Tag Archives: food production

Proposed Kent solar farm is green lunacy

Solar farms should be placed in desert regions that have low value for growing food, and relatively low value to nature. There are plans to install a massive solar farm in nice green Kent, where it is occasionally a little bit sunny. That strikes me as lunacy, and even some green groups agree and are campaigning against it.

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/faversham/news/proposal-for-solar-farm-site-increases-to-1-000-acres-184240/

The project is apparently being led by Hive Energy and Wirsol. I have been in contact with Tesla, who say “Tesla is not in conversations with any parties with regards to this project”.

Land is limited and we must use it sensibly

Nature often takes a battering when money is available, but a rich country should protect nature and ensure that some appropriate spaces are set aside. It is right to resist attempts to reassign such land to other purposes, especially when there area obvious alternatives. In this case, the land in question is mainly natural habitat, but other green areas are used for food production.

World population is growing, with another 3 billion mouths to feed mid-century. Agricultural technology will improve output per hectare and food trends may reduce the amount of meat consumption, but we should be able to feed everyone just fine even with 10 or 11 Billion people, but it will require good land stewardship. Prime agricultural land should be used mainly to grow crops. Some will be needed for buildings and roads of course, and we will want to have extensive nature reserves too. When we can produce more food than people need, we can return land to nature, but we should certainly not waste it by using it for solar farms when there are far better places to put them.

Using agricultural land for solar farms increases food costs by reducing food supply, hurting the world’s poorest people. This is also true of using land to grow biofuels, essentially an extraordinarily inefficient form of indirect solar power.

Secondly, the main current argument for solar power is to save CO2 emissions. If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll know I think that claims of human-related CO2-induced global warming catastrophe are greatly exaggerated, but there is some effect so we should not be complacent, and we do still need to be careful with emission levels. I’ve always been in favor of moving to solar and fusion as very long-term solutions. Fusion won’t be a big player until the 2040s. One day, solar will be cheaper than using shale gas, the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel solution with only half the CO2 output for a unit of energy compared to oil and coal, but that day is still far in the future. The more energy a panel can make, the more CO2 it saves. We only have one atmosphere, and a ton saved anywhere is a ton saved globally. It makes sense to put them in places where there is a lot of sun. Often that means deserts, which obviously have very little value for growing crops and support relatively low levels of life for the same reason. Putting a panel in a desert produces far more energy for far less environmental cost. A solar panel in the Sahara would make 5 times more energy than one in Kent, without reducing world food output at all. 

Sahara solar

Furthermore, many desert areas are home to poor people, who might welcome extra income from housing and maintaining panels for a cut of the revenue they make. Dust and sand would make maintenance a regular issue, but providing decent income for regular work for people with few other options makes good economic sense. Doing so would also help subsidize other infrastructure badly needed that might also improve local quality of life in those areas.

Finally, by providing extra income to deprived areas of the world, geo-political tensions may reduce somewhat.

All in, it makes far more sense socially, economically, politically, and environmentally to provide solar power from desert areas than from prime agricultural land or natural habitat.

 

 

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Future food production

Food production is adapting to increased environmental awareness, but we will see far more change over coming years.

There is a lot of innovation right now in food production. Hydroponics is growing, as are vertical farms, home growing and focus on local production that is encouraging cottage industry specialists. There are some nice synergies. Greenhouses can make good use of waste heat from power stations and also benefit from the CO2 given off if they burn fossil fuels, which of course is locked up when the plants convert it to biomass. This effectively increases the energy efficiency of the power station by adding an extra layer of chemical energy recovery after thermal. There are many articles already out there about hydroponics etc so I don’t need to repeat them here. That’s what Google is for.

The web makes it easy for producers of all kinds to have a closer relationship with customers, so it is now possible to organise local marketing and distribution around social networking, with groups of customers even commissioning crops grown according to specific regimes. GPS-enabled tractors can treat each square metre of a field effectively as a different managed allotment. With people more interested in exactly how their food is produced, this is sure to find a healthy market as the economy recovers.

