The fertilizer of the future?

Among the many challenges that the agriculture of the future faces, soil fertility ranks high on the list of priorities.

Originally, most farms were mixed. They had land to grow crops and they had animals for milk, eggs and meat. Markets were mostly local, and food was consumed in the villages and towns near the farms. Food waste was fed to farm animals; the manure produced was mixed with straw and returned to the fields where the crops had been grown. Over time, farming has evolved. Agriculture has become much larger scale, global and specialized. This evolution has been driven by the use of oil, mechanization, and by the development of mineral fertilizers.

That model, which has been greatly based on cheap energy and resources, needs to be looked at critically as the economic environment changes. Energy is no longer cheap and, like oil, the resources used for the production of fertilizers have been depleted. New solutions are required to be able to produce optimally.

The production of nitrogen fertilizers requires a lot of energy. According to estimates, it uses 5% of the world’s natural gas production, and half the fossil fuels used in agriculture. Because nitrogen is quite mobile when dissolved, as this happens when it rains, a large amount of these high-energy-consumption compounds are lost. An estimated 50% of the nitrogen spread on crops leaches through the soil. It ends up in the water system. The reserves of phosphates, another important mineral fertilizer, are facing depletion. This might happen in 20 years from now. With the development of precision agriculture, the waste of minerals can be reduced. With the development of satellite imaging indicating the mineral status of a field, and the local variations within the field, it has become possible for farmers to bring just the right amount of the right mineral at the right time and at the right place. This follows somehow a similar thinking as fertilizing plants in hydroponics operations where crops are produced without soil and fed a mineral solution drop by drop.

A consequence of the specialization between crop farms and intensive animal farms is the rupture of the organic matter cycle. Large monoculture farms have suffered soil erosion because of a lack of organic matter, among other reasons. In soils, the presence of organic matter increases moisture retention, increases minerals retention and enhances the multiplication of microorganisms. All these characteristics disappear when the quantity of organic matter decreases. A solution to alleviate this problem is the practice of no-tillage together with leaving vegetal debris turn into organic matter to enrich the soil. This has helped restore the content of organic matter in the soil, although one can wonder if this practice has only positive effects. Tillage helps eliminating weeds. It also helps break the superficial structure of the soil, which can develop a hard crust, depending on the precipitations and the clay content of the soil. Possibly, in the future the use of superficial tillage could become the norm. Deep tillage, as it has been carried out when agriculture became mechanized, has the disadvantage of diluting the thin layer of organic matter in a much deepen layer of soil. This dilution seriously reduces the moisture and mineral retention capacity of soils, thus contributing to erosion as well, even in organic matter-rich soils.

The removal of farm animals from specialized crop farms requires the systematic use of mineral fertilizers because farmers do not have access to manure and the minerals it contains, even though most of these minerals originate from the crops farms.

At the other end of this interrupted cycle of manure, intensive animal farms do not suffer a lack of organic matter and minerals. They have the opposite problem. They have too much of it, and not enough acreage, if any, where to spread it. This leads to accumulation of manure and other related problems, such as stench, high concentrations of minerals in the soil and eventually in the waterways and drinking water reserves.

Since nothing is lost, what has happened to the minerals from fields and from fertilizers? They have been transferred to other places via the global trade of agricultural commodities. Many of these commodities are used to produce animal feed. Phosphate in European pig manure may come from Asian manioc farms. Therefore, the best way to find out where the minerals are is to look at where intensive animal husbandry farms are. As mentioned earlier, nitrogen is washed away into the water system because of its mobility. Unlike nitrogen, phosphates are not mobile in the soil. They will accumulate, which also leads to a loss of soil fertility, eventually. The other area of concentrations of these minerals is in city sewers, and in the soil of slums. Since the purpose of agriculture is to produce food, and since consumers are increasingly concentrated in urban centers, the exportation of minerals is actually gathering momentum out of rural areas.

