When you think of “future food”, what comes to mind? Most information I've seen on the subject talks about lab grown “meat”, eating bugs, 3D printed foods and other synthetic options. It's all about mass production and convenience. I think these ideas are missing some important pieces of the picture, and I'd like to offer an alternative food future.
Some friends and I had a conversation about the future of food recently, and it got me thinking. Our conversation started with a discussion of lab grown “meat”, which just got another investment from an industrial farming company. I'm not a lab meat hater. It's a little creepy and incredibly resource intensive, but less nasty than some things they're growing in labs.
The thing is, what these lab food people don't understand is that in a healthy ecosystem, we are part of that ecosystem. Right now, the focus is simply on creating product to meet demand. People being isolated from the reality of food production is a big part of why it's as screwed up as it is. We need to connect people to their food again.
How do we do that, and feed the world? Everything is so interconnected that there is no easy fix. That said, if we keep doing what we've been doing, things aren't likely to get better. We're already seeing weeds and insects becoming resistant to herbicides and pesticides. Deforestation and lack of clean water are critical problems. Too many people are hungry, too many people are fat. It's time for a different approach. Let's start with a little background information.
Feeding the World
Right now, there are over 7 billion people in the word. By 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates there will be nearly 10 billion people. Most of that population growth is expected to happen in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where resources are already stretched. By 2025, two out of every three people are expected to live in the city.
As of 2017, about 800 million people are chronically hungry. 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time we have people starving, obesity in increasing worldwide. Around the world, roughly one third of food grown is not eaten. It's wasted, lost, tossed for not meeting cosmetic standards – getting food from field to table is a challenge. Producers may be forced to sell low because they can't store product, and then buy high when they need it out of season.
Weather extremes don't help the mix. We've been blessed with an unusually stable stretch of weather for decades, but lately things are a little more active. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires – it's tough to produce a crop when you're fighting just to survive.
The global challenges facing food and agriculture identified in the UN Future of Food and Agriculture analysis include:
Challenges to Food Stability and Availability
- Sustainably improve agricultural productivity to meet increasing demand.
- Ensure a sustainable natural resource base.
- Address climate change and intensification of natural hazards.
- Prevent transboundary pests and diseases.
Challenges to Food Access and Utilization
- Eradicate extreme poverty and reduce inequality.
- End hunger and all forms of malnutrition
- Improve income-earning opportunities in rural areas and address the root causes of migration.
- Build resilience to protracted crises, disasters and conflicts.
- Make food systems more efficient, inclusive and resilient.
- Meet the needs for coherent and effective national and international governance.
Future Food – Urban Agriculture
From an biodiversity/security standpoint, distributed small polyculture production is much less prone to be wiped out by any one event (like the Irish potato famine). We need not one solution, but many. Since urban areas continue to grow, to keep food local, some food must grow in urban areas. Keep your food production close to your population and you reduce or eliminate transportation costs. In developing countries, food storage is an important issue. Creating low input options for food preservation, such as solar dehydrators, would greatly expand food availability.
High rise aquaponic and aeroponic gardens and farms are starting to make an appearance in urban areas. Food grows vertically instead of horizontally. In most cases, vertical farms are completely indoors, with all light, water and nutrients provided artificially. Improvements in computer monitoring and robotics allow much of the work of tending these gardens to be done automatically. LED lighting is also making vertical farms more cost efficient to operate.
Greens are the easiest plants to grow because of modest light and space requirements. Pests and disease problems are limited due to the isolation of the plants. The initial cost of vertical farms is high, but lower labor costs and shipping costs help balance those costs. Since the environment is strictly controlled, climate changes have little influence – unless the power goes out.
Aquaponics is a hybrid of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (raising plants in nutrient rich water instead of soil). The fish poop feeds the plants, the plants clean the water for the fish. Instead of one crop, growers get two. Aquaponic growing ranges from small home units to large commercial operations. Sometimes plants are grown inside with the use of grow lights, sometimes they're grown outside or in greenhouses.
One champion of aquaponics was Will Allen, and his organization, Growing Power. Will promoted urban agriculture and aquaponics for over two decades, earning worldwide recognition. Unfortunately, Growing Power demonstrated the “why” better than the “how”. Overextended and out of money, the organization closed its doors in late 2017. It's a good reminder that it takes more than good intentions to succeed.
Successful food production models must also be sound business models. Small food producers need to control costs and avoid the temptation of attempting to do more than they can do well. Lean manufacturing principles can also be applied to farm production. See “The Lean Farm” for additional information.
Community Growing Spaces
Schools, retirement homes, rehabilitation centers and youth centers are all prime areas to develop multi-use food growing areas. Volunteers from the organization can be teamed with paid growers/managers who establish work protocols and production goals.
In addition to the fresh food produced for the facility, gardening provides work skills and therapeutic value, and also strengthens the community. Gardening has been successfully used for rehabilitation therapy as well as being an integral part of school curriculum. Gardening has a number of proven health benefits. (See “Dirt Therapy” for more information.)
