry by 2050, exceeding all our present livestock industries combined. This is because fish turn plant matter into meat 5–10 times more efficiently than land animals.

Algae Farming

With climate change and soil loss hammering the world’s grainbowls, the necessary animal feed cannot come from grain so a new industry, algae farming, will emerge as the world’s primary source of stockfeed, especially for farmed fish but also other livestock such as dairy cows, poultry, small livestock and insects.

By mid-century algae could be the world’s biggest cropping industry – growing not only food for humans and feed for livestock but also supplying most of the world’s transport fuels and plastics, along with pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals and textiles.

Current oil yields from algae are 150–450 barrels of oil per hectare, making it possible to produce all of the world’s aviation fuel plus its road, rail and marine transport fuels from an area of 57 million hectares – which is smaller than Tasmania.iii

The prime ingredients are sunlight, water and open space. Algae can be grown in salt lakes, on coastal margins, in estuaries, tailings dams, industrial plants and in containers in the ocean. They can thrive in sea water, brackish water, saline groundwater, stormwater and waste water. This industry has the potential to double the value of world agriculture, employing tens of millions of people in new jobs and professions.

Any country with plenty of sunlight and water can participate in green fuel production – and sustain its own food security regardless of what happens to oil. In the case of Australia, we can potentially grow our entire quota of transport fuels from an area no larger than a single big sheep station – 600,000 hectares – generating a new industry worth around $25 billion per year and creating tens of thousands of new jobs.iv

This is the greatest “agricultural” opportunity we have ever had – as well as a major way to reduce carbon emissions.

Biocultures

Novel food industries will also arise from feeding organic waste to biocultures of plant, microbial, fungal, algal and animal cells, turning them into healthy, novel and sustainable foods as well as animal feed. What is today a “medical technology” used to grow tissue for wound repair will be industrialised for large-scale food production.

Biocultural production of food will be driven in part by the remorseless economic pressure by globalised supermarket and food chains as they compete for the cheapest sources of quality protein and carbohydrates. However, it will also mitigate the risk of famine in the megacities, enabling them to produce much of their own food needs locally.

The University of Maastricht in The Netherlands has already created the world’s first synthetic sausage grown from pig stem cells in vitro.v This may prove to be a major new source of cheap meat protein for consumers by the 2020s.

Biocultures use far less land, water, energy, time and other inputs than farming systems. Furthermore they are climate-proof.

New Foods

Today, one affluent consumer in every two dies by their own hand – the one holding the fork – as a result of a diet-related disease. Awareness of the massive healthcare costs of our current diet by government and consumers will drive a global quest for healthy, sustainable diets. This in turn will triple world horticulture.

We have not yet begun to explore Planet Earth in terms of its food and farming potential. There are more than 25,000 edible plants, of which we currently eat only a few hundred.vi Australia has 6100 edible plants the world has never tasted. These will form the basis of new horticultural and urban agricultural industries

The future world diet will be vastly more interesting, nutritious, healthy and diverse than it is at present. We are on the brink of the next great food adventure – one that offers abundant opportunities for novel diets, jobs and industries.

Research

To achieve these new ways of food production and domesticate these new crops, we need to redouble the world’s investment in food science, and to communicate new findings to more than a billion people involved in food production at lightspeed. This is achievable.

When people ask where the required $160 billion is to come from, the simple answer is that 10% of the world’s military spending could easily provide it. By making such an investment we will not only assure global food security – we will also prevent many wars, famines and refugee crises from arising. Food science is defence spending.

Food Year

To sustain the world’s food supply we must reshape the values, attitudes and expectations of eight billion city consumers towards food. If they do not understand the need for healthy, sustainable food, consumers will send the wrong economic signals – and these will destroy the resources and people that produce our food.

I therefore call for one full year – a food year – in every junior school on the planet. A year in which every subject – maths, language, geography, science, society and sport – is taught through the lens of food: how precious it is and how it is produced, where it comes from, how to eat safely, thriftily and healthily, and how to help ensure it never fails.

Teaching food is acceptable to all cultures, races and creeds. Teaching respect for food and how it is produced is equally so. The means already exist to share these ideas universally, and at lightspeed.

Conclusion

The challenge of meeting the world’s future food needs is great, and many perilous tipping points lie ahead. But the opportunities are greater still, and the means exist to mitigate the risks.

We can develop new science-based eco-farming and food production systems, and share the knowledge globally. We can build healthier and more sustainable diets. We can design cities that do not waste. We can teach our children to respect and value food so we can pay our farmers enough to steward the Earth that feeds us.

This is more than an inspiring challenge. It is one on which depend the future prosperity, security, stability, peace and happiness of civilisation.

Endnotes

i Cribb J. (2010). The Coming Famine. University of California Press.

ii See, for example, http://www.verticalfarm.com/

iii http://www.oilgae.com/algae/oil/yield/yield.html; Shirvani T. et al. (2011). Energy and Environmental Science 4, 3773–79 , 2011.

iv Cribb J. (2012). Peak oil and global food security. ACT Peak Oil Assn, ANU, 27 Nov, 2012.

v The need for meat. Maastricht University Webmagazine, 20 June 2012.

vi See French B. http://www.learngrow.org/about-learngrow/history-of-learngrow/

Julian Cribb is a science writer and author of The Coming Famine (University of California Press, 2010). This article is based on a paper presented to the Australian Academy of Science’s 2nd Earth System Outlook Conference.