In the future, we are going to see a new look at fertilization. The economics of agriculture will change. This is inevitable, because the cost of inputs will increase. This will be a direct consequence of the increase of the price of oil, and of the depletion of phosphates reserves. This change of economics will drive renewed interest for manure, and for sewage. These sources will become attractive and competitive, as they contain large amounts of minerals directly available. Because of their nature, they have a high content of organic matter. One of the most efficient ways to remove nitrates from water is to grow plants with it. One of the main sources of phosphates will be manure.

There is little indication that the human population will return to the land, but animal farms can be moved rather easily. After all, they already are segregated from vegetal production. The increased need for manure will call for a relocation of animal productions. In an expensive-energy economy, having the “fertilizer factory” on site, or at least much closer than today makes a lot of sense. This is especially true because manure contains a lot of water, although there are substantial differences between productions. Transporting water is expensive. Mixing crops and animal productions again on farms will also allow the inclusion of vegetal debris together again with the feces and urine, producing a higher dry matter content, with limited transport costs between the field and the “fertilizer factory”. Regardless of the size of the farms, I expect to see a relocation of animal production units on agricultural land. They will be spread more evenly in the landscape than today. This will decrease the density of farm animals in currently high-density areas to levels that will allow a better control of environmental issues, as well as reduce partly the risks of transmission of animal diseases. Animal production units will reappear in areas where they had disappeared because of the fertilizer that they will provide.

This evolution will also come together with a new approach of manure storage and treatment. Open-air lagoons like those that we know today will simply cease to exist. The changed economics of energy will make the capture of gases financially attractive. Manure storage units will be covered; the biogas will be collected to be used for energy purpose, for the farm and the local communities. The solid and the liquid fractions of the manure will be processed and transformed to provide organic matter and the fertilizing minerals necessary for crop production. The location of the “manure units” will be influenced by the type of animal production, and therefore by the physical quality of the manure. There will be a logistic optimization of manure collection to the crop farms. It will be based on efficiency and optimization of resources. Therefore, the new farm structure will be efficient, as much financially as environmentally. Similarly, open-ocean fish farms that currently do not collect the feces will see the financial value in recuperating the fish waste and sell it. In cities, there will be an increasing interest to recycle the sewage. The purpose will be to recuperate the organic matter and the minerals it contains. A similar approach for human waste will apply as for animal production units as I described above. This will also be integrated in the future approach of urban farming, as it will provide the necessary nutrients for an efficient urban food production. It will be a source of revenue to the cities.

In rural areas and in urban areas, organic matter and fertilizing minerals will become strategic activities. They will serve the purpose of feeding sustainably the world population.

Copyright 2011 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

An Interview with The Food Futurist: 100 Answers about the Future of Agriculture

Following up on the recent publication of the report “100 Questions of Importance for the Future of Global Agriculture” by a group of experts from all over the world under the lead of Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, I wanted to react candidly and spontaneously on every of these 100 questions.

Since giving extensive answers would represent several months, if not years, of work for a single individual, I chose for the interview format. I gave myself just a couple of minutes to say what came to my mind.

The result is this document: 100 Answers – An interview with the Food Futurist

I hope it will be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. I hope that it will trigger reactions, as this is more a first attempt to initiate a forum discussion.

The questions were quite interesting. However, I missed a few elements tat I believe to be quite important in the challenge of feeding a population of nine billion by 2050. The initial report did not raise enough questions about the issue of water. Water is essential to agriculture, and the challenge of accessing enough water is even more urgent and more critical than improving food availability. Similarly, the initial report did not reflect much on urban farming. Estimates of today’s urban food production are of 15-20% of the total world food production. Considering that about 50% of the population lives in cities, this means that 30-40% of all the food consumed in cities is produced in urban centers. This is far from negligible. As the urban population is expected to double by 2050, urban farming will be an essential part of our food supply. I had also expected more attention to aquaculture, which is the fastest growing food production.

The initial report focuses more on production aspects and systems than it does focus on the human factor. Population increase, distribution and especially the quality of leadership will be crucial for the way food security strategies can be set up. As I mention in one of my answers, our future will be as bright as our leaders.

