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The Food, Water, Energy, Carbon, and Money Equation

October 5, 2013
By Garrett Fisher

It is not news that the sustainability of the planet is approaching a tipping point. The main subject has been carbon and climate change; however, I am referring to a tipping point where economic systems, resource limitations, population, and climate stressors combine to push human society over the edge. Not a solely environmental message; rather, a proclamation that we, as humans, are relatively idiotic.  Climate change is its own story and generally focuses on the concept that, if we don’t get our house in order, we’ll have found out too late that the planet is past the point of no return as far as hospitable human habitation. I refer to the more present problem that, if we attempt to continue current thinking regarding resource consumption and couple it with a confluence of unsustainable patterns, it will blow up in our face – long before climate is the dominant daily concern.

Human population has grown like never before in the last century. See the below graph:


Credit: Wikipedia User Tga.D based on Aetheling’s work

The rather obvious conclusion is that human population has increased from 1.7 billion to 6 billion by 2000 and 7 billion by 2010 – a rapid increase in population that the planet has to date not seen before. In the course of this time, the human race has fought two world wars, proxy wars during the Cold War, has developed and detonated nuclear weapons and has seen the dawn of global religious terrorism. With 1.7 billion people on the planet, we were limited to horses, guns, and hot air balloons for war. We now have drones, ICBMs, and the like. It doesn’t take a pessimist to realize that society stands to head down a very negative path if it is stressed to a tipping point of mass civil instability.

Given our current confluence of incendiary factors, we have enough to worry about keeping the world fed, clothed, housed, and provided medical care. Enter in the concept that our resource-hungry ways are leading humanity down an irreversible path – and change is difficult, if not unsustainable. Namely, by solving one problem – carbon and climate, we make current resources more expensive and exacerbate present difficulties. If we continue to increase resource consumption, we sacrifice our future. It’s a game of environmental and economic whack-a-mole.

When it comes to human basics, it boils down to five things that are interrelated: food, water, energy, carbon, and money. Increase food production and water supplies reduce (carbon contribution is a problem in the case of cattle production). Increase water (desalination is unlimited) and renewable energy resources are used up and/or carbon is contributed to the atmosphere. Increase energy (in a cost effective way) and carbon goes up. Increase carbon – and food, water, and energy become a problem. Solve food, energy, water, and carbon – and money goes out the door. It’s a cycle of despair attempting to simultaneously and sustainably address all five issues without making one worse and doing so in a cost effective manner. It effectively forces a question of feeding today’s children or looking after the earth we will bequeath to future generations.

We are facing a modern-day Malthusian Trap. Malthus proposed that, under the then present economic system, population is effectively tied to agricultural production. If agriculture increases didn’t occur, then population would hit a limit. His theory was upended by a number of agricultural improvements: some technology, some crop selection, some farming methods. The introduction of the potato and corn from Peru and Mexico, respectively, avoided Europe ramming into a population ceiling. Various plant diseases threatened certain needed crops – and just in time pesticides and fertilizers have come along. For centuries, we have been using technology to stay ahead of our population size – sometimes dangerously so, sometimes comfortably so.

The present problem isn’t our ability to produce food. We can drill every aquifer, dump fertilizer on every crop, even pipe water to deserts if we want. Technology, at some cost, will permit raw food production to keep up. The issue is that reality coupled with the balance of other human needs stands to converge for the first time, on a mass scale, in human history. Effectively, these collisions have occurred in the past to some limited extent – as the availability of technology was so low – that it was a function of labor capacity to produce food. Building a greenhouse was labor intensive and very expensive in 1700. Heating it meant the sacrifice of housing heat. So, technology wasn’t used as it lacked sufficient advancement – it was humans and draft animals – and humans simply produced what food they could and when it wasn’t enough, people died.

Nowadays, cause and effect is a little more divergent – yet we face the same reality. If we produce all the food we need at the expense of climate, people will die – in the long run. The Malthusian Trap is hitting – not on the basis of our ability to produce food – rather, on the basis of our ability to do so sustainably in accord with our global economy, resource stocks, and environment. Under the present economic system, we know the outcome – we’ll produce the food. People get hungry – and they eat. The climate in two centuries from now will always be irrelevant to present-day stomach rumbles. In the past, the lack of technology made it very easy to perceive a correlation between population support and agricultural production. The point now is that our modern-day, technology heavy world has similar concerns – not the same, rather similar – in that depletion of resources in one area affects the ability to produce food. While not as direct, it is, in effect, the same problem.

