Monthly Archives: February 2011

Idealized Notions And Practical Realities Of Feeding The World

My good friend Robert Leaver has recently been writing about the virtues of various “green” solutions. Many are solutions I also strongly support, like efficient buildings and renewable energy generation.  Robert is a very smart guy. He understands people, organizations and politics far better than most people I have met. He is truly insightful on social matters. But like many folks who are most vocal in arguing for “green” and “sustainable” technology solutions, he has relatively little experience with the technologies he advocates. Like most Americans, he has somewhat limited understanding of the technical challenges of supplying energy, building buildings, growing food or other technological realities of providing for a modern civilization.

One of the “solutions” Robert has recently advocated is “vertical agriculture”, the idea that we should transform our food delivery system by growing food in eight to ten story urban hydroponic “farms”.  For those who focus on urban oriented solutions, this idea is enticing with its promise of delivering fresh locally grown food rather than corporate agribusiness delivering bland bred-for-shipping food products from around the world. It promises to consume far less fuel in food transport. It would arguably provide jobs in the increasingly concentrated urban areas many environmentalists advocate. It would seem to correct many of the challenges of modern agribusiness. Until one more realistically considers engineering, agricultural science, land use, energy use, economics and other practical considerations, vertical urban agriculture is an appealing notion.

Today there are almost seven billion people in the world. In thirty years the population is expected to reach nine billion. Despite the continuing growth in the population, we are feeding a larger proportion of the population than at any time in history. There are very real challenges with our current food supply system. But unfortunately, ungrounded idealized notions won’t address them.

My early work was in agriculture, first as a laborer in a horticultural nursery and later organizing small farmers in SE Massachusetts and Rhode Island to participate in what became the largest farmers market in the region.  I saw clearly from the perspective of real farmers, the harsh realities of the limited growing season and narrow range of crops that make economic sense to grow here in New England.  Keeping land in farms has been hard over the last few decades with all the economic pressure for land uses with higher financial benefits. I also organized community gardens in the late seventies and early eighties, with similar notions of idealism that inspire the urban agriculture advocates today. Even with the abundance of fresh vegetables from June to October, there are very good economic and climatic reasons that New England doesn’t supply a significant portion of its own food. I have been a serious hobby gardener myself and have close friends that farm, so I know a bit about of the challenges of agriculture. There is good reason that despite the best efforts of agriculture, land preservation and environmental advocates, New England farms have continued to disappear. I have immense respect for people who are successful farming.

I spent almost a decade primarily building sunrooms and greenhouses and learned first hand the challenges and costs of building and maintaining such structures and managing the climates of indoor environments suitable for growing. Though I never operated a greenhouse myself, I learned from clients and friends the increased challenges of pest and disease control that greenhouse environments entail.

Having owned and worked on large buildings more recently, I know some of the engineering challenges that taller structures entail. Those challenges would be compounded by the loads imposed by hydroponics proposed for vertical agriculture. Building and conditioning these structures would be expensive. The costs of building, owning and operating such structures would significantly impact the economics of “vertical agriculture”.

As an owner of commercial urban real estate, I also understand some of the economic challenges of urban taxes, insurance, regulations, labor costs and other factors that being in an urban environment would also pose to the economic realities of urban agriculture relative to the impacts of those cost factors in rural environments.

Then there is the generally high labor cost factor of any such concentrated agriculture relative to the highly mechanized systems under which most food is grown today in America.

Should all these practical considerations somehow not prove vertical urban agriculture uncompetitive, one would have to wonder what all the current farm land in the world would be used for. Today food prices are so low that the US government feels the need to subsidize farmers to stay in business and we can dedicate over 40% of our corn crop to making ethanol fuel for transportation. If urban agriculture actually had any real impact and more farmland becomes underutilized, agricultural commodity prices would become even lower, pushing even harder against the economics of the idealized notion of vertical urban agriculture.

