We Have A Problem: Food Supply

Hackaday, we have a problem. Supplying fresh, healthy food to the world’s population is a huge challenge. And if we do nothing, it will only get more difficult. Rising water prices and (eventually) rising fuel prices will make growing and transporting food more costly. Let’s leverage our collective skill and experience to chip away at this problem. We hope this will get you thinking toward your entry for the 2015 Hackaday Prize.

There are big science breakthroughs that have taken us this far. For instance, The Green Revolution developed wheat with stronger stalks to support the weight of higher kernel yields. If you’re equipped to undertake that kind of bio-hacking we’d love to see it. But the majority of us can still work on ideas to make a difference and (heartwarming moment approaching…) feed the world.

As with the shower feedback loop and electricity monitoring installments of We Have a Problem, I’ll start you off with an uber-simple idea. It’s up to you to think further and wider to get at solutions that are worth more exploration.

Can Technology Give Me a Green Thumb?

warm-dirt-greenhouse-controller-e1332183513993We see it all the time around here, people are building projects to monitor and control their own gardening projects. The one shown here couldn’t be simpler, it’s a hot-box which lets your gardening continue through the winter. It uses heat tape to keep the soil warm, and features a motorized lid which actuates to regulate humidity and temperature.

This concept is a good one. It doesn’t take up a lot of space and it tackles the easy part of automation (how hot is it? how wet is it?). But does it have the potential to make an impact on the source of your household’s food? Maybe the concept needs to be applied to community garden areas so that you can achieve a larger yield.


robot-weed-pickerPerhaps robots are an answer to a different problem. This little bot, already entered in the 2015 Hackaday Prize, is an experiment with automatic weed elimination versus the use of herbicides.

But it does get us thinking. One of the problems you need to overcome when trying to achieve wide adoption of local food supply is that not everyone enjoys the work that goes into it. Do you have an idea of how your mad robot skills can do the work for us?

buckybotStepping back onto the side-track of changes to industrial farming, let’s take a look at one of the way-out-there-ideas from last year. A huge amount of water usage is in food production. What if we turned entire farms into greenhouses in order to capture and reuse water that is normally lost into an all-to-dry atmosphere? Domes my friends, domes. A swarm of 3D printing robots given locomotion and unleashed to print out translucent covers over the fields on the kilometer-scale. Hey, doesn’t hurt to dream (and do some back of the envelope calculations to gauge how wild that idea actually is).

Your Turn

That should be enough to get the conversation started. Toss around some ideas here in the comments, but don’t let the brainstorm stop there. All it takes to enter the Hackaday Prize is an idea. Write it down as a project on Hackaday.io and tag it “2015HackadayPrize” to get your entry started.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

190 thoughts on “We Have A Problem: Food Supply

      1. GMOs can be very unhealthy if you modify them in the wrong ways. Then again, cooking can be unhealthy if you cook your food in the wrong way. We’ve been modifying our food since we discovered fire.

      2. There are actually some research on DNA sharing between the human body, ie http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069805
        The solution does not reside in monocultures but in increasing the variety of cultures in smaller areas, which has proven extremely promising through techniques like agroforestry and partner cultures, as well as in permaculture design which, sadly, falls half in the non serious category, half in the hype and lacks reliable support from the media.
        Permaculture design in itself could win a trip to space in that context…

          1. It’s interesting how much “SkepticalRaptor” looks more like “corporate apologist.” Literally everything on there is about defending big-ag or big-pharma. Do you really think something engineered to produce its own poison isn’t… duh! poisoning you!!!!????

            Biotech has a place in this world, but right now as long as giant criminal corporations monopolize it, you’d be silly to ingest anything touched by it.

        1. Besides, if the claim in the article was true, DNA from GMO would be the _least_ of our problem, since our blood would be filled with DNA from a shitload of other sources, meaning the modified genes in GMO would be outnumbered by many many orders of magnitude and essentially harmless compared to all the other DNA segments floating around.

          Or do you also claim that GMO DNA is fundamentaly different from any other DNA in such a way that it’s the only DNA being capable of entering the bloodstream? Now _that_ really would have been a revolutionary discovery.

          1. Even if GMO’s were perfectly safe for you body (and the rest of the ecology), you’d still have the crap of patented plants and tying farmers to constant fees. Fuck that nonsense.

          2. What not and Lysenko prefer starvation over the possibility their children will become insect resistant. It is too bad so many people slept through their hard-science courses (and listened to their idiot biology teachers).

          3. Yes, where are the studies and who would fund a study proving your patented seed is not safe.
            My concerns are:
            1. Long term data
            2. Seeds being released on the basis of very little data.
            3. Cross pollination with surrounding crops that contaminates the seed supply.
            4. Prosecution of farmers seed gathering seeds from their own crops that have been contaminated by the patented seed through cross pollination.
            5. Studies on the long term effect on the pollinators of these crops.
            6. The shotgun approach that genetic engineering uses and then sorts out the stock by phenotype rather than genotype. (You don’t know what you’ve changed and how many have the same changes)
            7. Control of our food supply by big industial giants.

    1. That’s a statement that *might* be true, but starvation is a condition that *is* true.

      Or in other words, we can stack up the risks from eating GMO foods with the risks from starvation and see which is more devastating.

      Wouldn’t it be better to recognize that there may be problems with GMO foods, but that world hunger is a bigger problem? Once people are no longer threatened with DEATH then we can try to solve the lesser health risks.

      And we would start the second phase by identifying the risks using evidence-backed research. I don’t think we’ve started doing that yet – I’m not aware of any evidence that GMOs are unhealthy. Do you have any studies for us to look at?

      I’m all for reducing risk, but can we eat first?

      1. Hunger in the western world isn’t a problem.

        2/3 of the US is overfed anyhow, eating as much as twice the calories they need. 50% of food is wasted due to supply chain inefficiencies and simply because it’s so cheap you can throw it away without a care. Both of these issues are true to a lesser extent in the entire wester world.

