Let Them Eat Kelp

The 2012 drought in the United States has already resulted in a significant rise in the price of corn, wheat, and soybeans. We can expect a chorus of voices predicting famine and other crisis. The failure of one year of crops is unlikey to prompt farmers to change to new methods of agriculture. This year's problem is a result of extremely low rainfall is the grainbelt. The normal rain patterns in this part of the country allow farmers to grow very high yield  commodities using dry farming techniques. This method only works if rain falls are sufficient and consistent through the growing season and temperatures remain below the level that physically damage the plants. This simple system reduces the cost of raising crops by eliminating the expense of irrigation. When the weather cooperates it results in very low cost grain from land that has historically has received enough rain at critical times to grow these commodities. If weather patterns change significantly and drought becomes the norm, then farmers will buy irrigation equipment to increase production. Fear of dwindling food supply is probably misplaced. However, that food will cost more if irrigation is required.

The food verses fuel market pressure on biomass also gives the impression that there is a dwindling food supply. The supply of biomass being produced is not dwindling. The diversion of corn for the production of ethanol and soybean oil for the production of fuel additives has pushed up the price, but that is not mean there is a dwindling supply. However, there is little new land available to put into production in the United States, so increasing biomass production is dependent on increasing yield. A sustainable approach to meeting the growing demand for biomass will likely use process intensification methods, such as controlled environment agriculture, to meet the growing demand for biomass.

It is possible to greatly increase yield by using technology that allows multiple crops to grow in the same location at the same time. This topic was explored in the book "Colonies in Space" by T. A. Heppenheimer. The book summarized NASAs research into what would be required to establish permanent space colonies. The book was published in 1977. One quote from the book struck me when I first read it: "It is entirely reasonable to plan to grow grain in the space farm at a rate of 850 pounds per acre per day." That's over 30 times a typical yield on a farm today. The chapter on farming in space, also reported on research by Richard Branfield in the 1960s. He demonstrated it was possible grow enough food to feed 10,000 persons on 320 acres of land in the Philippines using inter-planting and multiple cropping and using a breed of rice that matures quickly.

Are world food supplies really dwindling? No, but production does fluctuate from year to year, however yields (both per unit area and total production) have increased on average since the 1800s. Isn't the perceived shortage really just a reaction to the rise in prices? Higher prices do create a real problem.  High prices disproportionately affects the poorest people around the world. The price rise is a simple reaction to increasing demand. Two factors cause this: 1) over population by the human species, 2) rising per capita income. The first cause would take care of itself if pure market forces were used for the distribution of food. Given a fixed supply of food poor people would starve and supply would return to be balance to meet demand. (Economics was called the dismal science for this reason.) The second cause is a result of an improving standard of living, which is increasing demand for higher quality food. This results in financial incentives to raise grain to feed cattle and other livestock instead of raising wheat or rice to feed people. Corn is also being diverted to the production of transportation fuels, partially due to government incentives.

The commodity nature of food makes food production one of the few pure free markets. Farmers grow the food that will maximize their profits. The food "shortage" is really a cost of production problem and cheap land and water are key requirement for the production of cheap food. Land that can be profitably cultivated is already in production. Marginal land is brought into production when prices rise. When we run out of marginal land then new more expensive techniques will be used to raise more food on the same land. For instance, in Europe greenhouses are used to deliver a steady supply of high value perishable crops that are in demand year round. As I describe in the opening paragraphs, we could easily increase the supply of food through purely mechanical means. But that food will cost more than food raised using current methods.

Another method for reducing pressure on farm land is to start using non-traditional plants that has a very high yield. Algae is well known for having an extremely high growth rate compared to terrestrial plants. Unfortunately much of the research on growing algae has focused on single cell algae, with much of that research focused on high oil yields from algae. There are many non-starter problems with this approach and DOE abandoned the research due to these technical problems. The results of research on developing open ocean kelp farms as a source of biomass for fuel between 1970 and 1981 were much better. While there where many mechanical problems with the test equipment, it was a promising concept but the technology.

There are many positive byproducts of developing the scalable technology for growing kelp. Methods are available for converting kelp into fuels, plastics, and other valuable chemicals. The high potassium content of kelp made it an attractive ingredient in the production of fertilizer. The nutritional content of kelp is quite healthy.  Kelp is sold commercially as a livestock feed supplement. Switching cattle feed to seaweeds grown in the ocean would free up farm land currently used to raise corn. Farmers will choose to grow wheat and rice when the demand for corn drops, which it would do in response to switch to using seaweed to feed cattle. However, the really big reason for pursuing this technology is the reversal of the acidification of the oceans due to carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels. This is the big idea that should push open ocean kelp farming to the top of the list of biomass projects. It could be used directly for remediation of anthropomorphic carbon dioxide pollution of the ocean. And this doesn't require increasing the cost of energy to society. New automation techniques have the potential to drive the cost per ton of biomass down to a level that will allow it to be commercially competitive with production costs of petroleum based materials. That will also make ti very cheap as an animal feed.

I wrote this essay in response to a problem posed on the IdeaConnection website. I was puzzled by the statement they had made about dwindling food supplies. The problem statement emphasized genetic engineering of new plants as a solution. I don't think the problem they postulated exists. This may be due to my background. I grew up working in the family's grain handling business in the Midwest. My education is in engineering, and for the last ten years I've been investigating scalable alternatives for sustainable fuel sources. The problem statement stated: "The world needs ideas and solutions to the problem of dwindling food supplies, and this is your chance to help make a difference." Some clarification of the problem that is to be solved would help in the hunt for a solution. First, are we constrained to only plants growing on land? Second, are we looking only at increasing human food supplies? Third, is the goal to increase bulk calories available, regardless of the food stuff, or is it to increase the supply of popular food items like wheat and rice? I'll assume the goal is to make sure every human on the planet is fed sufficient calories to be healthy. The problem is really about the cost of the food. For a given price we can easily feed everyone on the planet. The perception of a food shortage really is a reflection of disproportionate income distributions and the impact of price fluctuations on those who spend a significant portion of their income to buy food. Reduce the number of people on the planet would solve the supply and demand problem and reduce the anthropomorphic destruction of the biosphere. To all other species on the planet we are the invasive species of death. But i digress.