Restore food systems

On this page..

  1. Food systems should restore, not destroy
  2. Seaweed and shellfish farms could feed a world of 10 billion
  3. Seaweed can fertilise farmlands, returning our NPK fertilisers from the sea to the land.
  4. Fish McNuggets to save the world?
  5. Other crops – seaweed to the soil!
    1. No-till
    2. Perennials
    3. Biochar
  6. Other protein
    1. Impossible burgers — yummy veggie burgers
    2. Better aquaculture
    3. New ‘Chicken nuggets’ — from insects!?
    4. Desert cities can use desal greenhouses to feed locals
    5. Sci-Fi future foods
  7. Re-wilding — overworked lands returned to nature

1. Food systems should restore, not destroy

Under “Danger ahead” we saw that yesterday’s industrial agriculture kills the soil. Deep tilling burns through it like a bushfire through the soil. But worse, we’ve created a one-way nutrient flow of NPK fertilisers from the farm to the city and down the toilet out to sea.  The world is currently losing 100,000km2 of arable land a year!  How do we stop our soils drying up and blowing away? How do we reverse that one way nutrient flow? And could we feed the human race without even using any farmland in the first place?

2. Seaweed and shellfish farms could feed a world of 10 billion

  • We’ll get to other foods below, but it’s nice to know that from a pure nutrients point of view, we could feed 10 billion people all the veggies and seafood they need just from 3d ocean farming!
  • Industrial agriculture requires huge amounts of energy to manufacture nitrogen fertilisers, ship in and spread other nutrients, and pump fresh water.
  • These seaweed and shellfish farms don’t need any fertiliser or fresh water. They’re just lines hanging off our coasts, getting everything they need from the sun and nutrients drifting off our land into the sea!
  • They’re far enough out and submerged so that they survive cyclones.

Indeed, too many of our agricultural and city zones pollute the oceans with excessive farm and sewerage nutrients. Over fertilisation lets the wrong algal blooms grow which cause dead zones.

  • Fortunately, seaweed and shellfish farms gobble up these excessive nutrients and could convert them into enough food to feed the world!
  • This is different to aquaculture which tries to grow fish in captivity on land (often relying on harmful overfishing ‘by-catch’ to feed their captive fish) or in the oceans.
  • This short 4 minute video summarises the differences.
  • Bren Smith claims an area of Washington State, or 71,000 square miles (or 185,000 km2) could feed the world. This would be spread around the world’s coastlines.
  • That’s all the nutritious omega 3 seaweed and shellfish we could eat, while RESTORING the health of our coastlines as we do so!

3. Seaweed can fertilise farmlands, returning our NPK fertilisers from the sea to the land.

  • As Bren Smith outlined in the talk above, he has relationships with local farmers to bring high quality seaweed onto land as fertiliser. That’s a sustainable cycle, as normal erosion drags nutrients off the coasts and seaweed farms bring them back to our croplands.
  • Seaweed can also work as a bio-fuel that does not compete with farmland, returning existing ethanol farms back to the food market.
  • (Note that other experts think nuclear cracked seawater can provide all the carbon-neutral e-diesel we need, so this option will be about economics.)
  • Bren Smith’s TED talk above was back in 2013. While 3d seaweed and shellfish farms have expanded around the UK, legislative opposition and NIMBY groups have slowed expansion in the USA as Scott Lindell explains in his 2020 TED update.
  • Finally, this plan is about seaweed from nutrient-rich coastal waters. There are plans to expand seaweed farming way up into geo-engineering scales to solve global warming by helping it grow out in the nutrient-poor deeper ocean. See my page: –

“Seaweed to save the world?”

4. Fish McNuggets to save the world?

Seaweed and shellfish can be manufactured and processed into all kinds of foods. While some people wince at the idea of eating oysters, they might not mind processed fish sticks with a nice crumbed coating and sauce. While eating seaweed sounds dreadful, I don’t mind the dried seaweed ‘paper’ that coats sushi. I’m excited to see what new seaweed and shellfish derivative products will hit the market. Chips? Pastas? Protein bars and sticks? Fish McNuggets? After all, did you know that the McDonald’s Chicken McNugget coating as 33 different products derived from corn? All we lack is the will! Let’s hassle McDonald’s and other major fast food corporations to back Bren Smith’s 3d seaweed and shellfish farms, and ask for Fish McNuggets from Greenwave associated farms! Not only this, but let’s campaign for big corporations to sell us packet foods like oven backed fish nuggets and fish sticks we can fry up 2 or 3 nights a week. But by then, I’ll definitely be looking for some variety! Like a burger?

