At our current population level, an area the size of South America is needed to grow food and raise livestock. By 2050 it’s estimated that there will be close to 10 billion people on the planet, which will require additional area of arable land the size of Brazil if current farming methods are used (Despommier, 2010). Couple this with the growing demands of developing countries wishing to live western lives and consume at the rate we have been enjoying and it makes for a dangerous situation. How can we satisfy an exponential demand with a finite planet?
Population increase is not the only thing straining our food production capabilities. Relentless production has demolished the quality of soils around the world so that chemical fertilisers must now prop up the machine if we want it to keep churning out food. As well as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which have been drowning our food for years are becoming less and less effective as pests develop immunity. Check out this article if you would like to see the impact some of these chemicals are having on vital pollinators.
I think you are getting the idea…
The current system is the only one that is currently providing the food we need at scale (I’m not knocking it for that) but it is unsustainable if we want to keep this beautiful planet habitable. What we need are some alternatives which use DRASTICALLY less water, little-to-no inputs from nasty chemicals and production which we can locate as close as possible to where the food is going to be eaten. If only there was something like that available…
Whats that you say? Vertical Farming? What the hell is that?
I’ll tell you.
Vertical Farming is the process of stackable food production. Instead of one level of crops along the ground, a series of shelves are stacked one on top of the other, thereby massively increasing the productive capacity of a single square foot. The term vertical farming was first coined by Dickson Despommier (Author of The Vertical Farm). I have taken the quote he uses to introduce vertical farming in his book:
“By applying state-of-the-art controlled-environment agricultural technologies as an integrated system contained within a multi-story building — vertical farming — the world could rapidly become a much better place to welcome the next generation of humans.”
Before we go into the advantages of vertical farming I will show you the general principle and how some of the systems work.
Basics of Vertical Farming
Vertical farming uses a combination of aquaponics, stackable shelves and LED light bars.
Plants grown in an inert material such as lava rocks, with their roots in a liquid solution. The water is first passed through fishtanks before being passed over the roots of the plants.
Here is a great video by Plant Chicago which explains it better than I can!
This can be over the many floors of a building or can be shelves one on top of each other with enough room between shelves for the plant and the led light.
Led Light Bar
High efficiency bulbs are used to mimic the sun’s rays and provide energy for photosynthesis. The bulbs used in vertical farming are tuned to exactly the frequency which the plants need, removing any wasted energy from being used on areas of the light spectrum which are not used by the plants. Here is a 20 second clip to show you what I mean.
Benefits of Vertical Farming
In his book, Dickson Despommier lists 11 major benefits of vertical farming. I have chosen three to elaborate on:
Use of 70-95% less water.
No use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers.
Year round crop production.
1: Use of 70-95% Less Water
Traditional farming methods use an astonishing amount of water which we don’t have allot of as it is.
From the National Geographic Website:
“Freshwater makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In essence, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.” (National Geographic)
So then, I guess you would agree with me that using massively less water is a great idea?
2: No Use of Pesticides, Herbicides or Fertilisers
As well as increasing the amount of fossil fuel energy needed to produce our food, pesticides and herbicides are designed to KILL. If they are designed to kill something else, they probably aren’t doing anything nice to me once I eat them. I wouldn’t eat rat poison out the bottle yet I don’t go out of my way to buy organic food? Something is backward there.
Another great reason to celebrate not using these harmful chemicals is that there will be less negative impact on pollinators such as bees! THIS article discusses neonicotinoids and THIS post has a great video on honey yields from rural bees vs urban bees (the results might surprise you!)
3: Year Round Crop Production
SAY WHHAAAT. No longer will we be constrained by those pesky seasonal changes!
One massive upside of growing in a controlled environment is that each aspect of the lighting and temperature can be simulated to mimic the exact growing conditions plants need at each stage of their lifecycle. With these systems it no longer matters when you plant your seeds, adding another level of protection against fluctuations in supply. One-nil for food security.