        Solving these two issues would theoretically reduce the need for food production in the largest consumer economies to about 30% of what we’re producing right now, or conversely, we could feed about 2.5 billion people with the excess food we’re either turning to fat or waste.

        1. Bullseye. Another problem as I see it is to teach people to once again provide their own fresh food in the USA instead of relying on the GMO crops and the gov to feed themselves.

          1. You can’t expect ‘equal’ distribution of wealth since wealth is largely only an indicator of productivity. The societies that can’t feed themselves have systematic problems that are not solvable by science (or the goodwill of others). Those societies must change or fade away and die.

        2. i’d just like to point out that while 2/3rds may eat more than we need to survive, it’s a bit different to be comfortable, than to be just not starving. not trying to say you’re wrong, just putting numbers into a little perspective.

          1. There’s a good margin above starvation, that accounts for normal living. Over 60% of Americans are eating beyond it. The 2/3 are actually overweight/obese – they’re eating much more than just “comfortably”.

          1. GMO or any technology will not prevent people starving in large numbers. Only if they change their societies will they avoid their fate. There is nothing we can do to help or hinder those who are determined to self-destruct.

    2. The main problem with GMOs is that wide spread use will be irreversible. It is an invasive species on global proportions, an agricultural Pandora’s Box. If it has to be used, then it needs to be strictly isolated as best as possible, but that isn’t what is happening as it is now big business and has little to do with solving food shortages. Round-up resistant plants and round-up insecticide isn’t really the smarter path, having many more smaller organic farms is the smart way to limit food shortages or issues with crops.

      1. GMOs that are engineered for greater food production can’t be invasive because they spend less of their energy in actually spreading themselves and more into making us food. If left alone, they will lose in competition to plants which don’t need to pander to humans to survive.

        1. The cross breeding of GMO crops with traditional crops infects their modified DNA into robust natural seed that has been selectively bred for millennia. This what can’t be undone, you’ll never get the modified DNA out of the food chain completely. So organic farmers next to a GMO farm won’t be able to protect their crop from cross breeding since pollen is airborne. If left alone GMO DNA will spread, it has to be contained or eliminated.

          1. Natural selection will “weed out” all the unnecessary bits that nature didn’t already require.

            Things like roundup resistance are completely artifical things that are an energetic disadvantage to the organism, so they get selected out in breeding for more healthy crops. The GMO only survive under very specific conditions provided by the farming methods associated with the use of the particular strain, and outside of that, the harmful genetic variants are bred out of the pool.

          2. “Organic farmers get about 1/3 the yield of real farmers. Thus the higher cost of “organic” foods. This is definitely not a way to increase food production.”

            Thus why I said more farms. Organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields, NOT 33%. And I would argue that the real farmers are the ones actually farming, not altering DNA, spraying pesticides, etc. Also, if we have to, it is OK to subsidize food production if done in a way that everyone benefits. We need to get away from doing thing faster, cheaper, and on a larger scale since we’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked in the long run.

          3. Tim, I drive a combine every August for about 30 days. Wheat, both hard red and white (bread versus noodles), lentils, peas, barley, and canola. I absolutely know the moisture content of every load and the bushels per acre. Some is organic and some not. Organic is way way below 80%. Organic veggies are worse. If anyone tells you different, go look. They are trying to sell you on organic with lofty figures. The Palouse is not irrigated so it is a great place to really tell the difference plus the combines are cool self leveling machines because the fields are like motocross tracks.

    3. Simple cross-pollination is genetically modifying food. There are also natural plants with genetic defects that have been cultivated. Nectarines are peaches with two copies of a defective gene that in peaches produces their fuzz. The same defect also alters their taste.

      The common russet potatoes are all descendants of a single mutant that Luther Burbank found in his garden. It was uncharacteristically smooth and oval shaped rather than the randomly lumpy shape the species normally had. Instead of eating it he had the bright idea to cut it up and replant it, then repeated that with the spuds those grew which were also nicely shaped. That one mutant spud gave birth to the potato processing industry because its shape made it easy for machinery to handle. Years later, Jack Simplot figured out how to freeze potatoes without them turning to mush, to the benefit of the military and the eventual rise of the fast food industry.

      Broccoli is not a natural plant. It’s been meddled with by humans since the 6th century BC. Tampering with plant genetics for well over 2,000 years.

      What about corn? Nope, not natural either. Native Americans cross bred various kinds of maize, which itself is is a wild giant gass, to produce what we know as corn. Corn is one of the most highly modified crops using the process of cross pollination and in recent decades direct genetic manipulation. There was even a semi-successful test making corn generate a natural plastic within the kernels. It wasn’t easy to separate the tiny plastic grains and test items made from it were brittle. That was abandoned when it was discovered that it was easier to process corn oil into plastics such as polyurethane. International Harvester makes a combine with body panels of foamed polyurethane made from corn oil. Saves hundreds of pounds of weight in metal and paint. Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), a popular plastic for 3D printers is made from corn.

      The crazy thing with all this fresh and frozen and canned corn is its nutritive value is locked up in such a way that very little of it can be accessed by human digestive systems. Natives of the western hemisphere discovered in ancient times processes like drying and grinding and processing with alkali “cracks” the chemical structure to unlock the nutrients in corn. The other way to make corn’s nutrients accessible to human biology is to feed it to herbivore livestock then eat the livestock. Herbivore biochemistry is far better at breaking down tough plant molecules then re-compounding the nutrients into forms usable by carnivore and omnivore biology.

      One could say that meat is just naturally modified vegetation.

      If you don’t want to eat “unnatural” or genetically modified food, you’ve a long and difficult search to find some that hasn’t been, either by initial random mutations that have been cultivated or by good old fashioned cross breeding.

      At the least you’d have to give up corn, broccoli, nectarines and Burbank russet potatoes.

