Before getting to the main point, I just wanted to vent for a moment. When I was looking through articles on food prices, two caught my attention for the same reason – they talked about the predicted price increases, but in discussing causes, they limited themselves to “supply chain problems” and corporate greed. The first article was, unsurprisingly, Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire; I would have been shocked if they mentioned climate change. The second I find a tad more worrisome, and it’s abc15 in Arizona, a “local” news source. The media’s love for ignoring climate change is a well-known phenomenon, but I find it discouraging that even in the most obvious circumstance, with “bad weather” being a known factor in the ongoing rise in prices, it’s not even mentioned. This kind of “reporting”, whether through malice or incompetence, serves to downplay the severity of the crisis we’re in, and to slow any efforts to respond to it.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I want to dig into the issue of food prices and agriculture a bit, as well as what we can be doing to both prepare our food supply for a hotter, more chaotic climate, and to decrease agricultural emissions.
These days, food shortages are a matter of policy. We produce enough food to feed everyone, but that’s not actually the goal of a lot of global food production. Things that humans could be eating, like grains, are used to feed livestock, so that wealthy countries have access to unlimited beef, pork, and chicken. Food that was produced for humans is left to rot because giving it to the hungry either wouldn’t generate profit, or would actually cost money. We create artificial scarcity for profit, and rather than rationing food to make sure everyone gets fed, we ration it to make sure those with money can buy as much as they want – by increasing prices. This is further complicated by the nature of our “just-in-time” production and distribution system, which is designed to maximize profits by removing the costs of buying more than a business needs, and of storing the excess. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this problem, as there was a sudden spike in demand for certain goods, in a system that has no slack. Further, the same profit motive has always resulted in mistreatment of those people – like truck drivers – which means that they are also stretched to their limits. For all the pandemic and the Suez Canal incident put the supply chain in the spotlight, the relentless greed of the aristocracy was already starting to cause problems well before that.
As with so much else, there is a great deal that needs to change if we want a better future; with climate change already affecting global agriculture, and still on track to collapse the world’s fisheries by 2050, the time to make those changes is now. When I wrote about this before, I focused on factory-style production of high-protein algal and bacterial foods. I still think they’re something we should invest in right away (along with things like lab-grown meat), both because of the potential to provide a great deal of food, and because it’s a relatively new technology. There are going to be challenges in scaling it up, and would be better to run into unforeseen problems before large portions of the population are dependent on this stuff for survival. That said, I’m generally of the opinion that we would be wise to invest in a diverse array of food sources, both to distribute food production closer to where it’s consumed, and to reduce the chance of something disrupting the whole world’s supply. That’s why I like the community greenhouse solution that Aron Kowalski describes in the discussion below. The whole thing is worth your time, but I’m specifically talking about the bit starting around 29 minutes in:
Having collectively owned greenhouse farms for both food and recreation sounds like a brilliant idea to me. Even if you’re in an area without cold winters, climate-controlled green spaces like that can be a wonderful break from the world. It also makes me think of the Vietnamese arrangement that lets people who’re willing to do the work have space in a collectively owned rice field, to grow their own rice:
Just a reminder: this "evil communist authoritarian" government of Vietnam gave me a piece of rice field FOR FREE since I was born in rural area 😎
Me with my 500m2 rice field: pic.twitter.com/cWL39dhYdN
— Luna Oi! 👁 USA and UK Watcher 👁 (@LunaOi_VN) November 9, 2021
Even better, I’m willing to bet it would be possible to build indoor rice paddies pretty much anywhere in the world, even when the climate won’t allow them outdoors. The amount of food you can get that way never ceases to amaze me. I think it’s also worth noting that even with existing indoor farm models, there are models that combine vegetable farming with fish farming:
A sprawling new building that will soon be constructed in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania—at 250,000 square feet, roughly the size of two entire city blocks in Manhattan—will be the largest vertical farm in the world when it’s completed in 2023. Inside, though, you won’t find just vegetables: Tanks full of fish will sit near vertical stacks of trays filled with certified organic microgreens.
