Updated: Jan 14, 2020
Agriculture is broken. It’s a bold statement, yet incredibly true. I could provide an exhaustive, academic article on all of the various whys, but a) that’s boring for you to read, and even more for me to write b) it’s depressing, and c) a quick internet search will provide a host of written articles. Take a look at this image. You can see some of the headlines, but look at the very top, where it states the number of results. Mind you this is a simply “agriculture is broken” search phrase.
The reasons that are germane here are:
1. Commercial agriculture and chemical-agriculture are pretty much synonymous. This is where the lawsuits on chemical exposure to pesticides and herbicides, as well as the GMO discussions come into play. Food quality is also suffering from the chemical dousing.
2. Distribution is ridiculous. Once picked, most produce in grocery stores gets handled more than a Metro fare vending machine and has more frequent flier miles than most Delta Medallion Members. Okay, that is exaggerated, but seriously, go take a look at the number of brokers, distributors, cross-docks, etc. that food goes through, typically. Then go look at how far away huge volumes of produce at the local grocery store traveled to get there. There is little mystery on why it is complex to quickly track down bad food.
3. Climate change, urbanization, and population increases are drastically reducing arable land to the tune of about 12 million hectares (29.7 Million acres) each year – about the size of the entire state of New York. Whatever you believe about the causation element of climate change, it’s dire for our food system.
4. Agricultural labor is falling out of favor globally. Afghanistan is having difficulty getting younger generations to enter farming because they believe it to be hard work for little pay that is disconnected from the way the world is changing. China has been having such an issue that some pretty drastic policy changes have been proposed, and in the US has been importing labor for decades now, and that is subject to changes in government policy.
5. Bad government policy. We are seeing mainstream policy being shaped or even piloted for basic income for everyone, but we still allow companies to bathe our food in gnarly chemicals, synthesize meat from a petri dish, and even give subsidies not to grow certain foods or to grow certain foods even if they have little value. Do we honestly think that corn-based ethanol incentives really came out of a desire for alternative fuel? Or is more likely because interests existed in increasing the selling price of corn?
As I said, this list and level of detail could go on for pages and pages. You may agree, or you may not, but it’s hard to argue that we need better agricultural supply and value chains.
This is precisely what we are about at Revolution Agriculture – making agriculture better, more accessible, and sustainable. For this 3-part article, I will address our broken agriculture by taking a look at production, farming space, the troubles with the labor meeting the changing world, and the nightmare we call distribution. Each article will discuss my vision for how Revolution Agriculture will address each of these problems. So, let’s jump in with production. To be clear, by production, I am discussing the growing of crops. Food production by manufacturing and processing are other issues entirely.
Agriculture food production is pretty much separated into two broad categories
Most often called traditional farming, it basically consists of organic, whether certified or not, and chemical agriculture; I won’t digress on that rat’s nest of bad nomenclature. I also include standard soil-box greenhouses in this category.
Production in the outdoor sector covers basically every type of crop, given that crops are typically constrained to specific geographic locations. You know,
pineapples don’t grow all that well in Alaska sort of thing. This is where we get the diversity of crop selection. It has evolved, or devolved depending on your opinion, from subsistence and community farming with rudimentary tools to something akin to strip mining using tons of mechanized equipment and people in hazmat suits. I won’t make a judgment here, but I will echo the biggest question raised by critics of these practices – if the people tending the crops need this type of protection, how can this be safe for consumption? There will no doubt be those who will cite something that says it is fine; however, again, think about the issues in California – pesticides being found in California wines and cannabis. If a fermented, processed product and plants that are cloned 6 generations later still show presence of pesticides, how good can that really be for you to consume?
This brings us to that farm space discussion here. Traditionally, agriculture has been associated with large swaths of land. This still represents the majority of farming practices globally. In the US, the average farm size being 434 acres – about half the size of NYC’s Central Park. Obviously, then these are limited to areas that are naturally arable with a small population base. With increasing population growth and rates of urbanization, these large swaths of land are shrinking. As mentioned above, globally, we are losing ~22 million hectares of arable land each year.