    4. Just because some companies aim at pesticide resistant GMOs, dismissing the whole technique is as bright as dismissing selective breeding of plants. Making crops more salt water tolerant, increasing the nutritional/vitamins value, increasing specific disease resistance, improving taste, etc. are viable goals for GMO that don’t make them dangerous. Those more altruistic goals do not fit well with business models though and as such aren’t likely to come from a corporation without some detrimental flaw that makes it better suited to making loads of cash, from a business perspective starving people aren’t usually flush with expendable money. It’ll take a government backed or some kind of public research for those goals, it’s expensive work,

      Without proper forethought we’re setting ourselves up for a big fall if a variety of breeds are not used regardless of the approach to reach the desired characteristics. Wheat rusk, blight (like the tomato blight that wiped out tons of crops in the NE), and I forgot what it was that was hurting banana crops, but these are all because of people’s natural tendency to want ‘proper’ or uniform foods (ie dislike of ugly tomatoes like heirloom tomatoes).

      That’s without even mentioning the legal aspects that can stifle progress and bankrupt farmers. Genetic patents need to be outlawed regardless of our decision moving forward, it’s not society’s problem if your business model breaks down as soon as the modifications spread naturally.

    1. Find another region with as much annual sunlight and mild winters; then you can stop growing things in the desert.

      Until then, the South West will continue to produce higher annual yields for some crops than just about every other region in North America. You can blame politics and greed all you want, but it ultimately boils down to production: There is a demand and that region fills it.

          1. If you look at the historical record, the late 20th century (when most of this ‘production’ in the South west was started. was the wettest in history. The southwest has a long record of long (multiple decade) droughts. Indeed that seems to be the ‘normal’ pattern, not what we have been witness to in the last 40-50 years,

        1. Well true, or until LA lays claim to everything coming from the Colorado river. Last time I was in the region was about 6 years ago and even then I came across farms that had been reclaimed by the desert; only identified by the concrete water canals.

      1. FL gets a handful of below 32F days a year and thats probably only early morning. In addition, most plants like a humid environment as apposed to dry-arid environments- I think.

    1. Simple drip irrigation can cut water use by a third, easily. Irradiation reduces spoilage waste in distribution. Nuclear power makes indoor farming practical. We have all the answers; once again the real problem is politics.

        1. No, no, no, and no. Engineering ethics used to be a thing, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Man’s folly is that we can out-engineer Mother Nature, history shows we can’t for very long. So to push for Nuclear Power, and Desalination, and indoor farming you’re not really planning for a sustainable future, you’re just creating more problems and points of failure. We need to align ourselves and our engineering to work alongside Mother Nature and natural systems. Treat the disease and not each symptom as it arises, that is smart.

          1. What about the Gen 4 reactors, thorium fuel cycles, etc? True, we have built reactors that were questionable in the past, but now we have refined the technology. If the true goal of those in power was to feed the hungry and provide clean water with clean energy it could be done. We’d be researching orbital solar power stations…alas we are not. We are a society based on greed and forcibly tempered by political interests or unreasonable demands to curb consumption without an alternative given.

      1. What is the cost of drip irrigation versus the flood irrigation commonly used in that region? Farming is a business with inputs and outputs; while drip irrigation would without a doubt save water, it may be cost prohibitive. Same thing applies to indoor farming.

        1. The cost is in more hardware and hardware maintenance. Broadcast sprinklers are a cost effective means for spreading a lot of water over a wide area. Drip irrigation has to have drip lines run to cover the entire area to be irrigated. Another cost of drip irrigation is in labor. Lining up a drip with a plant is time consuming. Removing drip systems to mechanically plant and harvest crops is another trick.

          1. I thought one of the larger issues with automatic harvesting was ensuring a dumb machine can reliably pick the plant in question. If there’s fixed watering points then you have a fixed reference point for planting and picking to align to.

        2. Indoor farming allows you to recover any excess water and nutrients you supply to plant, which plant doesn’t use up completely. The difference in efficiency is similar to difference between cooking on open fire vs cooking in stove oven. Also, it would enable you to reuse the land area many times over, by stacking the artificial field trays with minimal vertical distance (perhaps some selection or even GM process would be needed to shorten the plants’ stalks to achieve maximal spatial density). Last but not least, you can pump up the CO2 level for elevated biomass production (or elevated CO2 sequestration rate) and for suppression of most pests (but then, we would need to temporarily bring CO2 level down during pollination by insects phase … or create robotic bees). None of this is possible with outdoors farming, plus outdoors you need to work the earth with heavy machinery, using oil, while factory farming can work entirely on electricity, which may come from nuclear or renewable sources. Of course, artificial illumination would be needed for photosynthesis, but then again, the factory can work day and night, any time of year, in subterranean or extraterrestrial facilities, impervious to climate changes, or to asteroid or nuclear winters. If we are to survive the next extinction event, to loosen our grip on our natural environment, and to colonize inhospitable worlds far from our own, we need to develop and to perfect such technology.

          1. I don’t disagree that this concept has a lot of merit and should be studied, but no one should be saying at this time, “Indoor farming is the answer.” There’s nothing to back up such a statement. As the OP stated, “we have the answers.” We certainly do have the answer; just not a clue as to how to get there and if it’d work.

            And once again, what is the cost? If it runs at a negative operating margin; adoption will be slim to none. If the proposed process can’t self-sustain, it’s not a viable solution.

        3. On a large scale, money is meaningless. Look at how much farming and fossil fuels are subsidized by governments. Slight manipulation can and is used to make one practice preferable to another. Given drip irrigation has massive benefits to the entire populous, it makes sense to remove the economic down side.

      2. Hop farms use drip irrigation. The tubes get rolled up before the plants are harvested, then rolled back out after the strings are put back up at the start of the growing season.

        Drip irrigation has been used successfully on many row crops with shallow root systems.

        What it doesn’t work on are crops like legumes, peanuts, potatoes and other root crops than need deeply saturating water. It also doesn’t work on tree crops like nuts and fruits that have deep and wide spreading roots.