So what is the solution? As a human family, we can do a number of things. It would be ideal to limit population growth; however, the United Nations established that choosing the “spacing and amount of children” is a right by the parents themselves and no one else. This was affirmed in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1994 in official UN decrees. So that option is out.

Another option is to adjust the economics around farming. At present, a farmer is rewarded by producing more it times of need – and doing so as cheaply as possible. It is up the regulatory infrastructure and consumer choice to require environmental sustainability or increases in food sustainability and quality. That is a notoriously slow cycle – and the more consumers get involved (local food, for example), the more counter currents there are to raw, economic efficiency. Hence, something would have to be done to the regulatory infrastructure to make it such that farmers do not find it economical to shift the problem from food to water, energy, or carbon. Given the property rights involved with land and water and the host of jurisdictions involved, our current economic system will continuously reward the guy who can come to market cheapest – even if it is in a third world jurisdiction. That option is doable in theory, except it would take amazing consensus to pull off. A painful triggering event would be required (probably when its too late). So, that is probably out for now.

A third option is technological improvement while respecting the whack-a-mole problem with other resource stocks. To the extent technology can develop a solution that solves whack-a-mole on all fronts – then the market will adopt something that also happens to be good for humans in general (by solving all 5 issues, it becomes cost-effective).

The caution with option three is the amount of time it takes for the market to be receptive. If there is a short-term advantage that exceeds long-term resource stewardship, our economic system will cause that to be foremost – in the form of cheaper prices. As stated in The Human Theory of Everything, it sometimes takes until the point where one more short-term act has no short-term reward at all before economic forces will point to remediation. In this particular case, we may find ourselves in a very bad position by the time that realization is upon us.

Containerized agriculture is making some interesting strides. An enclosed system, this technology is highly water-efficient. Some solutions have miniscule operating water requirements – with the bulk being required to replace the water that leaves with the produce. Transportation costs can be eliminated if containerized agriculture becomes urban agriculture – located next to consumers and without excessive distribution infrastructure. Land costs are a mixed result – with urban land more costly, transportation cheaper, vertical farming negating some of it, year-round produce increasing yield, and predictability both increasing yield and providing consistency that the market wants.  The energy solution is solved if the unit is connected to renewable energy sources – especially as consumption rates are surprisingly manageable. There are a host of other solutions – rooftop gardening, high-density gardening, mesh networks, urban gentrification farming – the list goes on.

Adoption of such radical changes to farming will probably be governed primarily by money with some public perception adjustment. Namely, containerized agriculture doesn’t look, smell, or feel like a traditional agricultural experience. Stepping into a vertical farming building doesn’t feel the same as standing in a cornfield in Nebraska on a breezy, blue sky summer day. The problem, ideologically, is that the cornfield in Nebraska may be nothing like the cornfields of old. In fact, corn didn’t grow in Nebraska until we put it there. That same bucolic experience standing in the field is tainted when considering that the ground may be laden with fertilizer and pesticides, water drawn unsustainably from the Ogallala aquifer, and the corn itself genetically engineered and vastly different from the corn in our minds. Putting a building around that same experience and swapping the chemicals, genetic engineering, and water issues with organically-certifiable production satisfies the moral/sustainability questions – while leaving the person wanting when it comes to a great scenic photograph. If we are going to have a planet filled with increasing amounts of people who aren’t starving, technology and agriculture must mix in some form.

At present, implementation is not mass scale…. yet. Simply put, the cost-benefit ratio is compelling enough for companies to experiment and push certain products to market – and costs still need to come down some for mass implementation to take place. Or without innovation, global stresses to and demand of agriculture will eventually bring food prices to a point where it is economically viable. In any case, the commitment of a surprising amount of scientists and intellectuals goes beyond money – given the many players being funded by altruistic, non-profit, and early-stage venture sources. Fortunately for society, there are people that care enough about the food, water, energy, carbon, and money equation to make it work before we hit a disaster.

The current discussion relates to how food, energy, water, carbon, and money intersect. Having five need sets to simultaneously manage, it can get quite complex trying to solve them all. Removing food and entertaining the water, energy, carbon, and money is an entirely different ecosystem of sustainability.