Fossil-free Foods with Algae

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Afood supply based on fossil resources imposes five fatal errors on societies; constantly rising prices, freshwater scarcity, soil erosion and degradation, severe environmental insults and eventually crop failure. A food supply not dependent on fossil resources would avoid the fatal problems with our current food production. We need to develop an alternative food supply that is fossil-free and grows good food with no or minimal fossil resources. That food production method, abundance, grows food and other forms of energy with plentiful resources that will not run out – sunshine, CO2 and waste, brine or ocean water.

Food prices

Food prices continue to escalate as the U.N. Food and Agricultural data show. Rising prices put many developing countries at risk for widespread hunger and malnutrition. The U.N. estimates that rising food prices pushed 44 million people into poverty in the year ending May 30, 2011, which could lead to desperate shortages and unrest. The revolutions in North Africa ignited when the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt could not supply their people with sufficient, affordable food. Egypt reported to the World Bank that the country needs $10 billion in food aid in 2011. Nearly every country in North Africa and the Middle East are heavily dependent on food imports, which drives up demand and prices.

FAO Food Price Index

Food prices escalate in lockstep with the price of oil and other fossil resources because these resources are necessary for production. The price of a single fertilizer, phosphorous, rose 700% over a recent 14-month period. Fertilizers currently account for around 30% of the cost of food production and those costs are increasing sharply. As natural resource scarcity increases, food costs will rise even faster because speculators will hoard resource assets. Speculators have already disrupted soil, oil, water and fertilizer markets.

U.S. Fertilizer Price

After adopting industrial agricultural practices imported from the US, over eight million farmers in India quit farming during the 1990s due to rising crop input prices – seeds, water, fuels, fertilizers and chemicals. Rising input costs rapidly escalated farmer debt. In the decade ending in 2007, 183,000 farmers in India committed suicide because their farms could no longer provide for their families.

Water scarcity

Agriculture consumes 70% of the freshwater globally and 80% in the western US. Recent cropland expansion has converted deserts to fields with irrigation. The sunshine is great for crops but desert farming consumes tremendous amounts of freshwater.

Countries, states, cities and farmers have been fighting over water for decades. As global warming intensifies droughts and causes more water loss from evaporation, water conflicts will intensify. Vandana Shiva in Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit predicts the water wars of the 21st century may surpass the oil wars of the 20th century.

Soil degradation

Farm operators now lease over half the cropland in the US. Non-owners are motivated to maximize short-term profitability and have less motivation than owners to use sustainable agricultural practices. Systemic extraction, waste and pollution systemically degrade ecosystems until they become unproductive and must be abandoned.

Industrial agriculture promotes erosion by plowing fields with heavy equipment, intensive cultivation, and application of harsh fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. Growing crops constantly disrupts and compacts topsoil while extracting nutrients and humus, which amplifies erosion and wears out the soil. As fields deteriorate, farmers react by applying more water, fertilizers and pesticides. These actions not only increase costs but also make run-off more toxic.

Environmental insults

Agricultural pollution causes significant health problems that often lead to disability and premature death for farmers and people living in rural communities. People call the trains from the city of Chotia Khurd in northern India cancer trains because so many people in the farming villages must travel from their homes to the city for cancer treatments.

China’s farmers must abandon over a million acres of degraded cropland each year. The resulting dust storms are worse than the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 1930s. China’s air pollution caused over 20 million people to suffer respiratory illnesses in 2007. The country’s health ministry demanded that the World Bank remove mortality calculations from a report on the country’s air and water pollution because the numbers could trigger social unrest.

Air Pollution in China

Americans do not escape air pollution, largely due to agriculture. The American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air reports that 155 million Americans, just over half the nation’s population, live in areas where air pollution levels are often dangerous to breathe.

Crop failure

When soil, oil, freshwater, phosphorus or any other nonrenewable input becomes unaffordable or extinct locally, the food supply crashes. Food supplies have crashed in many countries already. In the Mid-East, insufficient freshwater ended food production in many regions. In parts of Central America, Africa and China, soil erosion and expanding deserts have destroyed cropland. In India, the cost of fertilizer, water scarcity, and ecological pollution has forced farmers from their land. The serious threat hidden in the fossil foods model is that when just one of the fossil inputs becomes unavailable, the entire food supply fails.

New food supply

We could avoid the fatal errors with fossil foods if we were able to design an alternative food supply based on abundant resources that do not rise with the oil, do not pollute and will not run out. We could transform our food production system so that consumers could make healthy choices for themselves, producers, our planet and our atmosphere.

This new food supply will enable us to leave a positive legacy for our children – healthy, affordable food, clean ecosystems, breathable air, and abundant natural resources. Freedom foods offer a clean, naturally biodiverse and healthy alternative to fossil foods. Growers produce foods and feeds low on the food chain with abundance methods that use minimal or no fossil resources to produce foods.

Fossil-free foods

Growers can cultivate algae with no or minimal fossil resources. Fossil-free food production represents an alternative to industrial food production that does not compete for scarce resources.

Cultivated algae production systems, (CAPS) can be sited on non-crop land. CAPS are scalable and may grow algae biomass on wasteland, deserts, degraded fields, rooftops, or empty lots. Covered or closed CAPS can produce food and other forms of energy in nearly any altitude, latitude, longitude, weather, or geography. Covered CAPS enable growers to produce good food independent of climate.

Growers can use non-potable water to grow good food, including wastewater, brine, brackish, or ocean water. These water sources free food production from chemical fertilizers because algae can absorb the required nutrients from the water. Obviously, growing food in wastewater requires additional safeguards to protect against parasites and pathogens. Fortunately, methods to assure cleanliness and quality have been in practices for decades.

CAPS can use renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal for the modest energy required to move and mix the algae culture and for harvest and component extraction. Algae production does not require heavy equipment such as tractors and combines, which decreases production costs substantially while avoiding pollution.

Over 90% of industrial grain crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered, (GE). GE crops amplify the requirement for fossil resources, including especially increases in water, cultivation, (fuel) and pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Algae offered growers a natural diversity of millions of species. Growers can select from a wide variety of naturally occurring species to cultivate biomass that maximizes desired production. Growers cannot only avoid GE crops that can produce good food without the need for agricultural poisons. Consumers benefit because they can avoid both GE foods and pesticide residue on and in produce.

Path forward

Currently, algae producers use industrial agricultural methods for algae production. Selected growers avoid one or more of the fossil resources, primarily to minimize production costs. The great opportunity remains for producers to develop a fossil-free strategy that breaks the link between the rising costs of nonrenewable resources in food production. Growers can create a substantial competitive advantage by using abundance growing methods where the inputs to foods are full, free or surplus, and will not run out.

The Freedom Foods Revolution at proposes to distribute the knowledge and capability for abundance methods globally to enable all people to grow good food and other co-products for their family and community locally.

Adapted from: Abundance: Sustainable Fossil-free Foods with Superior Nutrition and Taste; less Pollution and Waste. Tempe: CreateSpace, Mark Edwards, 2010.