by Dr. Mark Edwards
he Friendship Bridge proposes to build 8,600 algae microfarms in lieu of 13 miles of additional border wall. The highly productive microfarms will be given to Mexican and Central American farmers. The microfarms will enable farmers and families to grow food, feed, biofertilizers and healthy nutritional products on small non-cropland footprints so they can stay home and not be forced by economics to migrate.
The U.S. forced immigration
In 1990, 4.5 million Mexicans lived in the U.S. In 2000, the number more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.7 million. This migration is not because so many millions of people are eager to leave their families behind in order to chase some dream in the U.S. Economic policies, in particular the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, (NAFTA), created this massive immigration by destroying Mexico’s economy.
U.S. farm policy, namely subsidies, created artificially low prices for food grain products, corn oil and corn sugars. Over 1.5 million Mexican farmers were forced to leave their land because they could not compete with subsidized U.S. foods.
Subsidized U.S. corn pushed prices in Mexico down by more than 50%, but corn was not the only problem. Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year NAFTA took effect. By 2010, pork imports from the U.S. had grown over 25 times, to 811,000 tons. As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56%.
Farmer’s margins are slim. U.S. farmers could not survive with a 50%+ drop in crop or meat prices. Thousands of Mexican farmers, large and small, lost their farms to bankruptcy when their crops and animal sales could not pay for their agricultural inputs.
Able-bodied people had no choice but to move to the U.S. to work because they could not get a fair price for their food grains at home. They had to leave their land, their homes and move north. They had no alternative, if they wanted to survive. In rural areas such as Oaxaca, Mexico, some towns became depopulated. What were once towns are now made up of tiny communities of the very old and very young.
When Mexican meat and corn producers were driven from their farms by U.S. imports, the Mexican economy was left vulnerable to price changes dictated by U.S. agribusiness or policy. The U.S. had supplied over half the world’s corn in exports but when the U.S. modified its corn policy to encourage ethanol, half of the U.S. corn production – millions of tons – were burned to fuel big American cars.
U.S. ethanol subsidies for corn created a ripple effect around the world. When the price of corn tortillas, a pillar of the Mexican diet, quadrupled in late 2006, people took to the streets. The “tortilla riots” were the first in a series of over 50 food riots that hit over 30 countries as the cost of agricultural commodities, including especially food grains, reached all-time highs.
The image of Americans burning food to make fuel for cars was and is atrocious. The incredibly foolish U.S. biofuel policy led me to write BioWar I.
Burning food, throughout the history of civilization has been an uncivilized act of war that imposed terrible punishment and hunger on the enemy. The Energy Policy Act signed by President George Bush in 2005 made the U.S. the first society in history to burn its own food. As a result of the Act, the 28 million of poor and hungry Americans on food support roughly doubled while food prices surged in the U.S. and globally. BioWar I follows the money trail to document how a few large agribusiness companies profited substantially from the huge ethanol subsidies that resulted in global food riots. BioWar I has been used by lobbyists to diminish the catastrophically idiotic ethanol and related subsidies.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security should consider joining the World Trade Organization where several countries, including Mexico and Canada, are suing to end U.S. crop subsidies.
Microfarms can produce excellent food, feed and other bioproducts locally. Farmer’s markets provide a good model for microfarm to table sales. Fresh and local are strong drivers for consumers interested in healthy food choices. Local sales create a competitive advantage for each microfarmer, assuming their markets for fresh product does not overlap.
Robert Henrikson’s field research found that big producers get only about 10% of the retail price selling bulk spirulina in quantity to manufacturers. Microfarmers may capture 35% of the retail price when they dry, make tablets, bottle, label, package and market branded finished products and sell through the typical retail distribution system. The channel members consume 65% of the value. When microfarmers sell direct to customers in the local community, they can capture 100% of the retail value.
Small producers can sell fresh algae locally. Fresh may be kept refrigerated for about 4 days. Frozen can be kept much longer. Fresh or frozen spirulina typically sells for 2x or 3x the value of dried product. Fresh spirulina offers many other advantages including no time or energy required for drying or making specialty products such as pasta. Fresh spirulina has a neutral, fresh taste and can be added to just about any food or drink to improve nutralence. Fresh spirulina remains a specialty with local production because the shelf life is far too short for distant producers.