Writing this document, and reacting to questions asked by highly qualified experts, was a good way of assessing the book “Future Harvests” that I published in August 2010. I was quite happy to see that the book addresses all the concerns of the thinkers and policymakers.

I wish you happy reading.

Follow the water!

Without water, there is no agriculture, there is no food, and there is no life. It is obvious, and yet the water question is too often neglected. The quantity and the quality of water available are absolutely crucial for the future production of food. It will influence where and what type of food we can produce. It will define food security and world politics. Since 70% of fresh water use is for agricultural purposes, it is clear that water will soon be power.

The need to preserve water and use it efficiently is going to be one of the main challenges to overcome for the decades to come. This will stimulate innovation and the development of new technologies and new techniques.

Field sensors that measure the level of humidity in the air and in the soil connected with “crop per drop” irrigation systems can allow the distribution of the right amount of water at the right time, thus saving waste through evaporation and drainage. The selection of plant varieties will focus more and more on water efficiency. Drought-resistant plants that can thrive in arid conditions are in the works. For instance, a trial on wheat in Australia has delivered promising results, as the yield was 25% higher than non drought-resistant varieties. Researchers, through hybridization and genetic engineering, are working to develop varieties that can use less water and produce similar yields as per today. Although high tech may bring solutions, other methods deliver good results, too. Agro forestry, the production of crops under a cover of trees seems to help farmers achieve satisfying results in the Sahel region. The foliage of the trees helps reduce evaporation from the soil. Combined with proper techniques to apply organic matter and fertilizing elements, farmers can create better conditions for plants to grow.

Another field of research is the development of alternatives to traditional desalination, which is very demanding in energy. Transforming seawater into fresh water for the production of food is not simple, and it is expensive. The technology is here.  Israel has used it for decades. Currently in the United Arab Emirates, a project of floating islands covered with solar panels to provide the energy to desalinate seawater is being developed. This system has the advantage to produce both fresh water, which is precious in desert countries and clean energy at the same time. A project, called The Sahara Forest Project aiming at producing food in the desert is currently in the works. It combines solar energy, modern biomass production and a type of greenhouse, built by the Seawater Greenhouse company, that helps the humidity produce by the plants to condensate.

In many countries, the problem is not so much physical scarcity of water as it is a lack of proper infrastructure to collect, pump and irrigate efficiently. The population density contributes to the problem, because the more people, the less for each of them. In many countries, for instance in India, the equipment is old, inadequate and poorly maintained, because of a lack of finance of governments and farmers. The result is a waste of water resources, and a suboptimal production. Another area that has potential for improvement is the collection and the storage of rainwater. A large quantity of water runs off and is not available for food production because there are not enough containers, if any. Developing and improving storage infrastructure will definitely help farmers to produce more food.

If the availability of water is important, so is its quality. In China, the situation is a lack of both, because of the heavy pollution of many streams and rivers. In many areas, the water is there, but it cannot be used, as it is fit neither for human consumption nor for agricultural production.

The respective situation of countries about water availability will determine their ability to feed their own people or not. In Arab countries, irrigation has led to a high level of salinity and it has depleted drinking water reserves. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has now abandoned its policy of increasing food production to become be self-sufficient. Saudis are actively purchasing land in African and Asian countries to meet their food needs. China and India, that represent about 40% of the world population, are following a similar approach and invest heavily to help develop land in Africa. In countries where drinking water is scarce, there are discussions about the need of not exporting, as export of food is actually water export as well.

If a number of countries face a water shortage, others have a different situation. This is the case for large areas of North America and South America. Especially Brazil disposes of large water reserves. Together with a favourable climate, Brazil has many advantages to produce food, especially animal protein. According to Osler Desouzart of OD Consulting, the production of 1 kg of beef requires 16,000 litres of water, while it takes 6,000 litres for 1 kg of pork and only 2,800 litres for a kg of chicken. This shows why Brazil has been gaining market share in beef and poultry. It indicates that intensive animal production will be more challenging in countries where water is not as abundant. This also tends to show that poultry will be the most successful type of land animal production. The US and Canada have large water reserves, although there are also clear regional differences. The South West of the US becoming increasingly arid, and one can wonder if California, that currently produces most of the fruit and vegetables for the North American continent, will be able to keep its production levels. It is likely that fresh produce will be gradually produced closer, even inside, the large urban centers in the northeast as well. Considering the emphasis on water preservation, it is also interesting to note that before the housing crisis in the US, the most irrigated type of plant production were lawns, using three times as much water as US corn. Food recalls are another source of water waste, especially meat and eggs recalls. From the numbers presented above, it is easy to see how much water is lost when dozens of tons of animal products must be destroyed, not to mention the huge food waste that this represents.

