Sustainable Agriculture: The Need for Supply-Side Innovations (Or, Why I’m Writing For CleanTechies)

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My previous article on the Vertical Farm Project received a number of thought-provoking comments from readers. Some of these dealt with food policy and international trade issues that I’ll be looking at in the weeks to come. For now, I would like to respond specifically to part of one very thoughtful comment made by Douglas Romig, a soil scientist based in New Mexico, who wrote:

I’d submit that the innovations we need are primarily in our attitudes about food: eat less meat, buy locally-grown food in season, join a CSA farm, and go organic whenever possible.

A number of other readers seconded this remark, which I think demonstrates the rhetorical longevity of this idea. For many years, notable environmentalists from Wendell Berry to Barbara Kingsolver have placed a strong emphasis on demand-side reforms. And for many years, this was precisely the right thing to emphasize, because since the 1970’s public support for environmental initiatives and products had been on the wane.

However, recent data suggests this is clearly no longer the case. Americans’ attitudes towards food are now strongly biased in favor of sustainable agriculture, and local agriculture in particular. Pretty much every consumer poll taken within the last few years bears this out. For instance:

  • A 2007 Harris poll found that 61% of all Americans described themselves as “very likely” to purchase locally grown food if it were available and priced within their budget.
  • A Zogby poll taken one month later found that 65% of consumers already go out of their way to purchase local food when possible, and that 85% of shoppers want to know where their food was grown.
  • A 2008 Ohio State University study found that regional shoppers were willing to pay a 42-cent premium for strawberries grown in the state.

What I would submit is that the demand for local and sustainable agriculture is already established on both broad and deep levels. What impedes the growth of local & sustainable is not demand, but constraints on supply.

There are three major constraints on the supply of local & sustainable food. First, agricultural policy subsidizes unsustainable production to a ludicrous degree – an issue I will return to in a later post. Federal, state, and municipal tax, transportation, and zoning laws also inhibit the growth of local food. Second, established infrastructure and best practices have made industry slow to adapt to the local food movement, though that is starting to change. Finally, over the past several decades if not centuries, there have been only a few innovations in sustainable agriculture to gain critical mass.

I recognize that to some, talking about technological breakthroughs and sustainable agriculture in the same sentence may seem jarring. Yet technology does have a place in sustainable agriculture, and it always has. To name a recent example: the proliferation of four-season farming, utilizing movable greenhouses and cold frames, has enabled many small growers to extend their harvesting season and productivity. It may not look much like what we would normally describe as “technology,” but it is a genuine production innovation. Another example, somewhat more high-tech, are recent advances in pairing aquaponics with vegetable production.

Now, the Vertical Farm project probably does not represent the kind of innovation that is needed right now; on that, I think most of us can agree. Probably a good deal more important are infrastructural innovations that would enable more cost-efficient distribution of locally-grown foods. Following that, it is also essential to find ways to make local, sustainable growing more profitable, so that more people actually become farmers. The innovations at Polyface Farms, which were memorably described by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, represent one way to accomplish this. Those of Growing Power, a nonprofit that teaches young people to build productive community gardens out of vacant urban lots, represents another.

We need to grow and deliver our agricultural products in a more sustainable fashion. Technology has long been seen as an impediment to that goal, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether in the form of process innovations such as four-season farming, or technological innovations such as methane digestion, technology can also be a driver towards more sustainable agriculture. The reason I’m writing at CleanTechies is to look specifically at technological innovations that show promise for just that purpose.

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5 Comments

  1. I think one key to sustainable communities is the pairing of waste heat with organic greenhouses. If a town or municipality had a process that generated excess heat, or invested in a CHP solution that met a particular need, then perhaps a 1/2 or 1 acre organic greenhouse could be established that could provide high-quality organic food year round. Garden plots could be rented to citizen farmers or non-profit groups.

    Sustainability is the solution we must solve for, with agriculture, energy, housing, etc. critical variables.

  2. Hi Tom,

    thanks for your thoughts here. Though I agree, that we need supply side innovations, I doubt whether your polls reflect peoples buying behaviour. I don’t know your local situation, but here in Germany these kind of answers would reflect morals more than behaviour.

    By the way, I would like to call the Growing Power example a supply-demand-side innovation, or community innovation. I scarcely meet people remembering the origins of the ecological movement, where structures were set up to connect both sides. Maybe the implementation was not very enabling, but the idea is great, and modern communicationtechnologies could be much more enabling here. How about Organic 2.0?

  3. George – I agree. If the heat can be efficiently converted to electricity (as with a methane digester), it can be even more valuable, as cooling greenhouses is often even more problematic than heating them.

    Johan – I’m sure purchasing behavior is not up to the level of the polls yet. But there’s a cause and effect question there – do people not buy local food because its inconvenient, costly, etc., or because it isn’t available enough to begin with? I don’t know much about Germany, but in most European countries locally grown products are far more available than they are in most of the US.

    Completely agree about Growing Power, which is a great organization, and very innovative. My next post will focus in on them some more.

  4. Hi Tom,

    concerning the transformation of heat to electricity: another alternative is storing the warmth in the earth, where you can retrieve it again in winter. AFAIK http://www.solvis.de developed some ideas in this direction (for their solar heating system).

    And concerning localy grown products: if you are right that we have more local food available, then I guess even more that there is a moral bias in the polls. But then again the US is not Europe and we tend to call for the state where you say ‘citizenship’, so maybe the moral bias in the US is lower.

  5. To make agriculure more sustainable the agriculture in developing countries need to be transformed. In particular, the opportunities for conservation agriculture such as low or no till have not been utilised.

    I think that we often are so interested in new techs that we do not consider why existing technologies are not implimented.

    I have been involved in a project which quanified potential and mitigation costs for non energy options in South Africa and it is amazing that even cost effective solutions are not applied and not supported (see paper I presented recently on http://researchspace.csir.co.za/dspace/handle/10204/2580)

    Rina

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