The reality, for better or worse, is that the low cost of energy makes food production remarkably efficient and cheap in our current system. Unless we see food and energy costs exponentially higher and the overall economies of urban areas essentially collapse, I cannot envision any scenario where growing food in urban areas makes any real significant impact on the agricultural economy or where urban high rise hydroponic farms could ever be anything other than a grant funded curiosity for technologically and economically unrealistic idealists to celebrate.

The scale of the challenge of providing food for billions of people sometimes seems lost on people that advocate ideas like vertical farming. Driving across our nations heartland, one has to marvel at the vast scale of food production now being managed by less than two percent of our population that is  not only feeding America, but providing one of the few consistent export surpluses for our nation.

My father worked in an industry that many of my environmentalist friends abhor. He started out washing test tubes in a lab and ended up managing worldwide research in agricultural chemicals for Rohm and Hass Company, which during his career was one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers. When I was a young idealist in the early seventies, Dad’s work inspired my youthful rebellion and my choice to get as degree in environmental science. Back in the day, we had a few fights about his work. Later, I came to appreciate the huge contribution to humanity that he made through his work and have become both very proud of that contribution and somewhat humbled by it.

Apparently, when Dad was a student, he was as fervently idealistic as any environmentalist I ever met.  Hundreds of millions of people were starving in India and China.  He and other idealists like him saw technology as the solution to this and many other serious problems in the world.  The pragmatism that those idealistic technologists brought to their careers in the fifties and sixties saved the lives of millions of people, along with creating many positive technology advances of modern civilization. The wealth and prosperity they created provided the opportunity for many of the social advances we take for granted in the US today. In large part thanks to the “Green Revolution” inspired by Norman Borlaug and supported by modern agricultural practices Dad and many other idealists like him spent their careers on, today India and China have the fastest growing economies in the world and are lifting millions out of poverty.  Now they too are beginning to be able to afford cultural luxuries like environmentalism, that historically most poor societies have not been able to sustain.

Relatively early in his career, Dad developed Dithane, a broad spectrum, low toxicity fungicide that even decades after the expiration of its patents is still a primary tool in helping to control crop diseases and feeding the almost seven billion people that our modern agricultural system feeds every day. Later, he guided his company to produce other solutions to help feed the world.

I vividly recall one of the most important lessons Dad ever taught me, though I was too stubborn and ideologically foolish to recognize the value and truth in what he was telling me at the time.  Having studied biological pest control in school, I passionately argued that in his career position, he should refocus research on such solutions. He responded that with the tens of millions of dollars and decade long regulatory gauntlet required for the approval of agricultural pest control products, only very large companies could play in the game and those companies could only afford to consider solutions with billion dollar markets. The huge costs and risks created by very well intended health and environmental protection regulations made it economically impossible to consider solutions that didn’t promise such huge returns.

While those regulations addressed some very real existing and potential problems with agricultural chemicals, an unintended consequence of the regulations was to concentrate influence over agricultural technology in a few large corporations. Despite environmental advocates clear intent to the contrary, those regulations also had the effect of driving the trend toward mono-cropping to maximize the effectiveness of the relatively few solutions that get through the regulatory hurdles. Similar unintended consequences of very well intended policy can be seen in every sector of the economy.

As I came to better appreciate the effective idealism of my father and his generation of technology pioneers, Monsanto, another large chemical company at the time, embraced the criticisms of my fellow environmentalists and recognizing the promise of biotechnology, transformed themselves from a chemical company to a biology company. Monsanto embraced the promise of biological controls that I and other environmentalists had passionately argued for and bet the future of the company on creating biological solutions at sufficient scale to seriously address the worlds need for food while minimizing the use of potentially hazardous chemicals. Through biotechnology, they invented new varieties of crops which both resisted insects and diseases themselves and which were resistant to low toxicity but highly effective herbicides. In return, Monsanto earned the wrath of the environmental community, recently being declared the most evil corporation in the world by many of the politically correct crowd for creating genetically modified food. (Do a Google search for:  Monsanto Evil Corporation)

The current “Green Revolution” of environmentalism is not like the idealistic truly progressive and creative endeavor that Borlaug led. Rather than embracing science, technology, engineering or practical economics, too many environmentalists show little respect for such fundamental building blocks of progress. Too many seem to feel that idealistic good intentions alone are sufficient.