Experience in France
The Federation des Spiruliniers de France offers an excellent model for networked microfarmers. Jean-Paul Jourdan published his manual “Cultivez Votre Spiruline,” (Grow Your Own Spirulina) in 2002. Gilles Planchon published “La Spiruline Pour Tous,” (“Spirulina for Everybody”) in 2009, an easy-to-read manual (in French) for growing spirulina.
A spirulina school was established at the CFPPA Center in Hyères in 2005. Hyères is an agricultural campus. Jean-Paul Jourdan became a professor of spirulina culture, engaging more people to join this community and training entrepreneurs to grow their own algae business. The number of microfarmers grew and by 2008 the Fédération des Spiruliniers was organized as an association with 80 members. Collectively, they agreed on good business practices and guidelines for quality control. In 2011 work began on a Federation Charter, with quality control standards and good manufacturing practices. One goal is to coordinate food standards with government agencies on regulatory issues as they arise.
Many French spirulina growers sell their entire production each year. Many can only grow their spirulina during the warmer months in France. Some growers produce algae for a living, but most supplement their income with their spirulina microfarm.
Microfarms grow microcrops that produce healthy protein 30 to 70 times faster than field crops such as corn. After about 45 days of growing the inoculate, a microfarmer can harvest about 30% of the biomass daily, or choose to harvest a higher percentage every two days during sunny weather. Growers can produce algae food and algae bioproducts year round in many regions of Mexico and Central America.
Microfarms enable farmers and families to make enough money to stay on their land. These farms will not make them rich, but they will have the means to provide healthy food for their family and food to sell in their community.
Rural areas especially suffer from high unemployment. Youth unemployment in Central America exceeds 25% in many regions. A modest microfarm may employ two people and possibly more. One person may focus on growing and harvesting algae. A second might take the food or bioproducts to market.
If the microfarmer grows spirulina, the grower may choose to dry the product or sell it fresh locally. Fresh or frozen spirulina can be eaten directly without any processing or cooking.
- 50 m2 microfarm, (surface area)
- Volume about 4,000 gallons at 15 cm depth.
- This microfarm yields about 135 kg /yr. of spirulina.
- Antenna research shows that an 8-week spirulina treatment with 100 g (total) resolves childhood malnutrition. Therefore, each microfarms can deliver enough spirulina to cure 1,350 children and/or pregnant mothers from the curse of malnutrition.
If the 8,600 microfarms in the Green Friendship Bridge project averaged 135 kg of spirulina a year, the microfarms could cure over 11.6 million children from malnutrition. That is a worthy goal because it helps not only the kids, our next generation, but their families, schools, medical facilities and communities. Stronger kids grow up to be better citizens and to be strong contributors to local economic prosperity.
As growers learn better production techniques, microfarm productivity will rise to benefit more people in the community, as well as the growers. Experience will also broaden the range of bioproducts grown, which will enhance expansion opportunities and profitability.
Possibly the strongest economic value microfarms offer, beyond sustainable jobs and a healthier local population, is fast response to disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes can create ecological and economic catastrophes. Climate chaos amplifies droughts that kill field crops and wildfires and fierce storms demolish crops. These events also may destroy the agricultural infrastructure, roads, leveled land and irrigation, needed to produce field crops. Unfortunately, when ecological disasters occur, countries seldom have the means to buy replacement food for their hungry population. With roads and bridges destroyed, distributing food becomes problematic.
A common element of disaster is an abundance of wastewater, but no clean water and no fresh food. Microfarms can be delivered to disaster sites quickly and provide clean water and fresh healthy food locally in a matter of weeks. A strong attribute of microfarms is that, unlike food deliveries that must be repeated weekly, microfarms are sustainable. Growers can learn to produce food quickly and continue to produce food reliably for years. A typical microfarm probably has a natural life of about 10 years. After 10 years, it is a relatively simple and cheap process to replace the polycarbonate container and liner, as well as any worn pumps and piping.