Algae and Economic Security

by Dr. Mark Edwards

Robert Kennedy assessed Americans without economic security that lived in poverty in 1967. He was astounded at the widespread political and private denial and silence. He said: There are millions of Americans living in hidden places whose faces and names we will never know. I have seen children starving in Mississippi, idling away their lives in the urban ghetto, living without hope or future amid the despair of Indian reservations. These conditions will change for those children’s lives only if we dissent.

If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would be appalled because poverty in America has become worse. By 2010, over 22% of children and 15% of all Americans live in poverty. The Census Bureau reported that 2010 marked the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people living in poverty. The number of people living in poverty in 2010, 46.2 million, is the largest number seen in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.

Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy

Presidential candidates in 2012 said less about poverty than they did about the environment or climate change. Hunger and poverty, “the worst weapon of mass destruction,” was not mentioned. Congress seems to be looking for ways to increase hunger by restricting food stamps and cutting other food support programs, rather than helping starving children.

Poverty and hunger may be the most critical issue for America’s future, yet almost no one talks about the problem or its severity. Childhood hunger has the potential and high likelihood to singularly destroy American society. Hunger undermines education and creates ruinous health care costs. Food insecure families produce severely impaired children that grow into adolescents that will be unprepared or physically incapable of completing their education or acquiring good jobs.

Families in poverty cannot afford sufficient nutrition, which magnifies their children’s risk for illness and weakens their immune system. The immature immune systems of young children, make them especially vulnerable to nutritional deprivation and as a result, the ability to learn, grow, and fight infections is adversely affected.

Human capital

Children are the foundation of every nation’s human capital. No nation can sacrifice one out of five of its children and survive. The U.S has the second worst infant mortality rate among industrialized nations, about 25,000 a year. Infant mortality is cheap – a one-time cost of about $50,000, but with pain and suffering for the infant and family. Low birthweight babies that survive the first year incur medical bills averaging $93,800. First year expenses for the smallest survivors average $273,900.

Malnourished children that grow up in an impoverished home with food insecurity are extremely expensive. Children suffering poverty and malnutrition from food insecurity create a huge drag on society because society must pay for them during their entire life. Malnourished, food insecure children can add more than five times the cost of infant mortality. Each child increases the cost of education but they often have neither the health nor mental stability to finish high school. They represent a lifelong cost sink that wastes lives and families. They become adults who have no skills, so they cannot get or hold a job and must depend on government support for living and medical expenses. Their bodies and brains are often underdeveloped from nutritional deficiencies, which means they incur social medical costs several times higher than normal people.

Poverty and affordable good food

Rising food costs prohibit many from obtaining good nutrition. Impoverished families have trouble finding enough money to buy good food. Impoverished families must budget their limited means among all their competing needs including food, which may be supplemented by SNAP subsidies. Low cost foods tend to be high in sugar, salt, fat and calories but low in protein and nutritional density. The lowest cost foods cause obesity and diabetes and all the associated diseases and medical costs.

Family members fill up on cheap food, which solves their immediate symptom – hunger pangs. Empty calories deliver fat but lack nutritional benefit. Cheap foods launch a negative health trajectory towards obesity, diabetes and the many associated illnesses. Impoverished families are forced to trade an immediate solution to hunger pains for future medical and physical pain and medical costs.

The cost of food, as a function of disposable income, had dropped from around 16% in 1980 to 9% in 2013. Unfortunately, many consumers have traded cheap food for higher medical expenses. While food costs dropped 40% as a percentage of disposable income, medical costs have more than doubled. Some of the medical cost increase came from hidden hunger and empty calories that are systemic in cheap industrial foods.

Root causes of hunger

Algae microfarms can address the root causes of poverty and hunger with a seven-step strategy. People without economic security do not have the means to buy food or the inputs to grow their own foods, using industrial agricultural methods. A strategy to provide economic security to millions of people and at the same time moderate poverty, food security and health involves teaching people how to grow microcrops.

Distributed model

Distributed small and medium size microfarms offer the highest potential for local jobs, economic security and social justice. Large farms concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Large agribusinesses limit innovation to the relatively few people engaged in the firm. Large firms create value for their stakeholders by hoarding their intellectual property, which serves the company but not society.

Algae microfarms

Algae microfarms

Transforming food production to a distributed model with many producers close to consumers will improve social justice and access to fresh good food. People who currently cannot afford to grow their own food due to climate, available cropland or economics will be able to produce affordable for their family and community with microfarms.

Local production will create tens of thousands of new green jobs. Growers will produce fresh natural foods for their family, neighbors and farmers’ markets. These foods deliver superior nutrition and taste without the pollution and waste associated with industrial agriculture. High productivity will allow growers to produce protein and other nutrients 30 to 70 times faster than field crops. In addition, microfarms can be sited in small spaces and on land or buildings that have no or minimal alternative use, which reduces site costs.

Path forward

Algae microfarms offer economic security for millions of Americans and our global neighbors. We need to build the capability for producing microfarms that can recycle waste streams and convert them into healthy foods. Microfarms can transform impoverished and food insecure families to healthy, economically secure contributors to society.