        A still growing method of crop irrigation is the pivot line. Look at Google Maps in agriculture areas and you’ll often see lots of circles and parts of circles. Those are crop fields with a single, long, rotating sprinkler line that pivots about one end. Originally they had many large “impact” heads on top of the pipe to spray water over a long distance. In hot weather a lot of the water evaporated instead of raining down on the crop. Current designs drop hoses down low with spray heads to apply the water much closer to the plants.

        Farming the corners of such fields was long a hit or miss thing. Pivot lines had “big gun” impact heads at the ends to try and get water out to the corners. Some farmers would plant the corners then rely on whatever rain fell to irrigate them. A new design in recent years (made possible by computer controls) puts a pivoting extension on the end of the line with steerable wheels to get the same amount of water to the corners.

        The time of round fields is coming to an end as this new watering technology spreads.

      3. Even assuming that the entire SW cut water use by 1/3, that will not solve the problem. We have drastically over developed the SW, given the long term available water source. All based upon a nearly unprecedented period of surplus water.

    2. The restrictions do, however, require better reporting from agriculture. It sounds to me like they lack sufficient data to determine how or if ag can reduce water usage and are at least working on collecting the data they’ll need to make that call.

    3. California has already taken a lot of water away from farms. Food comes from the store, doncha know? There are several bottled water companies who aren’t being touched by the proposed new restrictions.

      No water = no farms = no food.

  1. (eventually) rising fuel prices will make growing and transporting food more costly”
    More chicken little hype. Fracking and horizontal drilling applied to 3d seismic mapping are reducing fuel costs. Cabot Oil and Gas has a wellhead cash production cost of 10c/mmbtu for their Marcellus operations.

    1. Part of the reason I added “eventually” parenthetically in the post. It’s still a finite resource though, I doubt population growth will be curbed in the foreseeable future. Eventually we are going to run into the double whammy of water and transportation costs.

        1. Check out gapminder.org for lots of good data and some insight on what can really impact the world.
          Teaching girls to read and providing mosquito nets in the third world are things that make a big impact, but those aren’t things that are going to win the HAD prize…

    2. compress it, put it on a billion dollar boat send it to Asia to met infinite demand and cheap supply doesn’t matter. there isn’t that much of it. your also quoting costs that are small portion of total operating expenses, which isn’t that useful for analysis or comparison

  2. desalination plain and simple. Isreal has been doing it for years and if the idiots in cali will not allow it it is their problem. food supply isn’t a problem it is a scare tactic as well. people have been saying for years we have reached our tipping point, that is just not true either. we are finding out how to grow larger crops with healthier plants even w/o gmo. brazil is even doing 2 plantings for both corn and soy. the amount of land still subsidized to not allow planting on it by the us govt is huge as well. There are tons more reasons but not enough time or reasonable people to get into it.

    BTW I used to work for Central Soya and ADM

    1. Desalination isn’t a solution, it is a last resort. If you’re calling for desalination then you are saying we have reached the tipping point. Large scale production of anything has historically never gone the way we have expected it to go, larger scale means larger scale problems. Large scale production is what has caused a lot of the problems we face with lack of soil fertility and erosion of top soil, etc. Smaller farms and more of them is the smarter path.

        1. So, you mean you watched Sony’s The Interview, what are you trying to say? The point is simple, I didn’t say less farms, I said smaller farms and more of them to allow farmers to rotate crops, be more water conscious, limit damage due to pests and drought, and generally be more in touch with the higher quality product they produce. Think a craftsman building something (quality) vs. a piece-worker (fast, low quality).

          1. Nope, never watched that nor am I likely to, my point is that the communist countries are known for their small farms and failing to produce enough to feed their people. NK was just a choice as an example based on it being one of the last communist places (although it’s more of a dictatorial kingdom really) and their difficulty with feeding their people.

            Thing is that large farms are more efficient and more compatible with machines and with the situation where less and less people want to be farmers.

        1. All you need is a siphon running cold water through an elevated pipe array. You get condensation moisture collection for free when you use deep off-shore cold ocean water in this way. It’s simple physics, no energy required but that used to prime the siphon.

          1. Good grief, do any of you people have any grasp what-so-ever just how much water is used everyday in the American Southwest? None of your pie in the sky thoughts are going to solve the basic problem. The water table is decreasing every year. WHY, because we are consuming it faster then it can be replenished.

            And we don’t have any significant energy surplus (materially or economically) to make the water supply problem go away.

      1. Yes, it takes a lot of energy to push water through many membranes. Sure there may be improvements in the future but the process remains largely unchanged and very energy intensive. Plus factor in all of the redundant systems to keep the system flowing and know that clean energy sources aren’t driving these machines. So any improvements will be minor in comparison to a process that uses a fuckton of energy for a relatively small pipe of water. If you can think of a better way, desalination tech is ripe for new ideas.

  3. Maybe we should actually deal with the six-billion lb gorilla in the room?

    The problem is always approached from the perspective of how do you find new and innovative ways to feed more people. Given we are still at a point where we can innovate our way out of immediate mass starvation. However our near exponential growth we are quickly reaching a tipping point where no innovation short of terraforming a second planet is going to do us any long term good.

    1. OK, stop right there.

      The “exponential growth” you mention is simply no longer correct. We are not in an exponential growth, world population growth is slowing so that we expect to stabilize by around 2050 and then decrease.

      This was all started by Malthus, who noted the similarities between human growth and other populations such as bacteria. If human growth is exponential (he said), we’ll eventually overwhelm the capacity of the planet and then die off.

      The problem is that exponential growth is indistinguishable from bell-curve growth at the ends of the distribution. So everything appeared exponential to Malthus, but now that we’re up the side of the curve we can see that it’s actually a bell curve.

