‘Peak Industrial Agriculture’ Will Mean Big Growth in the Sustainable Ag Industry
April 2, 2012 | Ro Kumar
The following is a guest post from Ro Kumar, the founder of LocalBlu, a blog covering urban farming and sustainability. Based in the Bay Area at UC Berkeley and Stanford, he is a passionate advocate for a cleaner planet with healthier people. Subscribe to Ro’s updates.
Stock brokers make big bucks by making smart bets on big opportunities. There is no smarter or bigger bet than sustainable agriculture. This is because there are very few industries which are assured to always be around—mobile phone apps, solar, and even banking are not among them. Agriculture, however, is and always has been the biggest and most important industry of human civilization. For this reason, shifts in agriculture represent tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs.
We are currently undergoing such a shift as the dominant farming practices used since the Green Revolution demonstrate themselves to be inherently unsustainable. Industrial agriculture’s inevitable demise will also mean the inevitable growth of alternatives. The sustainable organic agriculture industry is destined to see massive growth because it will emerge as the only viable alternative to chemical farming. We can understand why this will be the case by further exploring the factors that are contributing to ‘Peak Industrial Agriculture’:
Peak Oil. The entire industrial farming complex is dependent on a system of fossil fuel inputs – the fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, and even the trucks used for transportation. Oil is a finite resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. It is a logical certainty that a system based on a diminishing input will not last. The energy we use to grow our food will have to come from somewhere else. Sustainable organic operations that use renewable inputs are emerging as the only workable alternatives.
Topsoil Depletion. Topsoil is the fertile earth from which all food is grown. The living biology in topsoil is killed by the chemical fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. The United States has lost more than 80% of its topsoil and we continue to lose topsoil 17 times faster than nature can create it1. Less and less topsoil requires more and more chemical inputs needed to grow food. This also translates to ever-increasing costs for the same (or most likely worse) crop yield and quality. It is impossible for a such a self-destructive system to continue in the long run. Soil remediation is destined to become a huge industry, because our topsoil will have to be regenerated to feed the population. Sustainable organic agriculture will emerge as the only commercially viable alternative because it relies on a system of farming that builds topsoil rather than depleting it.
Water table Depletion. Agriculture accounts for about two-thirds of all water use worldwide. In many cases, irrigation is depleting water aquifers faster than they can be recharged2. Chemically farmed soils consume more water than organic soils because while chemical soil becomes increasingly degraded and eroded, organic soils slowly build up organic matter, moisture, and microbial activity3. In the context of increasing scarcity and higher prices for water, the organic industry will continue to grow. Furthermore, this situation will favor highly water-efficient systems like hydroponics and aquaponics.
Looking forward. The above three reasons are some of the primary factors involved in Peak Industrial Agriculture. Any unsustainable system has results in the shape of a bell curve—eventually you will see a point of diminishing returns. From the point of view of investment and entrepreneurship, we can make a smart bet, grounded by the laws of ecology, that sustainable organic systems will have to eventually come to the fore. In a sector as large and as global as agriculture, this will mean that new industries, companies, and fortunes will be made as this shift occurs.
1Kimbrell, Andrew. The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Washington: Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in Collaboration with Island, 2002. Print.
2Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health 110.4 (2002). Web.
3Pimentel, David, Paul Hepperly, James Hanson, David Douds, and Rita Seidel. “Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems.” BioScience 55.7 (2005): 573. Print.