5. Other crops – seaweed to the soil!

Burgers require bread and ‘meat’. We’ll get to alternative tasty proteins below under point 6, but first we need to look at how we’re going to grow our breads and pastas and corn and other grains in an era of depleting phosphorus and climate induced energy efficiency. Well, of course! The seaweed is catching abundant fertiliser nutrients from our coasts, so we’ll use that to grow our crops. But there are a few other nutrient efficient ways to farm that reduce the amount of seaweed fertiliser farmers will need.

A. No-till

As the wiki says: “Adoption in the United States”.

No-till farming is widely used in the United States and the number of acres managed in this way continues to grow. This growth is supported by a decrease in costs. No-till management results in fewer passes with equipment, and the crop residue prevents evaporation of rainfall and increases water infiltration into the soil…

…Some studies have found that no-till farming can be more profitable in some cases… …In some cases it may reduce labour, fuel, irrigation and machinery costs. No-till can increase yield because of higher water infiltration and storage capacity, and less erosion. Another possible benefit is that because of the higher water content, instead of leaving a field fallow it can make economic sense to plant another crop instead…

…No-till farming improves aggregates and reduces erosion. Soil erosion might be reduced almost to soil production rates…

…Research from over 19 years of tillage studies at the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service found that no-till farming makes soil less erodible than ploughed soil in areas of the Great Plains. The first inch of no-till soil contains more aggregates and is two to seven times less vulnerable than that of ploughed soil. More organic matter in this layer is thought to help hold soil particles together… …No ploughing also means less airborne dust.

This is not small-scale hippie stuff, but a growing powerhouse with professional associations springing up in every country. For instance, Australia has WANTFA, the WESTERN AUSTRALIAN NO-TILLAGE FARMERS ASSOCIATION which is growing with a number of other larger multinational associations.

Formed in 1992, WANTFA was built on the ethic of grower helping growers. It is the only WA group that solely focuses on precision agriculture (no-tillage and zero-tillage). WANTFA endorses farming practices that support the following principles:

  • Limited soil disturbance,
  • Precision agriculture,
  • Permanent ground cover,
  • Diverse rotations, and
  • Reduced compaction.

WANTFA operates with the support and assistance of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), Australian Government, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), corporate sponsors, events income and membership fees. WANTFA is a member of the Conservation Agriculture Alliance of Australia and New Zealand (CAAANZ).

B. Perennials are multi-year crops

Why grow crops for one season and then harvest them in a manner that kills the crop, requiring replanting? What if we could grow super-crops that survived and grew and grew? As The Land Institute wiki says

perennial grain that lives and remains productive for two or more years. Rather than growing for only one season before harvest, like most grains and annual crops, perennial grains grow year after year. As the first perennial grain crop grown across the northern United States, Kernza is expected to dramatically change agriculture, making croplands multifunctional through the production of both food and ecosystem services

4_Seasons_Roots.jpg

Compare the size of annual wheat (left) with perennial, multi-year wheat (right).

C. Biochar

With nearly magical properties, biochar is so wonderful I have had to dedicate a whole page to it. Please take your time to watch the TED talks I list there.

  • Biochar is agricultural and forestry waste that is cooked up in a low oxygen environment (and is not wood ash that you might get from slash and burn farming).
  • We can biochar seaweed.
  • It is probably most economic to add to croplands and can help bring crop soil back to life economically.
  • When added to the soil, biochar reduces soil fertiliser requirements by actively sucking in nutrients, storing them for plants and stopping the rain washing nutrients out into rivers.
  • Biochar encourages microorganisms to grow and tiny fungi to multiply through the soil. It’s like the coral reef of the soil, providing a home and backbone for every tiny soil organism and fungi to grow. When the fungi die they release nitrogen into the soil, and then new fungi grows.
  • Normal compost degrades and evaporates the carbon back into the air, but biochar stores half of the carbon permanently in our soils (from centuries to even thousands of years).

In summary: both no-till farming and biochar can bring croplands back to life and increase carbon sequestration in the soil.

6. Other protein

I’m not a vegan by any means of the imagination. But I am concerned for my kids generation growing up in a world of 10 billion, and how we’re going to feed everyone. We can take the pressure off livestock pasture lands with protein from other sources. While there might be a place for smaller scaled environmentally grown meat (see f below), I’m fascinated by protein from ever smaller, more unlikely spaces. Our cropland farms take up a massive 12% of the non-ice land on earth, and many of these crops are growing soy and corn for feeding lot cattle.

But pasturelands for grazing livestock takes up about 30% of the land on earth! Now while there might be some areas not much use for anything but grazing a few goats, we must find more intensive and productive ways to work the land. I think we can do better, and have people and economies and nature thrive. Below are some ways we can get more protein from our seaweed fertilised croplands, and more!