      UN estimates of population growth indicate that world population will stabilize by around 2090, and this is thought to be conservative (other studies indicate 2050 as the tipping point). Modern nations have a lower fertility rate than is needed for population replacement, and as nations become “modernized” their fertility rate goes down. The US has lower-than-needed fertility rate, and would have negative population growth if not for immigration.

      Please stop repeating outdated results. We have updated information about the issue that is more accurate.

      1. Modern nations have a termporarily reduced birth rate due to the baby boomers who bulk up the population pyramid without contributing to new births, which effectively reduces the apparent birth rate.

        If you shave off the geriatrics from the pyramid, the actual birth rate goes up again.

        1. This isn’t about the birth rate, it’s about the fertility rate.

          The fertility rate is the average number of children born to each woman, and the “replacement rate” average is 2.1 for industrialized nations and 2.5 to 3.3 in developing nations (reflecting the increased risk of children dying before themselves having children).

          If you shave off the geriatrics from the pyramid, the actual birth rate goes up again that’s true, but it’s a misleading fact tailored to instill fear in the reader. The fundamental statistic of interest is fertility rate, and all evidence shows that figure going down as nations become more modern.

          I assume that your intent was to inform not to scare, so please read up on the subject and update your views. The Wikipedia article “Total Fertility Rate” is a good place to start.

          (I do statistics for my day job, and sorting through the misuse of statistics is a never-ending battle for me.)

          1. Maybe I used the wrong term, but that doesn’t change the facts. The average number of children born per woman is being depressed by the disproportionate number of women past menopause or otherwise too old to consider or have children.

            The baby boomer generation is bulging up the top end of the population pyramid and causing all sorts of statistical anomalies that wouldn’t be there if the society was in a stable steady state condition in terms of population age distribution. In reality, the population is continuing to grow on an exponential basis – just not the exponential that was predicted 50 years ago when the baby boomer generation was born.

          2. Dax – the fertility rate is total births per woman over her lifetime. It doesn’t change with the average length of a woman’s life, nor the proportion of elderly women.

            Please think these things through and try to think statistically. We’re in a forum with a lot of readers, and disseminating bad information can indirectly result in bad policy decisions.

          3. OK, stop right there. I agree that it wouldn’t be an exponential growth unless you assume certain factors, but most certainly the population will continue growing (you don’t have to be a statistician to see that, but I have read both sides). If there is a plateau, there wouldn’t be much of a down turn or correction, and it would be followed by growth. I agree that there are limits to growth, but we will engineer around those limits and continue to reproduce until something externally stops us.

      2. Point taken, but there’s still six billion people on Earth. Already fed, clothed, sheltered, and kept entertained by increasing use of risky and unsustainable shortcuts, yet not all sufficiently so, and we all want more. We hope for technological advances to solve our problems, and if one looks at the incredible advances of the last century or two, you might believe this will occur. However, it looks more to me that most areas of technological advance have slowed or plateaued. In the 40 years I’ve been alive, the most significant advances have been primarily in the areas of information and communications. And if technology is already unable to maintain the current population humanely, uniformly, and sustainably, then gambling on it to do so for a peak population of nine billion in the relatively near future is lunacy.

      3. +1 “The Limits to Growth” was torn a new one by David Berlinskly in his “On Systems Analysis” 40 years ago. The growth fear mongers used first order DEQ’s in all their modelling and ALL first order systems have exponentials as their solutions. The catastrophe was built into the stupid modeling, not reality, and has been repeated as if true ever since. (Silent Spring, Future Shock, The Third Wave, Global Nuclear Winter, all the pseudo science the press eats up and keeps as gospel).

    2. You need to get with the times, there are now 7.3 billion people, you can;t memorize a figure fifteen years ago and expect it to remain constant for the rest of time when talking world population.

  4. I see more of a problem with seed companies using their patent muscle on what they sell. The farmers cannot reuse seed grown from the crops they already bought or face prosecution. So the seed companies actually control a hefty portion of price.

    1. Almost no farmer would do that anyway since they’d have hybrids then and their yield would go down.

      Farmers don’t like having their yield go down, so they just buy new seeds every year.

      1. Seeds are also bought pre-treated and often sorted by size. Most farmers lack the equipment to do either of these things.

        Seed size is actually very important for planters as it is very difficult to singulate seeds correctly if the size varies over too great a range. For example, one brand of planters I work with offers 4 or more seed discs just to cover the varieties of corn. With corn you also have to consider whether it is a round seed or a flat seed.

        Ultimately it’s time and money ahead for most farmers to just buy seed that has already been sorted.

        1. Another are in which YMMV. Your correct few farmers own the equipment you mention, but they still save the seed from one season’s harvest to use when they plant that crop in 1 to 4 years depending on their crop and fallow rotation They hire a someone to clean and grade the seed, who often provides the various treatments as well. Having said that some farmers will purchase some seed, often for crops they don’t grow in their normal rotation.

  5. I think automated backyard farming will become a viable option soon. An aeroponic set up alongside aquaponics uses less water and has the benefit of making adequate use of vertical space. With sensors and dispensers for nutrients, moisture, ph, etc., the tech could make it as simple as turn it on and refill these hoppers as necessary, harvest when your food looks like these pictures. Make it simple, make it popular, push the freshness of garden vegetables and pesticide free. It travels meters from field to plate versus miles, and harvest and prep time is simply using the time taken to go to the store specifically for produce. It wouldn’t do away with grocery stores entirely, but if every block had at least one neighbor with a small farm, I think there might be at least a little less hunger around.

      1. It’s beyond just the savings. It is about health and pleasure. Fresh food, and I mean really fresh, just picked, has much more healthy nutrients and superb aroma and taste. If you think you don’t like the taste of some kind of vegetable, you should try it fresh or cooked from fresh.