When it comes to food and water, aquaculture offers interesting possibilities for the efficient production of protein. Fish produced in the ocean do not consume freshwater. This saves large amounts that can be used for other purposes. However, one of the challenges for the fast-growing aquaculture industry will be to be able to source feed ingredients that do not directly compete with other farm animals and direct human consumption. Land-based aquaculture is developing the very interesting concept of aquaponics, which is a combination of fish production in tanks combined with the production of vegetables indoors. The system recycles the water used for the fish tank, and helps fertilize the plants with fish waste. This is a very water–efficient system that can help produce large amounts of food on a small area, making it fit for urban farming units.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Farming a better future by learning the lessons of the previous Green Revolution

After the facts, the Green Revolution of the 1960s has been criticized for having caused negative consequences on farmland. It is true that some intensive agricultural practices have brought serious damage to soils and water reserves, but it is also true that the actions taken have increase food production and they averted the risk of a devastating famine in India.

Today, humanity is facing another major challenge to meet agricultural production to meet the demand of an increasing population. The term “agricultural revolution” has come back in the news and this is a good opportunity to reflect on how to handle future actions.

This time, there is one major difference. With 9 billion people in sight by 2050, the consequences of our actions will have much more impact, negative as well as positive, depending on where we live. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion people on Earth. Compared with today, one could argue that there was some margin for error by then. This margin for error is now gone. Therefore, it is necessary to think ahead and consider all the things that might go wrong. We must anticipate before we have to react.

What can we learn from the Green Revolution, then?

The first lesson is that when humans decide to put all their knowledge together and give themselves the means to succeed, good things happen. Food production increased and people were fed.

The second lesson is that our actions have consequences and that we need to be vigilant about what we do and how we do it.

Of course, it is always easy to criticize after the facts. Pinpointing the negative effects of the Green Revolution is only relevant to a point. Using the mistakes from then as an argument to not engage in further modernization and progress is at least as destructive as bad practices implemented without thinking. Not taking action to develop new practices, new techniques and new technologies –three very different concepts- comes down to giving up. This is not acceptable. This is not possible. To meet future food demand, farmers and all the players involved in food production will need to be innovative and daring. Being innovative and daring does not mean being reckless. We cannot accept this behavior, as the consequences could be too serious.

When looking back at the Green Revolution, the question is not so much “What did they do wrong?” as it is “Did they know something wrong would happen?”

We know today that heavy mechanization, intensive monoculture and use of chemicals caused soil erosion, loss of fertility and soil and water contamination. Is that something that the farmers and the agribusiness of that time realized was happening? Did they have a possibility to know it? Some might answer “No” and others will say “Yes, I told you so”. Could have things been done differently, and helped feeding the people while not damaging the farmland?

For the future, we need to asks ourselves similar questions and develop a plan that helps us 1) succeed, 2) limit risks and 3) have alternatives in the case problems come up.

To figure out what can go wrong, the best is to listen to the opponents of the practices, techniques and technologies considered to be used. In a very short time, it is possible to set up a whole list of potential problems. To do this, it is also important to keep an open mind, because the past has shown that often what actually goes wrong had been mentioned at some time in the debate, even it might have sounded irrelevant. “The Lorax”, the movie by Dr. Seuss gives a good representation of debate between industrialists and environmentalists. The question to answer is “What if the risks actually happen?” and to develop an extensive action plan to restore control on the situation as soon as possible. In food production, the control has to occur within a limited number of areas: soil fertility, water quality, climate (to some extent), weeds, pests, diseases, bacteria (including the good ones), insects (including the good ones), worms, all animals that live on and interact with “farmland” (on the land and in the oceans) and their habitat, genetic diversity, and ability to living organisms to reproduce.