Next comes the water problem. Traditional/chemical agriculture is water inefficient. I am sure the majority of you that clicked this open and weren’t bored to death before getting to this point have driven past the farm that is just spraying water 30+ feet/10+ meters into the air into an arc. You probably have also seen the wind pick it up and blow half of it away from where that arc was intended. Then came the huge wheeled contraptions that provided an elevated sprayer more directly over crops and was pushed around the field; you still see the water loss. Now, we have governments and companies pushing towards “smart irrigation,” which is a good measure, but it is far from a panacea for the problem.
I will stop beating up on the outdoor farms. They are still an essential part of our food system; they just happen to be inefficient from virtually every level. Yes, they can still produce a lot of product, but one would hope that to be the case when looking at the sheer volume of land they occupy.
For our purposes, this essentially references hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and any other ponics I may have forgotten.
Production in indoor systems is largely characterized by soilless growing through plants being floated in beds or placed into some sort of media – small gravel, coconut shells and the like – where water is then pumped from a central repository, where the minerals and fertilization are added, throughout a circulating system. It could be compared to the body’s circulatory system. In aeroponics, the difference is that the central water repository is then fine misted into the air and the unprotected plant roots grab what they need from the air.
All of that is incredibly awesome for a few reasons. First, these growing systems are more productive per square foot. Second, they use up to 90% less water, and third, they are not constrained to arable land. Over the last few decades greenhouses started growing in use for indoor farming, and we then added indoor facilities that were built for purpose. Now, we are starting to see indoor farms move into existing and/or abandoned spaces. An old brewery in Milwaukee comes to mind, as does some of the old meat processing plants in Chicago. These are still large facilities, similar to or larger than the size of an average Costco, but they have enabled growing outside of traditional arable regions. The trouble now though is that cities are starting to see larger buildings being torn down in favor of residential and other mixed-use buildings with smaller individual spaces. Take shopping malls for example.
Now there is the more glaring issue; indoor farming finds itself constrained to a small selection of crops – lettuces, some herbs, tomatoes, and the like. Essentially, they are stuck to crops that can grow fine and don’t lose flavor without soil. They also require crops that can do without pollination or that can self-pollinate crops. I know, some of my competition will be in arms, as I gloss over strawberries, as they are not truly self-pollinators – they require some human intervention to pollinate – but that argument doesn’t change their limitations. The reason for these limitations is that existing indoor systems don’t work well with true soil growing and don’t have an effective and efficient means to support cross-pollination. We do have clever engineers trying to create micro drones that can pollinate crops, but that requires a human to fly the drone and identify male and female plants on the fly, literally. The “AI” we have cannot handle this yet. So, what we currently have with indoor farms are a bunch of farms that are really great at growing lettuce. Okay, a bit of an over-simplification, but if we were to lose all arable land in 2019, we would become quickly reliant those green “food” drinks. These can be good, but not at every meal.
Nutrient density is also an issue with this growth method. There will be some that argue they have created a method to solve this problem, but so far, the long-term efficacy of those claims has not been tested. As an example, a strawberry grown outside in soil has a nutrient density number of 24, on average. The average hydroponic strawberry comes in around 7, which is lower than excellent rated root vegetables.
I think you get the picture – agricultural production is broken. We are either running out of enough land to grow crops, we are largely dousing what we do grow with chemicals and pesticides, or we are really proficient at growing lettuce.
These problems underline the core focus of Revolution Agriculture – how do we take the good from both outdoor and indoor methods and make it possible to grow every type of crop, anywhere we presently or hope to inhabit, while reducing resource requirements and increasing yields?
We built and successfully tested proprietary growing technology that allows us to use indoor fertilization and grow basically every type of crop. We successfully have grown root vegetables, legumes, and other types of crops in soil using up to 60% less water – on average – while going seed to harvest an average of 50% faster, while increasing planting density up to 175%. Our crops are also scoring very good to excellent on the nutrient density scale. In fact, our radishes come in with higher nutrient density than those standard hydroponic strawberries we mentioned. It is a difference you can taste.
Basically, we can now grow virtually everything, anywhere, as we also have proprietary technology to integrate nature’s best pollinators into our farms, whether they are done indoors or out. So, we have effectively proven that it is possible to combine the best of both production types into a single production system that works both indoors and out and produce more food, makes farms smaller, and requires less water.
Proving that possibility was the first step on our journey to fix our broken agricultural system. Check back for the next article on labor troubles in agriculture.