    1. Not to be disagreeable I think we would first see custom farming of productive ground in Urban and suburban area.. Either case rent or shares of the harvest. Old fashion dirst farming because other method would take too much an investment

    2. I agree and have been thinking what it would take to make this happen on my 2.5 acres where I really only have about .25 acre to use for this. But I also think this will happen in places where it is cost prohibitive / life threatening to truck food from the industrial farms. In the (1) Detroit city limits they are doing quite a bit of urban farming, but based on human politics (need for some people to control others) we’ll see how long it lasts. Food transportation is a big business, I wouldn’t be surprised if the teamsters go to congress and put a stop to small farms, (2) here in MI the state has already put in an effort to prevent certain zones from allowing animals on family farms, which has their uses for a farm and keeps people from going to the store for mot just vegetables but meat and milk also. Their are many municipalities that today have laws restricting water collection even if it’s a car dealership collecting rainwater from their parking lot to use to wash their cars, although it seems some of these restrictions are being lifted in some areas (3). If I remember correctly within the past ten years there was some effort by some US law makers to prohibit people from using heirloom seeds to grow their own food (4). But the other problem I have with the automated backyard farming is keeping the soil fertile for many years of production. That takes getting the soil in the correct condition, using the same “man made chemicals” in the backyard farm is no different then some farmer using them on their crops. (“man made chemicals” – it’s a loaded term I know since the soil and plant process is chemical in nature and the real question is, are the additives to fertilize the soil safe to prevent our bodies from becoming a home to some form of cancer. This to me is the real problem with GMOs, is the studies haven’t been done long enough to know if this is a problem.)
      (1) – http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/239844
      (2) – http://www.offthegridnews.com/current-events/michigan-bans-animals-on-small-farms/
      (3) – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/us/29rain.html?_r=0
      (4) – still looking for this reference

      1. The obesity rate is another one of those misleading statistics.

        The excess nutrition needed to cause obesity is in the neighborhood of 10 calories/day. For perspective, that’s about 1 M&M per day over what’s needed for maintenance.

        All studies of obesity that seek to assign blame to anything the eater does have failed. Neither diet nor exercise nor food choice will change your body weight, it’s like you have a thermostat set to a particular value and nothing will change it. Whether these changes make you more *healthy* is a separate issue, but they have no effect on your weight.

        Furthermore, modern laboratory animals raised raised with the same diet and same exercise as animals from previous decades are obese. The trend (over time) is significant and compelling.

        The current hypothesis is that obesity is caused by something in the environment, and many studies are looking into this right now.

        My point is that obesity does not contribute in any meaningful way to global food production.

        Obesity is a problem, that’s true, but it doesn’t impact the global food supply.

        1. Something in the environment, or in the food chain?

          They pump all manner of chemicals into what we eat to change such things as smell and appearance. If you eat processed foods (I do, but attempt to minimize how much) the stuff you eat is not all food.

          If the FDA would please phase out many of these “fashion” chemicals we would all be in better shape. But as pointed out above, you don’t bite the hand that pays for your re-election.

          1. It’s a good thought, you might be right.

            My information is a about a year out of date, but last I saw over 700 possibilities had been nominated, including CO2, bisphenol-A in plastics, overuse of antibiotics in livestock, and estrogenic compounds in the water supply.

            700 is a lot of possibilities to slog through, but having more eyes on the problem will only make finding the cause that much easier.

            If you can take your hypothesis and come up with a study – go through one of the publicly-available databases and choose 2 cohorts that distinguish your hypothesis from the null – you might find the source of the problem.

            This is something people can do with tools currently available, and I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t find anything, learning the process and how to think statistically in detail is a useful skill.

          1. Is this an example of the product of wealth creating systematic problems?

            In pondering the systematic problems you reference further down, I have to wander if seclusion and (lack of) education are the cause for the societies not correcting themselves in a way they should (revolution). In addition there is there added trouble of the educated (foreign and local) extorting them (with superior force/resources)

          2. Many think mobile is the answer to this education problem, as most of the developing regions are already having to use them for banking and communication. It should also be noted that most of these systems are ahead of the Western World. Innovation breeds from necessity.

        2. I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. Imagine your spherical obese human on a frictionless plane. Now feed that person fewer calories than they use (e.g. 1 M&M less per day). What happens?

          “something in the environment”? Candy? M&Ms? High-fructose corn syrup? Big Gulps? Doritos? Cookies? What could it be?

          Diet and exercise is the only solution.

          1. planofuji and Andrew, you’re missing a critical element.

            yes, diet and exercise are part of the equation, but our food supply doesn’t need any assistance from the chemistry they add for things beyond food preservation. Look, that bread is fluffier than that one….there’s a ton of money to be had by adjusting the food sources we see in a supermarket to get us as consumers to buy one food over another. All the added salt and texture enhancers they add to food is not good for you.

            So, perhaps rather than blasting daily habits alone, realize it’s not as simple as you’re making it out to be.

          2. Robomonkey:
            Good point about capitalism and free market breeding most of these problems (well, im putting words in your mouth)

            Freedom of choice is a great thing, but this problem doesnt exist in utilitarian societies. People, animals, are kind-of selfish to govern themselves. Its pretty hard for an entire society to think about far away regions or the future of mankind when they are so caught up with living out their own lives. I would also assume that lower incomes give way to, on average, less care about the well being of others.

        3. >. Neither diet nor exercise nor food choice will change your body weight, it’s like you have a thermostat set to a particular value and nothing will change it. Whether these changes make you more *healthy* is
          >a separate issue, but they have no effect on your weight.

          thats what fat people say, not the reality
          in reality we have this thing called conservation of energy

          1. conservation of energy and a unique combination of trillions of critters in your guts, essential to caloric processing and metabolism that we dont understand. surely starvation and cycling for long periods of time are a brute force solution, but they do not help understand the causes, which are obviously more extensive than solving energy and mass balances. I am a fan of this solution however I have issue maintaining weight with excessive caloric intake. I expect myshit just becomes more energy dense. a

        4. 10 extra calories a day will not make you obese because the energy expenditure of the body scales up with body mass. It doesn’t accumulate over time unless you’re one of those rare people with a genetic defect that prevents them from turning body fat back into glucose.

