Where will the food of the future be grown

US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — Modern agriculture has reached such productivity that the peasants of the past could not even dream of. One farmer is able to feed hundreds of people engaged in other labor – but this is not enough for the growing appetites of mankind.

Less and less undeveloped spaces remain; more and more carefully, clean water must be consumed. But there is another way: to arm yourself with new agricultural technologies and go to sea, where there is neither fresh water nor land.

Minus earth

There isn’t enough land for everyone. Land accounts for about 29% of the planet’s surface, and 29% of this area is glaciers, mountains, deserts and other territories unsuitable for normal life. Of the remaining space, about half is already occupied by agricultural land. Modern technologies have allowed a sharp increase in productivity, but fields and pastures continue to require more and more land. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as early as a thousand years ago they covered not 50%, but only 4% of suitable land. The growth of population and, accordingly, consumption forces producers to constantly expand agricultural territories.

But this trend has one notable exception. In the Mediterranean Sea in northwestern Italy, a few meters from the coast, several transparent capsules sway in the water, anchored to the bottom. Nemo’s Garden was launched in 2012 by Ocean Reef Group, a local diving equipment manufacturer, with the support of the University of Genoa.

During this time, it was possible to work out several structures of the “biospheres”, and today they have reached a volume of 2000 liters, and each has an experimental greenhouse with 8-10 beds or a couple of dozens of smaller pots. Sealed capsules are suspended 5-8 m below the surface of the water, where enough long-wave solar radiation reaches. At the same time, the conditions inside remain stable and comfortable for the plants.

Water for irrigation appears immediately: the lower part of each capsule is open, and moisture evaporates from the sea, filling the internal volume. It intensively condenses on cold walls, is collected by a special system, enriched with necessary minerals, and is automatically supplied to plants. In the summer months (due to storms, Nemo’s Garden works at sea only from May to October), tomatoes and beans, green peas and zucchini, aloe, various types of lettuce are cultivated here.

Additional pressure only stimulates their growth. “A lot looks extremely attractive,” the founder of The Wasabi Company, engaged in the cultivation of highly capricious Japanese plants, commented on the project. “An isolated environment in which you can hardly worry about pests and weeds, infections that come with the air, and slugs … It’s like working with a large aquarium.”

Minus water

Fresh water supplies are also not infinite. Over the past century, its global consumption has grown from 0.5 trillion to 4 trillion cubic meters per year, and about 70% of this amount is absorbed by agriculture. Many densely populated countries are forced to spend huge volumes of clean water on irrigation. For example, in Pakistan more than half of the total field area has to be intensively moistened, in India – about 35%.

Meanwhile, only a tiny part of the enormous reserves stored by the planet — about 1.2% of all fresh water — remains easily accessible to us. The rest lies too deep or locked in glaciers. And more than 97% of all water on Earth is marine, too salty to grow ordinary plants.

In the absence of clean water, soils are salinized, and the workers of an experimental farm located on the Dutch island of Texel are busy solving this problem. Here, 56 experimental beds with an area of ​​160 m2 are planted with plants that are highly resistant to salt. Pouring them with seawater diluted to various concentrations, Salt Farm Texel searches for the most promising varieties that do not require so much fresh moisture. They do not pretend to develop ocean open spaces, however, these plants and the corresponding technologies, methods of irrigation and fertilizing will someday make fertile territories that today are almost lifeless and completely useless.

Of course, China, where saline soils cover about a million square kilometers, is implementing its own projects to develop sustainable varieties. According to estimates by renowned breeder Yuan Longping, their exploitation could increase rice production by 20% and feed another 200 million people.

So far, varieties that can tolerate salt water give a far from impressive crop, although in 2017, Chinese scientists managed to collect quite decent 4.5 tons per hectare, watering the plants with about five times diluted salt water. According to the tastes, this rice has a special pleasant taste. However, rice is a completely different story.

“Some technologies for growing rice in seawater are still being developed in a laboratory in freshwater.”

Minus earth, minus water

Although an unprecedented variety of food is available today, most of the calories humanity still derives from cereals. About half of the world’s population directly depends on rice, and rice fields occupy about 12% of all cultivated land. Despite the fact that the yield per liter of consumed water has doubled over the past 40 years, this extremely moisture-loving crop still accounts for from a quarter to a third of all water consumed by agriculture. In addition, flooded fields stimulate the activity of methanogenic microbes. Rice production leads to the emission of 20-30 million tons of methane per year into the atmosphere – more than all coal energy.

With these frightening numbers, a very recent story of the British startup Agrisea, founded by a pair of graduates of Durham University, begins. Their project received an initial funding of $ 250 thousand from the IndieBio incubator. The start-up promises that already in 2021 the first floating farms will appear on the ocean, on which rice leaves that can grow directly in sea water will green. It is reported that even serious genetic manipulations are not required to obtain such varieties: rice already has metabolic pathways that provide resistance to salt shock – all that remains is to activate them additionally. Such plants will be able to grow on the floating islands, receiving directly from sea water not only moisture, but also the necessary minerals – unless, of course, such varieties appear.

Unlike previous projects that we talked about, Agrisea does not reveal almost any technical details and does not explain which genes and how it was possible or planned to change. Luke Young and Rory Hornby – the founders of Agrisea – did not respond to requests from the PM and did not dispel our doubts. So all that remains is to agree with one of the observers: “Yes, the technology has not been worked out in many ways, but if … If it becomes successful, it can have a tremendous impact on the entire world economy. Farmers will not be so dependent on fresh water and suitable land, and at the same time methane emissions will decrease. ” We will also hope for this double “if”.


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