Feeding 200 million people when you have land, but no freshwater

Salt-water tolerant rice in the Middle East

source: Gan, Nectar. South China Morning Post, 01 June 2018. 

The next 40 years or so have significant issues to address:

  • Poor resource management of freshwater
  • A world population at ~9.7 billion by 2050 (UN)
  • Decreased regional food production from climate change related variance
  • Poor phosphorus management and/or shortage (1) (2) (3)
  • Antibiotic resistance issues from questionable livestock production practices

While there are multiple ways to tackle each issue, I’ve chosen to work on the methods and practices side of alternative agriculture. However, the genetics side of the conversation is exciting, promising, and terrifying all at once. This sort of approach, creating salt-water tolerant strains of staple food crop, is extremely promising, and furthermore serves to create productive growing zones from once unproductive areas. Deserts have large concentrations of nitrogen and substrate nutrients, but typically lack the moisture necessary for solid yields. By utilizing seawater as an input, we can ‘unlock’ the fallow organic material in the sandy soil and feed a tremendous mass of people.

This is really encouraging work, and I’m excited to see what comes next.



Aquaponics Methods: Fish Characters

What are the best fish for aquaponics?

Australia is an early adopter for lots of hydro and aquaponic technologies, and they have high expertise from a wealth of small businesses and farms. This is an easy overview of popular fish breeds for controlled systems farming, describing the characteristics, temperature ranges, and feeding necessities for each.

In a proper aquaponic system that has proper nutrient and waste regulation (thanks to our bacterial friends), the only true input is fish feed and new plants. But because it’s a delicate, cyclical balance, you have to demonstrate apt control over every system parameter: temperature, salinity, pH, ECM. In the future, many of these variables will be at minimum monitored by arduino sensors with real-time updates to an internet-connected device, such as your smart phone. At maximum, these parameters will be controlled and corrected in real time via sensors affixed to reserves: if you’re away from your system and the pH suddenly drops, a sensor will detect the shift immediately, notify you, and release an appropriate response buffer to amend the imbalance. Neat stuff, but a lot of technology, a lot of room for error, and a wealth of information to learn.

Trellising: Florida Weave

tomato cher purpleFlorida Weave for Tomatoes and Peppers

A small tutorial on a trellis system for tomatoes and peppers. Uses T-posts and twine to create a support net, and is applied to plants at early growth. Maximizes air flow to reduce blight and white mold. Good tutorial.

Published on Jun 14, 2016

Image: Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomatoes

New thinking leads to better alternatives: the fight against plastics

Edinburgh inventor creates biodegradable water bottle to fight plastic problem

Read more at: https://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/edinburgh-inventor-creates-biodegradable-water-bottle-to-fight-plastic-problem-1-4731899

Using natural materials from plants and trees, this clever dude has created a biodegradable water bottle that will self-erase in sea water after three months. While plastics have obviously had tremendous impact in pushing forward economies, research, and medicine, it’s now time to fold sustainability into that production. This sounds great, and it’s especially exciting for plant nerds like me.

Cellulose and lignin are the most common materials on the planet, and sporopollenin (the material that codes pollen grains in flowering plants) is the strongest bio-polymer known to man. Plant fix carbon dioxide, produce sugars, and now produce the raw materials for industrial use, as seen with the above water bottle example. All in all, turning perceived ‘waste’ outputs into valuable inputs for alternative uses is one way to push civilization forward. And as someone fascinated by controlled production of plant and algal material in efficient, sustainable ways, it’s great to see that I’ll be busy in the coming century.

Website Resources: uPonics


uPonics is a solid online site that promotes hydro and aquaponic systems and culture. There are commercial tie ins aplenty, but it provides solid information and lessons for beginners to wade deep into the water. You’ll find articles that have schematics for design archetypes, fish breed information, LED spectrum analysis, and DIY crafting that is budget-conscious.

If you were curious about building your own hydro/aqua systems, I’d highly recommend uPonics as a first stop. So many sites out there provide just a taste of information and then push newbies into their products, and there’s a balance of how much advertising you’re willing to suffer to get a preliminary idea of what to expect. My hope is that more sites will show a similar strategy of establishing value and usefulness to attract interest before pushing product, because the methodology is sound and exciting. If the sites believe in these systems, then create interested learners. Over time those learners become supporters and consumers.

The push for off-world ag

Scientists harvest 1st vegetables in Antarctic greenhouse – AP, 06 Apr 2018

Alternative agriculture has a spectrum of controls that loosely mirror conditions in scientific experiments. On one end, you have natural, observational science, where all variability is expressed and you follow natural response and reaction. At the other polar end, hyper-controlled lab studies where every non-treatment variable is made consistent and controlled. The further you can reduce variability and isolate the change produced by a treatment, the greater certainty you can express in suggesting correlation.

This is true in alternative agriculture too. There’s a spectrum of controls, and as you increase control over variability, you increase cost. The choice to provide light, either entirely or supplementally, was never a historic choice, but we now possess both the ability and foresight to see that certain environments may produce healthier plants when exposure to light is quantified. For example, the international space station provides 100% artificial light to it’s crops and research plants, not for any physiological reason, but because windows sufficient to bring in ‘daylight’ are impractical to the extreme on a space station. Further, the station ‘day’ is so short because of the incredible speed of orbit, and the quick flux of ‘day’ and ‘night’ would throw off the photoperiods of flowering and vegetation cycling.