The challenging realities of feeding almost seven billion people seems to be lost on my idealistic friends who argue for economically and technically unrealistic ideas such as vertical urban agriculture. It seems as if the economics and scale of the challenge are sometimes not clear to them. Unfortunately, we can’t feed the world or address the challenges of modern agricultural systems through idealized notions. We need real solutions, both technically and economically suitable for the scale of the challenges at hand.

Fortunately, so far at least, we have been able to feed an increasingly large portion of the worlds increasingly large population an increasingly better diet for decades. And thanks largely to those successes in agriculture, the pressures on population growth are subsiding as people are freed from the drudgery of traditional agriculture to become educated and more prosperous.

According to the USDA in 1900 over 41% of the US workforce was employed on farms, while today only 1,9% of the US workforce provides our food and a substantial surplus for export. Worldwide, over a third of the world’s workforce is still employed in agriculture and related fields, most in poor countries, toiling in inefficient traditional forms of agriculture.

Like vertical farming, traditional peasant agricultural cultures are also idealized by many of my “green” friends. I do not question the good intentions of such idealistic notions. But it is important to realize that the reason that such idealists have the free time and luxury to pay homage to such romanticism is that they don’t have to do that brutally hard work themselves. The efficiencies of modern civilization allows them the luxury to ponder idealized notions like vertical agriculture without the pressures of bothering to consider the practical realities of economics, engineering or agricultural science.

My idealistic friends also decry American jobs lost to China and Indian due to low cost labor and the the intolerable working conditions people in those countries are subjected to. The reality is that the primary reason factory labor in third world countries is so low cost is that most people growing up in traditional third world agricultural communities will do almost anything to escape the grinding poverty, including working in what appear to be miserable factory conditions to those of us living in the developed world.

Idealized notions of agriculture are like too many of the “solutions” promoted by the well-intentioned folks who migrate into politics. Unfortunately history has taught the hard lesson that when good intentions are met by practical realities, reality always wins, yet the bill for the idealized good intentions still always comes due. Perhaps, before allowing people to enter politics, we should demand some real experience in the productive sectors of the economy – growing food, building buildings, creating products or doing some other activity constrained by the practical realities of economics, science and engineering.

We should clearly foster more understanding of science, math, engineering and economics in our educational system, so that even if they don’t work in such realms, all our citizens can more readily sort out the sensible solutions for the future from those ideas that have little hope of becoming practical.

Clearly our agricultural system needs improvement and needs further progress away from its current dependency on high levels of energy and chemical inputs.  But to feed the world, a sustainable agricultural system will need the best solutions modern science has to offer, not just the ones that are most romantically appealing.

I spend much of my time with idealistic friends like Robert. They inspire me to stretch my thinking in new and interesting ways. They are more fun to be around than strictly pragmatic people. Most of the idealists I spend time with are very talented and inspiring professionals in their own realms. Robert’s professional work is bringing people together to find consensus around decisions that they face as an organization or community. I have immense respect for his accomplishment and skill as a facilitator.

Unfortunately, in matters of practical concern, consensus in itself is not adequate unless there are people involved in decisions who are able to inform the discussion with practical experience and guide the consensus in useful and practical directions. As we are now learning as the bill for decades of very unrealistic good intentions are coming due in Washington DC, idealism and good intentions need grounding within the realm of  practicality. Idealism needs to be matched with technical expertise and hard economic discipline to foster real and credible solutions.



Filed under Best Stuff, Economic Policy, Environmentalism, Fundamental Perspectives