Every time progress is made, there is a struggle between the enthusiastic and those who fear change. There is a tension between action and precaution. This is very human and normal. It is necessary to take the time to review the whole process thoroughly and accept that things do not change as fast, or not as slowly as some think they should. In the end, progress must help humanity improve and prosper, and not just on the short term.

The key is preparing ourselves, and as the saying goes: “The failure of preparation is the preparation of failure”.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Future Harvests – A preview of the book

My book, Future Harvests, is expected to be published before the end of August.

Here is a preview to give you a flavor of the content.

For a full view, please click on the thumbnails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a sample containing the table of contents and the preface of the book:

 

For the video trailers, please visit my YouTube channel.

Future Harvests – The book is coming soon!

 

The editing of my book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” is about completed. All that is left to do is developing the cover and start the publishing.

I have already received orders, even before the book is out. That is quite a good sign. And a great surprise for me.

If you wish to be updated automatically when the book is published, just subscribe in the sidebar window on the right.

To describe the topics addressed, I have posted three short promotional videos on YouTube. In previous articles (The fun of writing this book and The next agricultural revolution), I had already given an idea about the content of the book.

Video #1: The Fundamentals (duration 2:37) – Introduction to the background and fundamental principles mentioned in the book “Future Harvests – The next agricultural revolution” to achieve food security for 9 billion people in 2050. Topics such as demographics, the shift in economic power, the control of food  and food security strategies are reviewed. Sustainability, innovation, efficient market driven food production and strong leadership are required.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #2: The Actions (duration 2:12) – A short review of some of the actions mentioned in the book to achieve the objectives. Solving the water challenge, finding new land for production, urban farming, hydroponics, farming the desert, rebuilding fisheries and developing aquaculture further are all possibilities.

or click here if video does not appear

Video #3: The Questions (duration 3:08) – A sample of some of the questions raised in the book. They cover technology, land deals in Africa, improving yields, restoring soil fertility, change in consumer needs, organic farming, risks of conflicts, biofuels or meat are some of the topics presented.

or click here if video does not appear

If you know someone who could be interested by the topics on this page, please pass it on!

The fun of writing this book

Over the last few months, I have been working quite a bit on writing this book about the future of agriculture.

I must say that compiling in one book a wide range of topics that, without any doubt, will be part of the future of our food production has been an exhilarating experience.

From demographics in full motion to the latest in technology, we can envision many different scenarios to set up the most efficient food production possible, as local farmers, industry NGOs and governments will need to find optimal solutions with the land, the water, the labor force and the capital available to them. Water and soil will be of vital importance, and their proper management is essential for the stability of many countries.

In the future, there will be no room left for wastage and inefficiencies, or we all will be punished if we get complacent. Similarly, we will need to change our thinking and accept that solving future problems will not be about transferring a one-fit-all model to very diverse situations. We might have had the illusion that it once worked, but it actually did not. We will learn from the mistake of the past to perform better. Sustainability is not an option; it is the only choice, because per definition what is not sustainable is doomed.

As food is a necessity, and since when we share between 9 billion people there is less left for each of us than when we shared between 4 billion, efficiency will be paramount. This will affect food prices and social stability. Technology is necessary but it is not the panacea in itself. The most needed resource for the future is strong visionary leadership to help us develop the plan for the next decades.

Let’s prepare ourselves for a deep change and we must accept the idea that we might have futuristic farms run by robots, satellites and computers in some regions as well as local urban gardeners in the heart of the cities, where 70% of the world population is expected to live. We will have small organic farmers and we will have large industrial farms using genetically engineered crops, but we also will have large highly efficient semi-organic farms that will combine the best of both worlds. We still will have specialized farms as well as mixed operations. Hydroponics and aquaponics will grow substantially in the future.