          To maintain obesity, you need to be eating significantly more than an extra half a percent of your regular diet.

          The “one extra m&m” story is a pure fabrication.

    1. Logistics is certainly a concern that is only going to get worse as time goes by since we have been crutching on fossil fuels for somewhere in the neighborhood of a century or so. We are going to need to seriously restructure everything around some alternative fuel source or things will get very very interesting. Preferably something significantly more renewable and sufficiently plentiful/versatile to be a global solution.

    2. Every famine on Earth in the past 50 years or so was the result of government action or inaction. Even during the Irish Potatoe Famines Ireland was exporting fattened cattle to the rest of the U.K. The Irish were heavily taxed (by their British overlords) for any vegetable they grew, except the potatoe, so that became the mainstay of their diet.

  6. California and Florida are casualties of global weather changes due to global warming.
    Enjoy your new dessert, and the next Atlantis.
    There is nothing you can do to fix this anymore, and soon you’ll have an economy just like Ethiopia.

    Vote republican, because there is profit in misery.

    1. I’d like to point out that California is a bastion of green thinking and liberalism and yet they just now enacted watering restrictions for the first time. Meanwhile, conservative Florida has had mandatory watering restrictions in times of drought since I was a kid.
      Keep pushing a faux partisan agenda, because there’s profit in division.

  7. Just to point out… plants need water not as a convenient soluble, but they actually CONSUME water in photosynthesis. They also consume carbon dioxide. Meaning even with a dome, you still have to add water… I agree a dome will help control evaporative losses, but can’t solve all the problems there. Also it would have to have a way to exchange carbon dioxide (to fuel photosynthesis) AND oxygen (even a moderate increase in oxygen content results in a drastic increase in flammability)

    1. A lot of what we use for food would be consumed by fungus in a greenhouse environment. A lot IS consumed by fungus in the tropics. The banana of my childhood is extinct. I think they are now on the 3rd or 4th choice of plantain that is sort of like a banana now. Partly a monoculture problem and partly transportation spreading the fungus world wide.

  8. Stop trying to feed the world. If people are stupid enough to breed more people then the area can support, let nature run it’s course. Over population is the root of pretty much every problem the planet currently has, stop breeding is the first step to a lasting solution.

    1. I can hear the rebuttal now: “You first”. How do you decide who gets to breed and who doesn’t?

      But I agree – the problem isn’t a global one, it’s a local one. Stop trying to fix the world’s problems and worry about fixing our own first.

  9. Terra Preta – terraforming space roughly the size of France – or twice the UK with black earth 2M deep
    This is the BEST INVENTION all times..(except for fire;-), even Einsteinis dwarfed if you measure the fruits for generations to come ..

    BioChar is a part of the secret and can be produce by stoves like Anila Stove

    Sun tower, fog capture, and terra preta…..problem solved…..easy peasy !

    Making a better world is not a technical problem as much as it is a GREED problem….sterile seeds an lots of costly fertilizer ( mass death of bees )…what a coincidence…. Greed is GOD !!

  10. Stop breeding like rabbits. Anyone with more than two children is an enemy of future generations. Let’s make breeder-shaming a force for social good. What makes you so special that you think the world needs multiple copies of you?
    Problem solved- what do I win?

    1. Well then I guess the only solution is cannibalism, it solves food shortages AND over population in one fell swoop. I’ll take my Nobel prize money in roasting baby coupons, mmmmm, yummy.

  11. I don’t get the main topic “Supplying fresh, healthy food to the world’s population”. Who is doing this supplying and why? The UN? The New World Order? Treating the actions of millions of individual farmers like some big system you can control has been tried, tragically, several times in the last 100 years.

    Perhaps it is wiser to study why food is scarce in some places and plentiful in others. The topic is then culture and politics and resources and violence, graft, and corruption and the general use of force. I think that is beyond the scope of hacker engineering. In fact, it is a ridiculous topic for a contest. The type of thing found in a grade school essay.

        1. I believe the atleast 30%* of the worlds population, who live in slums, would say the wealthy, overprivilaged, was >=70%

          *Off cuff statistic does not include poor rural population

          1. It seems the UN rates actual poverty at the equivalent yearly income of a few thousand US, this would have to cover all expindatures.

            There is a very interesting paper about true poverty not existing in the developed/Western world for many, many years.

  12. how about using bio fuels made from alcohols that are non drinkable i.e to prevent burdening the food supply so we dont have to dedicate all the land to corn production to make fuel.

    1. Cellulosic ethanol is already a thing and gaining momentum. In the US that largely means using corn stalks, but it can be applied to numerous types of plant matter. There are, however, problems concerning the amount of organic material removed from a field, but in the case of corn stalks removing a percentage of them allows a farmer to no-till the ground saving fuel and man-hours. Otherwise leaving 100% of the corn stalks typically requires the residue to be tilled back into the ground so that it does not impede planting and the next rotation of growth.

        1. so does fossil fuel… you just dont count the energy involved in their production, only extraction. welcome to the universe and the 2nd law of thermodynamics. expecting otherwise is for the ignorant.

  13. Regarding manufacturing domes: instead of a swarm of bots how about one bot with gripping wheels and a extruder, like a 3D printer? It could start out on a pre-manufactured base and spiral upward, fed by spool of filament on the ground. The bot itself would prevent the completion of the dome at the top, so the bot could be retrieved (possibly by helicopter) and a cap put in place.

    1. I’ve always wondered how difficult it would be to cover over small rock quarries. If we can build super massive sports staduims covering a hole in the ground shouldn’t be that difficult. Especially since there is less of a need for a 100% unobstructed line of sight or playing fields.
      A lot of quarries already naturally collect rain water and form pretty substantial lakes and ponds. Why not cover them and start aquaculture and hydroponic farms? You could even get into some of the more interesting vertical farming techniques if the quarry walls are high enough. Just a thought.