At higher levels, financial strain during the lengthy recession is forcing many people to commercialise their hobbies, such as baking or catering, creating a growing home-made sector. This will even extend into arts ad crafts thanks to new technology such as 3D printing, which will make its way into the kitchen any time soon.  So the emerging pattern is one of rapidly increasing diversity in food production, from crop growing to processed foods manufacture. This creates opportunities for increased competition in the food space, but also presents risks to existing manufacturers. As ever with any kind of turbulence, the winners and losers will be decided by how willing and able companies are to adapt.

Vertical farms on the walls of tall buildings add agricultural space to cities and as well as growing food, also helps air quality. The food would be of dubious taste and value if air were polluted as badly as it used to be, but with emissions now, it is probably OK. A variety of mechanisms have been suggests for vertical farms. Some look more feasible than others, but the general idea seems workable, and experimentation and development will sort out which solutions work best. One thing that is easy to forget though is that the amount of sunlight incident on a given land area doesn’t depend on the building architecture raised on it, and using a wall gives a lower energy density than a field or a roof because the same total light is spread over a larger area. Interior farms of course need artificial light, but if that is produced via nuclear energy, then it might still work out well environmentally.

Home finishing is a good prospect too. Many people are already used to part bake products, where they buy a product that is already mostly prepared and just needs finishing off in the oven to make one with all the benefits of freshly made cuisine. Microwave and other ready-meals are even more familiar. 3D printing technology may even have a future role, making edible frills and accessories to brighten up appearance.

Home finishing could be done as a small local business too. Large manufacturers could gain local presence for fresh produce by using local finishers, and these could be ordinary households or based in small offices or shops, making a new cottage industry. They could also work well with local manufacturing and distribution companies. Social networks could provide most of the platform for these local business clouds but they could also be based on systems run by large companies.

This social potential is useful if people rebel against the multinationals at some point. With frequent problem areas like tax avoidance, misleading information, exploitation and other issues that are setting people against them, having a fall-back position increases leverage by showing that communities are not powerless.

Current biotechnology research into lab-grown meat might eventually flourish into a large meat manufacturing industry. It is hard to tell yet how successful it might be in creating cost effective, healthy and palatable solutions. Vegetarian meats would presumably see a good market since many vegetarians avoid meat mainly because of the ways animals are reared and treated, and many meat eaters also have some reservations and would be willing to switch. Lab-grown meat would be little different from a yoghurt in terms of its cruelty implications. Although the principle has been proven, much work is need to replicate textures and taste well at a reasonable cost.

Lab-grown meat could be more energy efficient than that produced by animals, and would liberate farmland for crops. Together with increasing productivity in crop production anyway, some expect that we will be able to start returning land to nature in the second half of this century because we will make plenty of food for everyone with less land.

Biotech will create new varieties of crops, some with extra vitamin content or other health benefits, lower fat animals and enable varieties that are adapted to a wider range of climates, thereby increasing the amount of land that could be used for agriculture.

Home printer technology also is being hyped for food production, or rather assembly is probably a more accurate description, since nobody is yet suggesting its use for making the raw materials such as proteins and carbohydrates.  Its is effectively the next level up in abstraction from the lab grown products. Even chocolate could be made using printers. Food printers could only ever be a niche market, but could sit alongside other home gadgets such as microwaves and mixers. Cakes, confectionery,  frills and accessories would be the probable markets. It would especially appeal to the kinds of people who make elaborate cake decorations and could extend creative food design to a much broader group.

Food technology will continue to other areas too, making more appealing products from even wider range of raw materials. GM bacteria or algae could compete well with land grown crops. Algae may be grown at sea as part of carbon reduction schemes anyway, and could be used for either biofuel or as a component for food production. Of course, many foods contain lots of ingredients, so even if it isn’t suitable as a main platform, such humble starting points may be a used as fillers or other additives.

Of course, fish farming is bound to increase too. Many fish species are threatened today and near extinction of a key species does eventually force governments to listen and act. Although regulation so far has at best been poor, it can only improve and perhaps we may soon have a global set of treaties that ensure sustainable fishing and farming. There will also be a place for GM fish that maybe grow faster or breed faster. Some countries will be more willing to accept GM than others but when the choice is high prices v GM, GM will win out.