Today’s diet will be revisited and excesses will be out of place. Should we become vegetarians or do we simply need to eat less meat? Will aquaculture live up to the expectation and become the main source of animal protein? You will find out in the book.

Countries will have to think on how to guarantee food security to their populations. If it is not done well, this challenging task might end up in serious conflicts. Foreign and private investment in land and farming will continue in Asia and Africa. If managed properly, they will bring much prosperity to these regions, but if not managed properly, then we can fear the worst.

All these topics and many more will be presented in the book and I hope that it will help readers to understand all the variables that are at play, as well as it will help them get a more objective view of many controversial topics such as GMOs, nanotechnology or in-vitro meat. Once readers will have finished the book, they will be able to figure out whether and how we can feed 9 billion people. Thanks to examples from all over the world in as diverse countries as Uganda, Kenya, the USA, China, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Argentina, France, The Netherlands, Cuba, Kazakhstan and many more, we discover a myriad of different situations and solutions that illustrate human ingenuity to produce food.

However, for now just a few more months of patience as I need to get through the process of publishing.

Aquaculture: the solution to feed 9 billion people?

Last week, BioScience published an article based on the research of a group of researchers from the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), the Spanish High Council for Scientific Research.

They present their views on the potential of marine aquaculture to provide enough food for the growing world population. The authors of the report do not see fisheries as a significant option anymore, as the wild fish stocks are depleted, and the amount of time to replenish the stocks will be too long for fisheries to be able to meet the needs of the population. Aquaculture has gradually compensated the demand for fish that fisheries were not able to supply, and half of the seafood consumed today already originate from aquaculture. It is the fastest growing food supply activity and the projections for future growth are very strong. The researchers think that marine aquaculture could multiply its production by a factor 20 by 2050 and thus would play a major role in providing the world population with animal protein.

They bring up some interesting facts about agriculture and land animal farming. For instance, it takes 10 times more water per calorie to produce meat than it does to produce grains. Further, animal meat products represent only 3.5% of food production, but they consume 45% of the water used in agriculture. Considering demand for meat is expected to increase by 21% between 2005 and 2015, and will keep on increasing, this will only exacerbate this situation.

Another point that this group raises is the global nitrogen-use efficiency in animal productions. According to their sources, it is slightly more than 10% for land animals (5% for beef and 15% for pork), which makes their production a major source of nitrogen inputs to the environment. In contrast, marine animals have much greater nitrogen-use efficiency, at about 20% for shrimp and 30% for fish. Therefore, marine aquaculture culture releases two to three times less nitrogen to the environment than livestock production does.

From an environmental point of view, the idea of shifting the production of animal protein from the land where it uses scarce resources such as land and water, to the ocean where space and water are no limitations anymore sounds very sensible. From a nutritional point of view, replacing meat and dairy by seafood that is rich in healthy components such as omega-3 fatty acids is quite attractive, too.

They also notice that the land available for agriculture is shrinking, due to soil degradation and urbanism. Further, there is a growing scarcity of fresh water and increased competition for water as well. Therefore, activities on land do not offer the potential to grow all that much more food to feed the growing population. Even freshwater aquaculture faces these limitations. Freshwater aquaculture currently 57% of total aquaculture, therefore there is an untapped potential with marine aquaculture, as it does not use fresh water.

Of course, the main challenge to execute such a development of marine aquaculture production is to find the proper quality and quantity of feed. The researchers do not see the use of fishmeal and fish oil as an option anymore as they predict that the species used to make these products will not be able in sufficient quantities. Replacement by protein and oils from agriculture crops is an option for the short-term, but as aquaculture volumes would increase, the competition for these ingredients with meat production will make them too expensive, and for the reasons explained above, depending on land agriculture to feed marine species will face crop production limitations. Therefore, they prefer to envision a total new approach of aquaculture feeds, and recommend developing a new feed chain based on aquatic ingredients, such planktons, microalgae and seaweed. This approach makes sense, but the time lines to develop such a supply source and the cost of production of such an “aquatic” feed still need to be investigated. Several “seaweed farms” in production in China show interesting results and they seem to promise a strong potential of production for feed.