  14. Or perhaps some neodymium magnets and a few stainless steel balls? The magnets on the bot and the balls on the inside. That way it could close the top and drive itself to the ground when finished.

  15. My one and only thought here is: whatever the hack, it should be able to function with no or little energy. Otherwise, the problem will only be moved to another point, and not resolved.

  16. It seems like a lot of food-supply problems are chasing long-tail issues. Identifying the most effective of them would be a good first step.

    Objectively I’d suspect improving plant-protein production, marketing and use to mitigate animal protein use would reduce the space and energy cost of that food type massively.

    Personally I’d love to find a way to compact self-sufficiency level farming to a domestic level, but the energy density issues are pretty big and unless it was automated too I can’t imagine any meaningful world change from the number of people who’d use it.

  17. I’m fairly sure the issue with food is t making enough, but getting it to the egg people. And the problem there is politics and warlords. So, let’s create a better gun, and we can solve those :)

  18. We are already capable of feeding the entire world:

    Instead of myopically diving headfirst into technological “fixes”, put down your soldering iron and look at the big picture: the problem is political, not technological. Feeding poor people isn’t profitable, because poor people tend to not have any money! What causes hunger is the profit motive itself.

    To be blunt: the problem is capitalism.

    1. No. The problem is that without profit there’s no point in feeding these people.

      They’re extra – they don’t contribute back into the means which support them – otherwise they would already be feeding themselves – and giving them food for free is just making the problem worse by enabling them to make more of themselves.

      There’s a certain ethical argument and practical sense to charity for people who are down on their luck, but simply giving people stuff for free is not a very sustainable system. It’s been tried many times over the last 100 years and every time it just lead to people slacking off.

      1. And besides, there’s undesirable consequences to giving free or cheap food.

        The systemic hunger issues begin when the marginal cost of production for the local farmers exceeds what the people can afford, so not enough food is being produced. It’s not that they couldn’t grow the food – it’s because the people aren’t producing enough other stuff to pay the farmers. The farmers can’t sustain a higher output for free, so they don’t, and the people go hungry.

        Dumping cheap food on the market in that situation will not create more local food production and instead will put the remaining farmers out of jobs.

        Socialism isn’t the answer to the problem, because even in socialism the people need to produce enough real value to sustain their means of production, and when that doesn’t happen – which will inevitably happen because people get wise and start slacking off – the system grinds to a halt or you have to start putting people to work on the point of a gun.

        1. Thus the corruption and violence and starvation nearly everywhere the Peace Core went and “fixed” things and “foreign aid” introducing tech and materials the locals can not compete with. Disaster predictable and predicted but ignored.

      2. The whole history of the Soviet Union for example was an exercise in how to operate a de-facto feudal system with aristocrats (the party) and serfs (the people) while pretending not to.

        They even had internal passports to prevent the peasant classes from leaving their fields, effectively imprisoning people to their production collectives.

    2. Dingus, check with Wingus. The problem(s) are sometimes crony socialism and crony capitalism, which have nothing to do with a free market. Marx is long dead and long proven wrong. Get a new book. Try something by Milton Freedman.

  19. You guys are going about this the wrong way. First you need to make sure that GMOs are unhealthy. If not you’ll have no luck. Then you need to lower the restrictions on risky pesticides. After that introduce potent toxins into flu shots and make them mandatory for children going to public schools. Now get rid of a ton of FDA food processing restriction and start allowing the more questionable of additives. Next spray some chemicals in the are and starts some wars. If you are doing it effectively, eventually the problem with go away.

  20. I must say that the comments thus far have been a fun read. Lots of interesting perspectives and (sorry) a fair amount of tripe. IMHO, Amongst the tripiest (shut up) are the U.S. obesity figures, the water scarcity myth, impending doom from over population and (ironically considering the site) the seeming technophobic attitude of some when talking about potential solutions (incl. GM foods) . My thoughts:
    While I will admit there seems to be no shortage of fat-asses in my part of the US, the % quoted is crap. MAYBE if you include babies (with their baby fat) new moms for a while and the elderly (who tend to be less active than your average Pilates instructor) you might be close, but only if you start calling anyone with an ounce of excess weight obese. Water scarcity: would somebody please explain where all the water went? Last time I looked, Earth had the same amount of water as it did before any of us were born. Cali is in a drought. So what? Third one I remember since being born here in 1963. (And how exactly is it that groundwater levels are dropping as the sea level is rising?? ) The green wienies decry (and frustrate) desalinization projects because they fear (same goes for nuclear energy) that solving the problems of cheap, affordable water (and energy) will result in development (read growth) which plays right into their fear of ….OVERPOPULATION: seriously?!? Here’s a novel idea next time you have to catch a flight ANYWHERE : “look out the window”. Man, 15 minuets up and you can hardly see the ground for all those teaming masses! Not to mention that every so often the “universe” sends us a Tesla or an Einstein etc. whose contributions to the mix tend to more than offset the increase in population that bred them. In the current (information) Age, the number of innovators available to solve these and other problems ( incl. those we have yet to encounter) is growing ex potentially. You think there’s too many people? Sterilize yourself. Just quit preaching bs.
    The fact of the matter is that there ARE solutions to most of the problems that face the human race already within our ability. What’s preventing it more than anything is the political games being played by those whose desire for power exceeds their own abilities of self preservation. Unable to compete, they steal, lie and cheat themselves an advantage. We should NOT be afraid to tackle the problems that we face. We should solve them and continue our expansion into the stars as I believe we are designed ( destined) to do. And yes, we should by all means learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, not be paralyzed by them.

    1. If I remember correctly, selective breeding results in modification of an organism’s genetics. So does evolution. That has been going on for a while, yeh? I think, however, that genetic science should be 100 % open, including technical disclosure when and where implemented. There’s a very good possibility that our grand or great-grandchildren will be experimenting with this in school. There’s also the possibility, of course that one of them will fuck it up and kill us all…But, hey, No Balls, No Glory.

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