So, it’s exciting to see these hyper-reduced input trials because it expands out capacity to control variability and create optimas for non-earth conditions. It’s a little reductionist, but every plant has fundamental needs that we can understand and provide, adjusting levels and concentrations until peak plant happiness is achieved. There are invisible, synergistic connections that may be hard or impossible to replicate, such as the relationship between soil bacteria and plant roots, but pushing the scope of our understanding to show that with X light on a cycle of Y hours, with a nutrient concentration of Z mixture at whatever dilution produces clean crop after so many days is immensely valuable. And finally, such research is necessary, because we take for granted the consistency of the earth’s predictable nature, but we can with confidence say that human existence has shifted the balance of those patterns and we are now subject to much greater variability in climate. Regional, ancestral farming knowledge will fail as rainfall either arrives or does not, and people will suffer by consequence. We can improve on the old model that valued only total yield, and not the cost of inputs, the efficiency of scale, and the environmental cost of abusing the land to push higher production.

a small thought for a rough day

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is your power to choose, and in that choice is your growth and freedom.

–  Viktor Frankl

The mystic in me says that, in observing the universe, one participates in it. You are a co-author for your own subjective little reality. Define your experience or be defined by that lack of definition. A scary, but liberating idea. Tell your story!


Hydro Methods: Kratky

Kratky How To Guide – The Kratky Method is a Simple and Fun Way to Grow           Shannon McKee | March 6, 2017

I’ve dabbled with quite a few systems over the years, and while each system provides advantages, disadvantages, and costs, there is something of an Occam’s Razor perspective to sticking plants into media they love and just letting them be. When considering the potential for hydroponic influence as a medium for food security, less tech is better: it requires less capital, less upkeep, less know-how, and less babysitting. To that end, the Kratky method is king.

The Kratky Method is a viable, low-tech approach to both hydro and aquaponics. For hydro, Kratky is a passive, closed system, requiring no power, pumps, or plumbing. Furthermore, if you’re using short cycle plants like salad greens and herbs, you can limit your nutrient input to a single event. Understanding precisely how much nutrient is left in your reservoir over time (and it’s effect on salinity and pH) is one of the great difficulties in hydroponics, and single event nutrient input completely erases this issue.

While you can assemble Kratkys on the cheap using five-gallon buckets, plastic storage bins, and random containers, I built my boxes from salvaged wood and waterproofed the reservoir with 6mm shower liner. There’s an inch-wide indent running around the perimeter of the box that supports a pink insulation panel (the type for insulating drywall in your home) that holds the net pots, the growing media (if any), and your happy little green fellows. Just control the amount of rain run off that infiltrates your closed system (which would throw off your nutrient balances) and you’ve got a fire and forget hydro system for fresh herbs and greens. Would recommend 10/10.

Self-cultivating Greenhouses

In looking through research projects and dossiers at Wageningen University, I came across an international competition sponsored by the Chinese internet giant, Tencent. Per the forecasted difficulties we’ll face in meeting food sourcing and security demands in the next 35 years (WAG: Food Security), the natural push is into increased genetic modifications of crop into greater yields with more resilience. I prefer to approach this issue from a best methods and practices mindset, pushing for efficiencies that utilize new technologies to shift food sourcing from scaled mono-cultures to decentralized and local producers.

The advent of artificial intelligence suits the design of controlled systems agriculture, and the Tencent competition is exciting in that an issue that so clearly defines my own professional ambition is being considered and probed already. In WAG: Tencent, it’s becoming clear that best methods has a long progression ahead, and they’ll be ample work for me. Furthermore, institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have recognized the issue and are providing support and resources in a grass roots manner.

The prospect of an autonomous greenhouse is both exciting and terrifying; it may simply be fact that advanced computational processing can understand and monitor plant production with greater clarity and precision than we humans ever can, and we may be forced to rely on such automation to supply the next generation with secure food. However, it may come at the cost of reducing man’s relationship with what he or she grows, a fundamental connection that has stood as the backbone of civilization. While full automation of food sourcing is a fantasy and ‘analog’ farming will always have a place in our collective story, it does further diminish our cultural understanding or appreciation of where our food comes from. But, if we are to address the startling demographic realities of feeding a skyrocketing population in the face of growing resource shortages and climate change, we may have to deal with the devil we do not yet know.

Carbon Fiber Plant Sourcing

Scientists are making carbon fiber from plants instead of petroleum
Cheaper, plant-based carbon fiber could be used to make lighter cars that consume less fuel.

Acrylonitrile is one of those sci-fi polymers with outstanding strength to weight ratios, but was traditionally formed from petroleum processing. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has effectively cut out the carbon to coal/oil middle man and used agro byproducts as a direct source for acrylonitrile synthesis. This plant-direct methodology produces no toxic byproducts, creating an ideal union of function and bio-integration.

Establishing a type 1 civilization requires absolute efficiency of all resources and inputs. Thus, projects that incorporate biointegration, emulating the decomposition-like effects of natural systems, and eliminate toxic byproducts are necessary and vital to our progress. Exciting stuff.

Popular Science – Deaton, J. 12 Jan 2018