Closing the Local Food System Loop
by George Powell
…by recycling poop. We need to support increased efficiency in agricultural energy and nutrient management.
For several years I’ve been working from a theory that we could be near a radical shift in our food production systems. An Agrarian Devolution. Barring the technological leap that brings on a cheap, abundant fuel source, or a massive drop in global population. The combination of high fuel, fertilizer and transportation costs, with conservation challenges is making high input, centralized production less viable.
Economics Driving Agrarian Devolution
If unhindered, economics will drive agriculture back to its agrarian roots of local production for local consumption. High input costs and high transportation costs should re-establish local food networks as the low-cost option in most areas.
Quality niche and specialty foods aside, the general populace still votes with their wallets. And despite a lot of lip service to local food, that vote is still very much for low cost, convenient options. It is a safe bet to assume therefore, that if (or when) local food starts to trump imported food on a cost basis (albeit with both at a higher nominal level than today) sales will surely follow.
Do We Need to Manage Change?
Those with libertarian-leanings are probably thinking: ‘market signals will push our food systems back to the local level. Stay out of the way and let it happen. End of story. Get on with your life.’ But with the politics of food as it is, that shift may not be as simple as sliding along a supply-demand curve.
Food is big business. There are billions of dollars, rupees, yen, euros and yuan on the line. The existing multi-nationals have a vested interest in squeezing out expansion of local competition. And they have never been above lobbying governments to distort markets in their favour. They do this through twisting agricultural subsidy programs. With the chief offenders being in the United States of America and the EU. Fifty years from now our food system could look the same as today. That is, if governments are willing to squeeze their citizens for taxes to subsidize cheap food.
Large-scale agricultural producers in some regions will continue to win. But the total number of farmers will decline. And small-scale producers would continue to live on the edge of going broke.
Provide Support Strategically
I believe, a little foresight and planning is needed to promote efficient, sustainable production. We need to level the playing field with public agricultural policies and support programs that focus on production efficiencies. That is to say, food production is worthy of some public funding, but don’t base that support on the total volume of output or the area in production. Rather, base it on the ratio of outputs to inputs.
Expand a framework supporting a transition to lower input costs without greatly sacrificing production levels. And this should include closing the production loop in local agriculture systems. This can be achieved by returning our food, human and agricultural waste streams back into food and energy production on much larger scale than is currently practiced. Close the loop, recycle your poop.
Closing the Loop
Below are a few examples of what can be done with existing technology.
Mandate phosphorus recovery from every sewage treatment facility. Phosphorus is an essential element for crop production. Coincidentally (or maybe not so much), it is also one of the primary water pollutants in the western world. Humans contribute over 3 million tonnes of phosphorus annually to global septic systems.
And many technologies already exist to recover phosphorus from sewage. This includes ‘mouse-trap’ cones developed at the University of British Columbia. They pull this valuable plant nutrient out of sewage effluent and creates a high-quality slow-release fertilizer. Local waste becomes a local resource.
Biodiesel From Algae
Build the infrastructure to create biodiesel from algae fed on sewage water. There are already many private enterprises with viable systems to turn oils extracted from sewage-pond-grown algae into biodiesel. We can use carbon taxes on fossil-fuels to build a network of algae farms and biodiesel plants. Then sell back the fuel to agricultural producers and processors at cost without an accompanying tax.
Provide incentives for farm-scale algae production ponds. And, these can utilize on-site manure and crop wastes to generate some or all of the on-farm energy needs. Again this turns an environmental liability into a production efficiency.
Fertigate With Grey Water
Use sewage sludge or waste water to fertilize farm forestry plantations. The trees then become a source of fibre for solid wood products or bioenergy. And, trees on farms can also serve soil and water conservation roles. A potential win-win-win solution.
And there are other practical options available. These include biogas generation or mandatory community composting programs. Both return that valuable humus to build soils.
Stop Subsidizing Waste
The important first step is removing incentives that externalize the costs of waste generated in our food systems. We cannot, therefore, continue to allow producers and consumers to pollute water with excess nutrients. And then, use directed R&D and selective taxation to provide support. Support for production, recovery and regeneration systems that operate at the highest efficiency.
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