High End “Garden to Order”
Right now, many high end developments include amenities such as private exercise areas or pools – but what about private produce? As public awareness grows about problems with the food supply, I believe a niche market will develop to cater to high end consumers. Residents would have the option to work in the garden or simply place their orders for fresh produce.
The same smart stocking expert systems that now track your refrigerator contents and make shopping suggestions could pair with other expert systems. Running low on fresh salad greens? Smart stocking let's you place your order with the groundskeeper, and your order is ready for pick up as you get home from work. Need meat or seafood to compliment what's grown on site? Put in your request and smart stocking scans available vendors in the system and places your order.
This same concept may also be expanded to include online ordering options. With amazon.com and other online retailers pushing into the grocery space, there may be a space for premium options. Sure, some items can hang around in a warehouse for weeks, but truly fresh produce is best within days or even hours.
Personal Urban and Suburban Gardens, Small and Large
Not everyone has a green thumb, but almost everyone could grow something. With self-watering containers and LED grow lights, micro-gardens are easier than ever.
A single tomato plant can produce 20 to 50 pounds of tomatoes or 1600+ calories. If only o.5% of the population of the United States grew a single healthy container tomato plant, that's over 2 billion calories of food. Container plantings are especially well suited for salad greens and fresh herbs. With a growing interest in small space gardening, seed companies have developed varieties specifically suited to container culture. Some good veggies for containers include:
- Lettuce and other salad greens
- Small carrots
- Bush beans
- Peppers – Hot and Sweet
- Bush Squash
In the U. S., lawns cover 40 million acres. These lawns are mowed, trimmed and fertilized – to produce nothing but uniform green space. If we shifted even a small portion of these lawns into food crops – enough to provide 1 million calories per acre – that output would be roughly equal to the total calories produced by all wheat and potatoes grown in the country. (For comparison, an acre of wheat yields roughly 5 million calories per acre. An acre of potatoes yields roughly 15,000,000 calories per acre. So 1/15th of an acre of potatoes per acre would meet that mark. You could have your green space and your food.)
Community gardens make open public spaces available for growing gardens. Typically anchored by a strong core of volunteers, they provide extra growing space for those in urban areas. Plots are commonly rented for a nominal fee each season. The garden may also provide some tools and/or basic infrastructure such as raised beds.
Future Food – Rural Agriculture
Smallholders Instead of Megafarms
We had more than 6 million farms in the U.S. at the end of WWII. Now we have less than 2 million. Despite the push for every larger farms, numerous studies indicate that the productivity per acre of smaller farms is higher than that of larger farms. Small, diversified farmers typically grow many different crops on the same piece of land. This means more calories of total production. They also utilize crop waste as animal food, and animal waste as crop fertilizer, closing the resource loop.
Farm subsidies in the U. S. and Europe allow farmers to produce agriculture commodities at a loss. These commodities are then dumped in foreign markets, undercutting local production. The World Bank and IMF have made the problem worse, supporting projects that boost exports while driving subsistence farmers off the land. Increased bio-fuel production has exacerbated the issue, destroying rainforests that could be preserved for both wildlife and food crops.
Another benefit of small farms is the preservation of genetic diversity. A megafarm must grow standardized crop varieties that are well suited to mechanized production to maximize profits. Because small farms often still rely on hand labor, they can grow crops not well suited for mechanized agriculture, including crops that mature over a range of time. Generational farming (where a farm is passed down through generations) often provides the opportunity to develop landraces specifically adapted to a particular area. These landraces (locally adapted crop varieties) may have unique disease resistance, cold tolerance, bloom times or other adaptations. Small, diverse, seed saving farms act as living seed banks.
Permaculture and Perennial Agriculture
The term “permaculture” comes from a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture” or “culture”. Permaculture design elements include human care, earth care and return of abundance or surplus. Planting is typically done in polycultures, or mixed groups of plants. These plantings go together in guilds, where different plants fill different niches in the ecosystem. There are varying heights – groundcover to tall trees – and varying functions – food, soil enrichment, pest control, etc.
Annual crops have a place in permaculture, but the bulk of plantings focus on perennial crops. Perennial crops help prevent soil erosion, which is a huge problem with our current agricultural system. Permaculture also shapes the land with swales, keyline plowing and other features to help trap and collect rainwater. This can transform dessert into an thriving oasis, or recharge depleted aquifers. With clean water being such an endangered and essential resource, improved water management is critical.
Perennial crops also tend to weather climate changes better. We've been blessed with an unusually long period of relatively stable weather, but all good things must come to an end. Perennial crops get a jump start on the season compared to annual crops. They're already in the ground and growing while the annuals are still waiting to be planted. With heavy rains and even flooding, a properly designed perennial planting will be well anchored and divert excess water efficiently around the landscape. It may set a crop back, but is unlikely to destroy it completely. In dry conditions, trees can create their own microclimate through transpiration. Smaller plants take shelter under larger trees, creating a whole new protected ecosystem, pulling moisture from below ground to create an oasis. A permaculture polyculture is more productive and more resilient.
