Is Vertical Farming a Pipe Dream? Plus, More Agriculture News This Week.

Photo credit: Flickr CC via rittyrats

Below, is a selection of recent agriculture-related news.

In a special report to the president, the “Council of Advisers on Science and Technology” warn that the U.S. needs to invest more in agricultural research for future food production. Weed control, nutritional concerns, and water competition were some of the areas that the group said require extra attention. Benbrook at Washington State wrote a good critique of this report that is definitely worth reading. The link to the original PDF report is here.

China’s grain imports have tripled so far this year. China is the second-largest importer of rice and barley.

This Oxfam article proposes ways in which farming can be done successfully without using fossil fuels. Methods from Cambodia, India and the Phillipines are used as examples.

To achieve food security, a larger focus is required on post harvest losses in developing countries, which is significant, and can be addressed mainly through better storage methods.

The Kansas City Star did a comprehensive special report on Beef, including its history in the Kansas City region, today’s processing methods, antibiotic use, and an in depth article about the dangers of mechanically tenderized beef.

Bruce Campbell, director of CGIAR, wrote an Op-Ed for the NYTs about adapting to climate change by modifying farming practices.

Sheep ranchers are reducing herds AGAIN, since they are losing $100 per head.

Stan Cox from the Land Institute in Kansas writes why he thinks vertical farming is only a pipe dream.

Based on the progress of winter wheat crops, the International Grains Council expects global wheat production next season to increase by 4% over last year, in its first estimate of the 2013/14 crop year.

Researchers at the University of Illinois will use a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study plant photosynthesis with the goal of increasing food-crop production.

Cargill will invest $91 million in India for corn milling and processed food ventures.

This Science Daily article discusses regional soil variations in needs and uptake of phosphorus fertilizer.

ECONOMICS: Simon Johnson has some sobering thoughts about the ongoing prospects of too big to fail, especially of today’s large nonbank financial companies which are under the jurisdiction of the F.D.I.C. He says that regulators should require equity, not debt, to absorb losses in the financial system.

The FAO’s Food Price Index fell in November 2012, and is now the lowest since June 2012. Sugar fell the most, followed by oils and cereals. The index is 3 percent below its level a year ago.

NYT’s “Dot Earth” references a new study out of Rockefeller University by Jesse Ausubel titled “Peak Farmland and the Prospects for Sparing Nature”. Note that I was asked to weigh in on this, and my response can be read here.

Written and compiled by K. McDonald.

5 thoughts on “Is Vertical Farming a Pipe Dream? Plus, More Agriculture News This Week.

  1. Jason

    Hi Kay,
    I read the Rockefeller University study cited by Dot Earth and something I didn’t see mentioned once was climate change and impact on yields. The study showed a possible very small decline in farmland use, which is encouraging, but hinges on a whole series of assumptions, including:

    1. Biofuel policy (something you are keen to point out).
    2. Actual meat demand (this is what they model closely and extrapolate long-term).
    3. Climate change impacts (if these are severe, more land is needed to compensate for yield declines and variability).
    4. Relative cost of inputs (there’s often a trade-off between land area used for obtaining a gross yield vs. inputs for having a higher yield per area).

    So while I would be very pleased if this model came true, it is difficult to weigh all the factors and it would have been a better paper if they developed various scenarios with their model and explained a reasonable path that would lower farmland use, pointing out the risks and sensitivity levels in terms of policy, consumption patterns, input prices and climate change that would lead to more farmland use.

    1. K. McDonald Post author


      I’m in agreement with all that you say.

      The problem in doing a study such as this is that you really can’t draw any conclusions because you really can’t predict the future accurately and you really can’t take all of the complexities into account. The study refers to wildcards and rightly so.

      For example, I could say that I’m certain they are wrong because biofuels policies will continue to demand more and more land. But that could be wrong because inputs might become prohibitive, or policy could change, or national economies might become so stressed that biofuels supports are removed, or CC will affect production so severely that we need all land for food production, or maybe a solution like algae for biodiesel will come into fruition so that biofuels land projects become abandoned.

      The main point is that the study revealed optimism in future crop production and I was in agreement with that. The other main point we both agreed on is that environmentalists need to be paying more attention to biofuels policies. (No surprise to readers here.)

      1. Greg vP


        I agree with what you say but would like to point out another source of uncertainty, one that I think is more important but less visible than any of Jason’s (important) points, and another place where environmentalists could focus their efforts.

        Figure 8 in Asusbel et al.’s report shows that the world average yield for maize (corn) is only half the US average of 8 tonnes per hectare. (Since the US produces about a third of the world’s maize, the “rest of world” figure is even lower.) Meanwhile, the US average is only half the yield from the top ten percent of growers. There is enormous potential to increase yields in the rest of the world, even if they are only brought up to the US average.

        We could easily grow all the food that we grow now, on two-thirds as much land…with relatively trivial investment. Why doesn’t this investment happen? Incentives. Or, more accurately, disincentives.

        In many countries small-holders do not have secure rights in their property–they can be and are swept off it with no notice or recourse–so they have no incentive to invest in their land.

        In many countries–some of the same ones, and some others–they face regulation restricting whom they can sell to, what price they can sell at, what they may grow, and sometimes even how they may grow it. Again, there are no incentives to invest in their land or their knowledge.

        In many countries–again, the overlap is considerable–they face unregulated or non-existent credit markets, and/or political elites who act to enrich their own families and protect their own political power rather than creating fair policies and impartial institutions. If all income above bare subsistence is extracted by lenders and politicians, farmers have no capacity to invest even if they wanted to.

        What will happen? There is increasing pressure in China and India to eliminate corruption, properly regulate credit and crop markets, strengthen the property rights of small farmers, and relax restrictions on the growing and sale of crops. I am optimistic that yields in these countries will continue to rise, as farmers will invest. I am not so optimistic about most of sub-Saharan Africa, or the likes of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

  2. DB

    Thanks for the article about post harvest losses in developing countries. I’ve often felt that this is an under-reported issue and thus a problem that hasn’t gotten enough attention. It’s a sad irony that the most food is wasted (spoiled) in the places that need it the most.

    Merry Christmas,

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Actually, I was disappointed to see this article, because I was planning to write on this in the near future. I will try to anyway.
      Merry Christmas to you, my friend.


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