Awesome Vertical Farming Videos:
This Farm of the Future Uses No Soil and 95% Less Water – By Seeker Stories
Earthrise – Japan’s Future Farms
Growing Roots – This Farmer Is Taking Root On Your Rooftops // Discovery on Viddsee
What do you think about vertical farming?
Despommier, D,. (2010) The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. St Martin’s Press, New York. pp77.
As we discussed in Monday’s post, Neonicotinoids are one of the main issues currently facing pollinating insects today. This post will go into what they are, what they are used for and why they are a problem.
Pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals are used to boost crop yields and replace the lost nutrients in soils which have been degraded by the industrial farming machine. Year after year, modern agriculture props itself up on chemicals to keep the wheels turning.
What is a Neonicotinoid?
Neonicotinoids are insecticides. This means their main function is to protect crops from insects which would cause the plants harm. One problem with this approach to pest control is that the chemical cannot distinguish between an insect (that wants to cause harm to the plant), and a pollinator which are a vital part of the plant’s lifecycle.
Neonicotinoid is the broad name used to describe this family of insecticides, which includes the chemicals acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam (Wikipedia). While they are said to be less harmful to birds and mammals than traditional insecticides, the reduction in insect populations has a knock on effect on bird numbers which suffer as a result of the reduction in food sources.
Where did they come from?
This family of chemicals became widely used in the 1990s as a replacement for insecticides which pests had become immune to. They were favoured for having ‘selective’ qualities like the previous generation. What is meant by this is that studies showed a reduced toxicity to mammals who came into contact with the newer chemicals (neonicotinoids) than the first generation of insecticides.
How are they used?
Neonicotinoids are systemic, meaning they travel through the plant as it grows. This means that the chemical can be sprayed on seeds before they are planted. Spraying the seeds reduces the need for insecticides to be sprayed on the field once the crop is growing. Seeds are pre-treated before being sold to farmers for sowing.
What is being done so far?
In Europe, concerns were raised as to the safety of these chemicals. As a result, a temporary (two year) ban was put in place in 2013 by the European Union. This ban prevented the use of neonicotinoid chemicals being sprayed on the seeds of flowering crops which are attractive to bees.
What about farmers?
So here is the flip side. It’s all very well putting a blanket ban on these chemicals but what about the farmers who use them? In particular, how are they to support themselves with smaller crop yields? There needs to be a transition from chemicals which a messing with pollinators (and think about what they are doing to YOU!) to a more sustainable and healthy alternative. Placing a ban without providing an optimal solution will just cause the chemical companies to synthesise another chemical and the cycle starts again.
What alternatives are there?
In terms of the calories in vs calories out ratio, industrial farming is a massively inefficient way to get food. According to Michael Pollan (See Here) it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food in some modern agricultural cases. BUT it is currently the only system available with the infrastructure to feed the billions of mouths that need to be fed.
Pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are a SHORT TERM solution propping up the industrial farming machine. How long can it keep going before the wheels stop turning?
We need a way to MASS produce food in controlled environments.
What about vertical farming?
No pests, controlled light cycles, incredible yield per square foot, efficient use of water.
What do you think? Ill leave you with this video and will discuss it at a future point!
Godfray, H.C.J., Blacquiere, T., Field, L.M., Hails, R.S., Potts, S.G., Raine, N.E., Vanbergen, A.J. and McLean, A.R. (2015). A restatement of recent advances in the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators. Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20151821
Following on from Monday’s post about bees, I thought I would share this interesting video about the yields of hives in agricultural settings vs urban areas. David Gregory-Kumar interviews a bee keeper who manages both sets of hives and the results emphasis the impacts of mono-crop industrial farming.
The honey yield is based on the quantity and variety of available plants, so with the majority of the land given to cattle for grazing, its slim pickings for the bees on the farm!
We are so dependent on these winged miracles that one in every three bites of your food comes directly from pollination by a bee. AND THEY ARE DYING! Or are they?
Sensationalist introduction to what is a very scary problem. Let’s not get hung up on it however and instead get to the bottom of the issue so that we may begin to correct it and save ourselves from all forms of pollinator related extinction.
In this article, I shall explain to you:
What is a bee, what they do and why it’s important?
What is all the fuss about? Are bees dying?
What happens if they do die?
And finally, what we can do about it.
What is a Bee?
A bee is a winged insect known globally for producing honey. In a hazy, romantic way we all know that bees pollinate the flowers and in return the flower gives the bees nectar. Basic junior school farmyard lesson right there.
I bet you didn’t know however that a Bee and a Flower have opposite electrical charges which allow the hairs on the bee’s legs to stick up and the tiny grains of pollen to hop from the Stamen (the plants male part) onto the bee? I bet you also didn’t know what all the bees you usually see are female (apart from a few short days when the colony produces males for reproduction). The final fun fact I’ll share with you in this paragraph is that there are an astounding number of species of bee. Free yourself from the bumble bee stereotype and let it sink into your brain that there are over 20,000 recorded species of bees, each with a unique twist.
Why is pollination vital?
Without pollination, the flowers you see cannot produce fruits and seeds. This isn’t just about the pretty flowers you see in your neighbour’s gardens; this is the case for ANY plant which is pollinated by an insect… To put this in perspective that means all your apples, carrots, mangos, onions, corn etc. (the list is MASSIVE) cannot create the bounty we need to survive without the help of the insects which pollinate them. When you consider all the animal feed we need to support the meat and dairy industry the total percentage of produce in your typical store which is there because of a pollinating insect is a whopping 75%!
What’s all the fuss about?
As you are probably aware, there has been a cultural awakening to the growing plight of the bees. Or so we are led to believe by the increase in bee related content being produced. What we need though is a massively condensed version of events that gets to the heart of the issue in plain English. If only there was such a list…
NeonicotinoidsNeo-nico-tin-o-whatnows? Bees have started smoking? No.A neonicotinoid is a type of insecticide sprayed on crops to protect it from harm. The issue with these is that research being conducted shows that they are not an efficient form of protection and are in fact rather damaging to the insects which do the pollination.Studies show that neonicotinoids have an adverse effect on the pollinator’s ability to navigate back to the nest. Furthermore, in most cases, nest mates who have not left the hive also show signs of being infected by the chemicals. In case you want to do some of your own digging, the thee most commonly researched Neonics are, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam.
Tracheal MitesI’m a big fan of mother nature, she works wonders. Sometimes though, she’s just plain mean. Tracheal mites infect and live in the respiratory system of bees, blocking the flow of oxygen and restricting the bee’s ability to fly. In colonies with high levels of infestation this can lead to collapse over winter as the dying workers aren’t replaced fast enough. Nasty.
Reduction in HabitatLets look at nature. I see variety. Countless plants coexisting in the same area creating an ecosystem which is perfectly balanced. The differences in the plants provide the pollinating insects with everything they need and in return: pollination.Now look at a modern industrial farm. Mono-culture crops for mile after mile. Are you telling me that if you had to pollinate the same thing over and over and over again you wouldn’t get bored? Nature has created the most beautiful flowers to attract the bees yet we grow one species in rows as far as the eye can see. Monoculture crops cannot provide the diverse range of nutrients needed to keep pollinating insects healthy. With large proportions of our natural land given up to industrial agriculture it’s bad news for the bees.
What happens if they die?
In this section I would like to paint a picture for you of what the world looks like in the event of a collapse of the pollinator population. It might get a little scary so hang on in there…
Short story – What happens if bees go extinct?
Losing the bees will set of a chain reaction so devastating it could make your farms less productive than the Sahara. The insects pollinate the plants, which reproduce and get eaten by a series of animals of increasing size as the suns energy makes its way up the food chain all the way up to Homo Sapiens. Yep, you guessed it. Us.
Now imagine that chain without the pollination occurring. The pollination doesn’t occur so the plant doesn’t produce seeds. Therefore, this plant is the last in its lineage and slowly withers with age/ gets eaten by the animal designed to eat it. Unfortunately, this is where the fun stops. Due to the lack of seeds, the population of plants begins to be eaten at a much faster rate than they are reproducing.
Once the herbivore eats all the plants, this fat, happy little plant eater will begin to look around and realise there isn’t much to eat anymore. It will start to get thinner, hungrier and most likely eaten by the currently still happy carnivore. As herbivore numbers drop due to lack of food (reproduction rates drop because there isn’t enough plant matter to support the large numbers of herbivores) the meat eaters may begin to struggle to find a decent meal.
The fat, happy carnivores will slowly get hungrier, less fat and much unhappier until finally we are at the top of the food chain wondering why the hell there’s no sausages, beans, bacon, eggs, fried bread, mushrooms… oh gosh you know where I’m going with this don’t you? SWEET JESUS DON’T TAKE MY FULL ENGLISH!
Do you now see the full extent of this problem? Without pollinators Sunday mornings are ruined forever.
Now, I know that I have just added a bit of comedy to a rather serious situation but sometimes that is what it takes to bring it home. We desperately NEED insect pollinators and you can bet my bacon I will do what it takes to protect my full English. (As a side note, this example is going to seem really hypocritical in a few week when I look at the energy required to produce a full English and the not so good effect this dish is having on our planet but for now let’s enjoy it. Ignorance is bliss and all that?)
And finally, what we can do about it?
In this section, I will show you what you can do:
RIGHT NOW to help.
In the very near future (1-2 weeks) with £100.
With six months and £500
What can you do RIGHT NOW?
CONGRATULATIONS! You are already doing it! Just by reading this and wanting to know more you are already helping!
Sign some petitions.
Okay, so your one single name isn’t much right? Fine but since we are talking about bees here, let’s get into HIVE MIND! One bee (your signature) can’t do much but billions of bees working together pollinate the planet!I’ll put the links to a couple of petitions at the bottom for you to check out later if you would like.
Use those old seeds!
Got any seeds nocking about in the shed? Chuck them in the soil at the right time and grow some plants for the bees! Every little helps, right? If everyone planted one flower there would be billions!
Get rid of Chemicals
Stop using pesticides/ insecticides/ any disgusting chemicals in your garden.
Not only will this be good for pollinating bees but it will also be good for you! Win-win.
What Can You Do In 1-2 weeks with £100?
Plant a garden.
I mentioned using old seeds in the above list but if you want to create an awesome habitat while simultaneously creating something beautiful then creating a garden is the way forward.Some of the favourite plants of pollinating insects are also the most beautiful.
On the Gardener’s World website, they recommend planting purple flowers (such as lavender, alliums, buddleja) as bees can see this colour clearly. Furthermore, they recommend tubular-shaped flowers (such as honeysuckle and snapdragons) which are a favourite of long tongued bees. The link to the article can be found at the bottom!
Take a course.
Many local beekeeping organisations offer evening courses as an introduction to the hobby and as dedicated enthusiasts they are sure to welcome you into the fold. Why not spend a few hours learning about this vital part of the eco system?
Vote with your pound. After learning about the chemicals that are killing insects like bees, do you thing they are doing you any favours? Cut back on the number of chemicals which you ingest by making a greater percentage of your food local and organic. It doesn’t have to be more expensive but you are what you eat so consider it an investment in your future!
What you can do with six months and £500?
Become a beekeeper!
What better way to help the bee population than starting a hive in your newly planted garden? With access to the internet and some love for bees you can be collecting and consuming your very own honey in next to no time!
Down at the bottom there are some links for getting started in bee keeping for you to check out.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and are feeling more aware of what is going on with the bees. This piece is by no means exhaustive and I encourage you to go out and learn as much as you can on your own! Knowledge is power and there is much to learn! Be sure to check out the links below! See you soon.
Links to Petitions:
AVAAZ – A World in Action.
Already more than three million people have signed this petition, and the number is still rising! Join the ranks!
From their website:
To World Leaders and Agriculture Ministers:
“We call on you to immediately ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The catastrophic demise of bee colonies could put our whole food chain in danger. If you act urgently with precaution now, we could save bees from extinction.”