Algae and Food Security with Water Extinction
by Dr. Mark Edwards
magine a new food supply free of freshwater consumption. Water independence for food production would save water and avoid war. A Green Algae Strategy for growing algae-based foods in non-potable water offers a strategic alternative to water scarcity and war.
Political leaders, scientists, authors and farmers predict that wars of the future will be fought over blue gold. Hot, thirsty people, farmers, cities, opportunistic politicians and powerful corporations will battle for dwindling water supplies.
A March 2012 report from the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence reported the risk of conflict would grow, as water demand will outstrip sustainable current supplies by 40% by 2030. The U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton said: “These water threats are real and they raise serious national security concerns.”
Rapid population growth and increased industrial demand have tripled water withdrawals over the last 50 years. The U.S Senate report, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, makes it clear water security is a national security issue.
Adel Darwish reports in Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, documented water wars throughout history. They were brutal and often left both sides with food insecurity and starvation.
A recent U.N. study reported 18 countries are water scarce today and projects that 30 nations will be water-scarce in 2025. A majority of water-scarce nations are located across the Middle East and North Africa. It is no coincidence that water-scarce nations include the recent Arab Spring revolutions. Water-scarce countries will have to buy their food on the world market, which puts them at risk to price fluctuations. Internationally, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water, according to the U.N. By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress. What will societies do for water and food?
Water extinction occurs when water becomes unaffordable or unavailable locally. Practically all food-growing regions are living with the threat of water extinction. Global warming accelerates water loss from crops and soil. Farmers measure soil moisture and in irrigated areas, add more water when soil moisture dries. In rain-fed areas, crops fail with too much heat and due to lack of soil moisture. Plants cannot use water to pull nutrients from their roots. An irrigated corn crop requires about 250,000 gallons of water per ton in a normal year but in a hot year, may consume 750,000 gallons per ton.
Water and food
Food production depends on fresh water – lots of it. People consume about one gallon of water a day in their beverages. Growing the food the typical person consumes in one day requires about 500 times more water; 528 gallons.
Over one-third of productive cropland depends on irrigation. Irrigation delivers water equivalent to about 2% of the annual precipitation over land. Globally, irrigation for crop production claims about 70% of all freshwater, and about 80% in the western U.S.
The history of irrigation is replete with failures of cities and societies due to soil waterlogging, salt invasion and depletion of water supplies. With the demand for water growing steadily among the major consumers—agriculture, residential and industry—competition is intensifying. In water wars, farmers almost always lose to money—cities and industry.
The planet held far too little fresh water to support food production for expanding populations even before global warming began melting and evaporating our ice caps, glaciers, snow packs and reservoirs. Faucets and fountains are going dry because farmers extract massive amounts of stored fossil groundwater reserves that were laid down millions of years ago. Fossil aquifers that do not recharge with annual rains are being depleted rapidly. Many aquifers will go dry in this generation and some have already crashed.
Water creates the primary limitation to food production because lacking available fresh water, crops quickly become thirsty and wilt, stunt or die. Without sufficient freshwater delivered on time, crops fail and the land reverts to its natural state—which in much of the world is prairie or desert. When groundwater fails, human populations are forced to migrate to where water is available.
Production and yield are directly related to water use. Insufficient applied water stresses crops and decreases yield. More irrigation has doubled food production over the last 30 years but at the unsustainable expense of tripling the freshwater consumed.
Much of the 300% increase in water consumption occurred because new croplands expanded into deserts. Desert regions are productive due to the considerable solar energy but the heat consumes more water from transpiration (plant water losses) and soil moisture evaporation. Irrigation systems often lose 50% of the available water before the water reaches the crops from pipeline and canal leaks as well as evaporation.
Today, when the number of hungry people has reached record highs in America and the world, acute water scarcity has struck countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, the United States and large parts of China and India.Iran was forced to import over a million tons of grain from the U.S. in 2007 because their crops failed due to heat and drought.
The 2010 floods in China, India and Pakistan would seem to break the water scarcity problem. Unfortunately, floods move enormous amounts of water, mud and debris at very high speed that does not percolate into aquifers. Floods create chaos as they break dams, fill reservoirs and canals with silt and destroy irrigation systems. Floods devastate crops, kill farm animals, pollute groundwater and ruin equipment.
Rational government policy would limit irrigation to sustainable yields from surface sources and groundwater held in aquifers. Instead, government policies in the U.S. and globally have encouraged maximizing short-term food production by subsidizing water, including its transportation, delivery and the energy needed for pumping. When a commodity has a near-zero cost, users waste it. Inefficient and over irrigation wastes trillions of gallons of freshwater each year. Over-pumping at several times the sustainable yield has resulted in plunging water tables on every food-growing continent. Many aquifers are falling at 10 feet a year and several major aquifers in China, India and the U.S. will crash before 2030.
A water-free food supply
How would a water independent food supply work?
PEACE microfarms offer a novel approach to avoid conflicts over freshwater because microfarms grow food in non-potable water. Less than 3% of the water on the planet is fresh and only 1% of freshwater is available to people. Microfarms can use the other 97%, waste, brine or ocean water. Planet Enriching Algae Cultivation Ecosystems, (PEACE) microfarms use abundance methods that enable growers distributed globally to recycle nutrients and energy from sterilized waste streams.
Today, most people cannot grow food locally because they lack good weather or fresh water. When fully developed, PEACE microfarms will allow individuals and communities globally to use affordable inputs to grow foods locally. PEACE microfarms grow food and other forms of energy sustainably, independent of climate, altitude, latitude, geography or politics.
PEACE microfarms are adaptable microcrop platforms that enable growers to use low cost inputs to cultivate a wide variety of high value products. Microfarmers practice abundance and use green solar – sunshine – for energy. They may recycle organic inputs from farms, gardens, kitchens or other waste streams that are surplus, low-cost or free. Growers cultivate microorganisms such as algae and the microflora algae attract to produce food for people, feed for fish, fowl, dairy, and meat animals. Other growers grow and flow their culture to produce rich organic biofertilizer for gardens or fields.
Growers practicing abundance are essentially green solar gardeners as they transform solar energy to rich, nutritious plant biomass. The green biomass concentrates energy in chemical bonds that are portable and may be used directly for food or transformed to many other forms of energy. Microfarms grow naturally biodiverse microcrops, so no genetically engineered seeds are needed.
Microfarmers use four configurations. Estimated yield compares with field crop protein production.
|Microfarm configuration||Estimated yield|
|1. Open pond or raceway||10 times|
|2. Covered pond or raceway||20 times|
|3. Semi-closed culture||25 times|
|4. Closed or controlled environment||30+ times|
Covered microfarms allow growers to extend the season by two to four months. Semi-closed and closed systems allow year-round production, independent of weather. Microfarmers train indigenous, local algae to produce proteins, oils, carbohydrates and other co-products rapidly. Some growers cultivate exotic species from algae collections but locally adapted species are typically the highest performers.
Green Algae Water Security Strategy
What water strategy makes the most sense for our children?
- Continuing down the path with industrial agriculture where food production consumes 70% of freshwater globally?
- Creating a new path with PEACE microfarms that provide a healthier food supply while consuming no or minimal freshwater?
Since we know freshwater supplies are going to run out, why not choose a sustainable and affordable food supply that preserves scarce freshwater for our next generation?