A. Impossible burgers — yummy veggie burgers

Heme is the secret. It’s the iron carrying molecule in red blood cells that gives meat it’s meaty flavour. They’ve isolated heme from soy beans and cultures, and found ways to introduce it to vegetable patties that actually taste like meat! This means our seaweed fertilised croplands can now give us all the ‘meat’ burgers we want.
Seaweed => crops => meat tasting burger! As the wiki says:

the company’s stated aim is to give people the taste and nutritional benefits of meat without supposed negative health and certain environmental impacts associated with livestock products. The company researches animal products at the molecular level, then selects pecific proteins and nutrients from plants to recreate the experience and nutrition of specific meat products.

B. Better aquaculture

The videos above rightly criticise fish aquaculture if it uses ocean by-catch to farm fish, as this creates massive demand for cheap by-catch from the oceans, encouraging environmentally destructive over-fishing or bottom trawling. But there is another way to feed those fish! Australia’s CSIRO made fish-free feedstock for fish farms, saving the oceans from ‘by catch’ trawlers. There could even be a way of substituting seaweed into the nutrient mix.

C. New ‘Chicken nuggets’ — from insects!?

Just as we’ll probably get all kinds of seaweed and shell fish processed foods that don’t even look like seaweed or shellfish, we can enjoy eating nutritious healthy abundant insect protein – also disguised as processed food. I mean, who really knows what the heck is in their chicken nuggets anyway? The bottom line is that insects get 10 times more protein than beef from the same amount of vegetation input. While it can be a massive scaled professional industrial insect farm, there could also be smaller city block operations where significant quantities of tasty protein come from locally cycled in restaurant scraps. And we could test which seaweed the bugs liked most. Then we’d have: seaweed => insects => ‘Chicken nuggets’. Please read my page on eating insects!

D. Desert cities can use desal greenhouses to feed locals

Please read my page on Greening the deserts. Also, let’s not forget that any desert city on the ocean can probably also have massive 3d seaweed and shellfish farms to be food independent, even food exporters!

E. Sci-Fi future foods

Bacteria factories to feed the world

As George Monbiot reports they are about to build bacteria factories in 2021 that may replace farming forever. Instead of farming, we’ll be ‘ferming’ or fermenting bacteria to make all the flour and protein alternatives we could need.

But pancakes are not the intended product. Such flours are likely soon to become the feedstock for almost everything. In their raw state, they can replace the fillers now used in thousands of food products. When the bacteria are modified they will create the specific proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. Other tweaks will produce lauric acid – goodbye palm oil – and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – hello lab-grown fish. The carbohydrates that remain when proteins and fats have been extracted could replace everything from pasta flour to potato crisps. The first commercial factory built by Solar Foods should be running next year.

The hydrogen pathway used by Solar Foodsis about 10 times as efficient as photosynthesis. But because only part of a plant can be eaten, while the bacterial flour is mangetout, you can multiply that efficiency several times. And because it will be brewed in giant vats the land efficiency, the company estimates, is roughly 20,000 times greater. Everyone on Earth could be handsomely fed, and using a tiny fraction of its surface. If, as the company intends, the water used in the process (which is much less than required by farming) is electrolysed with solar power, the best places to build these plants will be deserts.

We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.

Cultured meats

Stem cell driven, vat-grown cultured meats might one day give us all the meat we could ever eat. The technology is still vastly too expensive, but is coming down in price, especially as our ability to develop better feedstocks improves. 

EG: Will they find a way to economically feed seaweed into the vats as the feedstock for the cultured meats? (Wired, 7-minutes).

In that case, we could eat all the vast grown beef and chicken and pork and goat and lamb and turkey we could ever want, guilt-free, without hurting a single animal while RESTORING our oceans!

F. When you have to have a steak

OK, so now we’ve got a sentimental birthday or anniversary coming up and someone is getting nostalgic for a good old fashioned proper cowboy grown steak from an actual cow! Vegans may object, but there are environmental ways to grow meat, even if it’s not as much as the amount of protein we can get from the seaweed and shellfish and veggies and insects described above. But there’s only one meat I can support, and that’s managed grazing where the cows and land get the best life possible, and the pig gets to express the ‘pigness of the pig’. Please see MANAGED GRAZING.

7. Re-wilding — overworked lands returned to nature

The goal for me is seeing how many people we can feed on smaller plots of land and less resources so we can restore the land we do work, and return other land we don’t need to nature. Imagine abused, dried up badlands from some bygone dustbowl farming era being returned to parks, forests, nature reserves, and other uses. Imagine having spare land and more nature as the world heads towards 10 billion? That’s my dream. I hope the experts above can convince you it could be your dream as well.

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