Another development that they expect is offshore aquaculture. Aquaculture operations located in coastal areas, although they are easier to access and generally in quieter waters, are very often located in zones where there are local issues to deal with, such as interaction with wild fish or recreational activities. Moving offshore can reduce these issues.

As you can see, developing the future of aquaculture is not simply a matter of growing fish in pens, but it requires a broader thinking that includes not only the oceans but agriculture on land, too. The future of food will require from us the ability to manage the whole planet!

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The vertical farm

Here is a think-out-of-the-box article about the “vertical farm”.

It is an interesting vision of a replacement of agricultural land, by indoor robot-tended hydroponic agriculture. They also envision the possibility of raising farm animals and developing aquaculture in the water used to grow the plants; and the fish waste would be used as fertilizer.

All of this would be grown in a 30-floor skyscraper located in the city, powered by the energy coming from city sewage, and the ground floor would be a food supermarket that would provide food for 50,000 people.

Such projects are under review in Abu Dhabi, South Korea, Seattle, WA and Las Vegas, NV.

It looks like science-fiction, yet there are some really interesting arguments in favor of such a development.

Let’s not confuse efficiency and intensification!

Although it may sound like a bit of semantics, the difference between these two terms is quite important when it comes to agriculture and food production.

Let's not confuse efficiency and intensification!Since WWII, much progress has been made to increase food production, such as genetic improvement, production techniques and mechanization, use of fertilizers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the development of animal nutrition, and of course government incentives. This has resulted in our ability to produce more efficiently and face a previous doubling of the world population. It has helped reduce costs and made food more affordable to more, although unfortunately not to all.

The main driver behind this evolution has been to shift from a mostly labor intensive food production to a mostly capital intensive one, and this why it had to become intensive. The labor force moved to urban centers where they could find jobs in manufacturing and later in services. Thanks to mechanization, less people were needed to work on farms. This has led to a sharp drop of the population active in agriculture from above 50% of all actives to less than 5% in Western countries within 30 years. Moreover, as the standard of living increased, labor costs increased and made a labor-intensive approach too expensive to fit in the type of society that we created, and the only, apparent, solution has been to further intensify and mechanize.

The strong development of manufacturing that went along with the rise of the consumption society increased the standard of living and the disposable income. In the same time, in constant currency, food became relatively cheaper and much more affordable. This led to a change of diet from mostly starch-based to protein-based, and we have seen recently a similar trend in emerging countries.

Clearly, all of this has improved the quality of life, maybe a little too much too fast though. Intensification has brought its share of problems as well, as it always does with progress. For instance, I can mention soil erosion and loss of organic matter, soil fertility and ground water quality affected by manure (especially minerals) surpluses, reduced genetic diversity and possibly lessened resistance to diseases, to name a few. Of course, for each of the problems, we come with a solution mostly based on technology, which usually fits in and reinforces intensification.
Unfortunately, Nature does not work that simply. All it needs is time to process and eliminate problems through its cycles in the soil and in the water. Nature can handle quite a lot, but it can handle only that much. This is where the difference between intensification and efficiency becomes obvious.

Intensification tends to continuously load and overload the system, which is why we hear so much talk about sustainable agriculture nowadays. Food production cannot be sustainable if it does not allow its natural environment to process and eliminate the contaminants. Similarly, Nature cannot replenish on its own what we take out, unless we create the conditions for this.

Efficiency, on the other hand, integrates performance and sustainability. It allows having a high production, not so much by using massive amounts of water, fertilizer, energy or other production inputs, but by using them when needed where need and just as much as needed. This way, we can grow plants or animals with the minimum amount of waste and respect the ecosystem. Efficiency also comes from optimization, and to this extent, efficiency and intensification go hand in hand, up to that particular point when any incremental input does not produce more in the same proportion. More importantly, once we produce beyond the optimum, we take the chance of creating a stress. This is very clear in animal production, when densities exceed a certain point, the animals’ organism defence becomes weak and makes them vulnerable to diseases.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.