Future Food – Changing Eating Habits
There are over 300,000 edible plant species. Of these, just 15 crops provide 90% of the world's food energy intake. Rice, wheat and maize (corn) account for two-thirds of that 90%. This is a recipe for disaster. If some disease or insect wipes out one of these crops, people will starve.
Our limited diets contribute to another problem – micronutrient deficiency. The FAO estimates show just over half the world's calories come from cereal crops. These crops are often lacking in micronutrients. With a more biodiverse food supply, we could address that problem. Many traditional diets have been displaced by modern convenience foods, including cereal grains. We need to relocalize food supplies and get back to traditional foods.
There's a lot of disagreement about the healthiest diet options – vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore. From a carrying capacity standpoint, vegetarian and omnivore diets that include animal products from land unsuited to standard cultivation are the most sustainable. In a perennial permaculture system, both meat and plant products can be harvested from what would typically only be used as grazing land in conventional agriculture. This further expands the carrying capacity of the land.
Ocean farming and fisheries, properly managed, can also contribute huge volumes of protein and other nutrients to the food supply.
What You Need to Do
Even if it's only a pot of herbs or greens in a window, if everyone grew something, it would make a huge difference in the food supply. A single tomato plant can produce 20 to 50 pounds of tomatoes or 1600+ calories. If only 0.5% of the population grew container tomatoes, that's over 2 billion calories of food.
Encourage community growing spaces
Whether they're in schools or other institutions, or standalone gardens, community gardens build connections between people and from people to their food. People who are good caretakers of their herds and crops appreciate the food on their plates at a whole different level. We need to reconnect people and their food.
Petition lawmakers to allow food growing to replace grass
Many urban and suburban residents have had their gardens ripped out due to local zoning laws. This has to stop. Edible landscaping can be beautiful as well as functional. Public park space could also include space for edibles.
Support Local Growers and a Fair Price for Farmers
If you can, buy direct from growers and pay a fair price. The push for cheap food is destroying small farmers. my friend, Scott Terry from North Country Farmer, shared this in an online group the other day (early Feb 2018):
“In case you haven’t heard, the dairy industry is blood bath right now. There has never been a more depressing time in rural American dairy country than right now. To add insult to injury, Agri-Mark sent out milk checks this week to their farmers without a letter explaining the reason for the even lower price they got They did include a paper with a suicide prevention hotline number in the envelope . Farmers are a little pissed.”
Sam Crandall of Northern Marsh Farms replied:
“Yep, everything farm related is down…unless you're subsidized. Judging by the price of feed I'm guessin' corn is doin' flippin' great. I've had more people trying to buy my pigs/pork for $0.30-$0.50/lb. I'll let my pigs die of old age before I sell that low.”
I know budgets are tight and it's not always easy to make a connection with a grower, but if you can, do it. CSAs and bulk purchases can often make fresh food more affordable for you while still paying farmers a living wage. Be careful at farmers markets. Sometimes you're supporting local growers, sometimes not. Amber shares more on this in her article “The Truth About Farmers Markets- And The Lies Behind The Produce“.
Eat a Variety of Foods
Expand your food choices. As mentioned above, there are thousands of edible plants, but we get most of our calories from just a few. Make it a point to try something new each week. Eat less grain and more vegetables to boost your micronutrient intake. Try different cuts of meat, especially meat on the bone and offal. Make bone broth and schmaltz. Add fermented foods such as homemade kraut to improve digestion and nutrition.
Learn about foraging and edible wild plants. Many of those weeds that pop up in your garden rival high priced imported superfoods for nutrition. You can begin learning about wild edibles in the Weekly Weeder series on the Herbs and Wildcrafting page.
Join Us in Growing the Future
There's a lot more information I could share, but this article is already crazy long for a blog post. If you've stuck with me all the way to end, thanks. If you'd like to do even more, please share the post and help get the word out.
I'm also starting a newsletter specifically dedicated to gardening, in preparation for the launch of our food growing courses in early 2019. With your subscription, you'll get free access to the Common Sense Home Garden Planning Kit, which includes:
- Seed purchase log
- Planting and Germination record
- Seed Starting and Transplanting Calender
- Customizable seed sowing schedule
- Seed longevity chart
- Seed germination rates after storage
- Plant spacing chart
You'll also get regular updates throughout the year with gardening tips, and the opportunity to share your ideas for the gardening courses. I want to make sure these courses meet the needs of our readers. This is different than your regular CSH subscription, but you are welcome (and encouraged) to sign up for both. (You can sign up for the main list here.)
- M. Ahearn, J. Yee, and W. Huffman (2002). “The Effect of Contracting and Consolidation on Farm Productivity,”
- V. Uzun (2005). “Large and Small Business in Russian Agriculture: Adaptation to Market,”
- Z. Lerman, R. Sutton (2006) Productivity and Efficiency of Small and Large Farms in Moldova
- Destroying African Agriculture – The World Bank and the IMF are the real culprits behind the current food crisis
- Small Farms Are More Efficient & Sustainable – Organic Consumers Association
- The Cost of the Biofuel Boom: Destroying Indonesia’s Forests
- Staple Foods – What do people eat? – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios