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First it was Climate Change, Now It’s Food: The World Agriculture Crisis

A billion people will be starving within ten years if we continue to ignore the growing agricultural challenges that we now face. This is based on research and facts reported by the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other eminent authorities.  So, why aren’t we talking more about it?

The reason is that it’s one of the failings of human nature to avoid the largest impending crises, like climate change, safe drinking water shortages, and agricultural deficiencies.

In climate change, we tell ourselves that there is still time and that we’ll figure it out with technology not yet invented.  Unprecedented storms and typhoons do not change our fundamental direction, and large simultaneous wildfires across an entire state are extinguished by denial.  

In the science of agriculture the certainty of crisis is clear:   in the next ten years, as the world’s agriculture production becomes inadequate for the world’s growing population, the world starts running out of phosphorous (the main ingredient in fertilizer).  So, technology is required now to replace phosphorus in fertilizer. How soon can we find a substitute and grow it to scale?

The result of a famous McKinsey study showed that the growing middle class of the world population consumes 10 times the resources – food, energy, water – consumed by low-income people.  We’re now trapped in a vast Catch 22 where organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation are raising people out of poverty, but then as we lift people out of poverty, we’re unintentionally strangling global resources.  This is one of the elephants in the room that nobody wants to see.

Interrelated global complexity is one of the reasons that cleantech was so difficult to execute in the first two decades. To understand all the related factors, including energy, water, and agriculture, is a super-complicated simultaneous equation with all variables. And by definition no one had experienced a solution.

There is a famous video where students asked the professor to draw the equation that would predict how much climate change occurs when someone lights a match. The equation took up all four walls of the room, and he still couldn’t fit it all in.

Very, very few people have the intelligence, experience and insight to solve the equation. This is why most people gravitate towards oversimplifications that they can understand. They drive a Tesla, happy and content, thinking they’re saving the world.

They can’t wrap their heads around the production of batteries, the disposal of batteries, the recycling of batteries for their Tesla, and they don’t want to face the question of, when you plug in your Tesla, where is the grid getting the power from? A coal plant? Diesel? Or what?  Tesla is a tribute to marketing genius, but it’s not the solution to climate change.

So, fortunately or unfortunately, agriculture is simpler. People are starting to realize that agriculture is not that complicated.  It used to be a simple subject – an acre in Iowa was the same as an acre in Brazil, so you hire a bunch of mules, put down the seeds, and you grow stuff.

That’s not the case anymore. Technology has allowed certain countries to excel in agricultural efficiency, and those without the support and capital may have ample land, but are failing to produce the same amount of food as more developed countries.

The subject is reasonably complicated but not as complicated as the entire cleantech world. One of the paradoxes of cleantech is that energy, water, and food are all related, and technology changes everything every day. You can’t harvest food without energy – the tractors, the packing and shipping.

Everything in the world today is a system, not an item, and virtually every system is global. So although there are countries that do not face this risk of starvation directly, what they face is being a citizen of a world full of starving people, which causes large global issues like war.

The next ten years will be critical in solving the intertwined mysteries of energy, power, water and food ……and how technology can help or hurt.   But the next and even bigger issue we — citizens, governments, and businesses — must really face, is how to bring the best minds together with the largest capital resources in order to solve the most complicated equation of supply and demand of food.

October 17, 2018

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