In the vertical farming industry, which is raising billions from investors, many startups grow greens like spinach or bok choy inside carefully-managed indoor spaces, and then selling the fresh produce to local consumers. But Brooklyn-based company Upward Farms is unusual in its use of fish, a version of a centuries-old practice called aquaponics. While others use synthetic fertilizer in their growing systems, the company uses fish waste that it filters out of tanks to provide nutrients to its plants. Both the fish and greens are then sold for food.
There’s a near-infinite array of ways to use communal greenhouse space, especially if the greenhouses are viewed as an integral part of the communities that work them. It can range from the methods currently being explored by for-profit enterprises, to dedicated food production zones like the aforementioned rice paddies, to space for people to experiment with new crops or techniques. Additions or changes could be made with community approval, to better serve the wants or needs of that particular community, and to accommodate those interested in making food production their primary occupation. What’s important is that it’s done by and for the people, and that we change how things work to both allow and encourage people to take a little time to grow food.
As Kowalski said in the video at the top, it would be a good idea, on an individual level, to plant a garden if you have the ability, but remember that this is very much like the broader climate crisis – we need systemic change, and a revolutionary shift in societal priorities. We can have a society that clings to its greed as it withers away, or we can have one with indoor food forests with fish ponds, walking paths, and food carts, all next door to mostly-automated vertical farms that produce a majority of the food for the nearby population. I don’t think this would necessarily be “economical” as it’s reckoned today, but it would yield far richer rewards than any future the status quo can offer. Since we have to reshape society anyway, why not aim high?
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Brian Drayton says
A nice collection of interesting experiments.
One additional benefit that you allude to, but I think merits underlining, is the role that communal gardens of any kind can play as greenspace, even for nongardeners — a big contirbution to well-being. Also raises nice possibilities for science education.
Bee Healthy says
The first few paragraphs of this essay were both frightening and infuriating. Thank you for sharing that information. SOMETHING needs to be done! I’m not sure I agree with your solution, though.
Is “factory style production” of any kind of “food”, including lab-grown “meat,” nutritious? I try not to consume anything created in a lab. It seems to me we need to encourage, support, and reward anyone willing to farm, especially if they farm organically, regeneratively, or biodynamically. Things not grown in soil, which includes hydroponically grown vegetables, are not nutritious and therefore, IMO, cannot be called “food”. Meat animals, which eat the plants growing in soil, are nutritious. If I eat grains and not meat, my health deteriorates.
Instead of subsidizing conventionally grown agribusiness-owned farms, which deplete and destroy our soil and contaminate our world, we should subsidize small farmers who don’t use chemicals and who manage their land to preserve the fertility of the soil. They will be our saviors.
Abe Drayton says
As far as I know there is nothing inherently “less nutritious” about lab-grown food or hydroponic food.
The problem I have with focusing on conventional agriculture is that we’ve already failed to stop the climate from destabilizing, and there is NO form of conventional agriculture that can function reliably without reliable weather patterns.
And like it or not, reliable weather patterns are a thing of the past. It’s probably going to be centuries before the climate re-stabilizes. Possibly longer.
So we need food production that doesn’t rely on conditions that have been destroyed, because for all your misgivings about lab-grown or hydroponic food, there is zero question that it’s far superior to NO food. Personally I’m unwilling to accept an approach that just consigns anyone who can’t be fed the “right” way to starvation.
I value small farms and farmers, and I value regenerative techniques etc. My parents are still part of the biodynamic CSA they joined when I was a kid. More than that, as I’ve talked about before, I think we should be engaged in ecosystem management similar to what various indigenous American cultures have done, to shape ecosystems that “naturally” produce food we can eat.
But that’s almost certainly impossible in the time we have, or at the scale that’s needed. It should certainly be part of what we do, but it would be foolish to rely on it entirely.