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  Chapter 1: Abundance (return to Timeline Intro)

A New Age of Localized, Organic Food Production and Preparation

WHEN WE ENVISION HOW WE WILL LIVE over the next 100 years, we are faced almost immediately with issues of food security. How do we design a building, a city, a house or a kitchen—or even a cooking method—without factoring in where and how people will acquire and prepare their food?.

By Matthew Power

According to most statistics, hunger should no longer exist on Earth. Technological advances in farming mean that the total amount of food production worldwide now outpaces population growth. Yet almost a billion people go hungry each year. The reasons why, according to Harper’s Magazine, are not what you might expect: Food has become a speculative commodity—especially wheat—that is bought and sold for profit, even when it doesn’t actually exist. Real food is held back until prices rise, and people starve.

The U.S., on the other hand, has a different problem: obesity. While other parts of the world starve, 35 percent of our population is overweight. The problem isn’t just an excess of supply—supermarkets glutted with thousands of boutique items from far-flung corners of the world—it’s also in the poor quality of our heavily subsidized foods. Plants farmed conventionally depend on large doses of fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides, and are typically shipped hundreds of miles. By the time they hit the dinner table, they may contain only a fraction of the nutritional value of locally farmed or heritage plants (see chart, left).

The Food Co-op Resurgence

Food co-ops are here to stay this time.The Wedge Food Coop

Food Cooperatives—local groceries owned and run by local employees—were a major force in American culture prior to being sidelined by World War II. In the Minneapolis region, for example, co-ops once accounted for 30 percent of food sales, according to Food for Change, a new documentary film. The rapid rise of industrialized farming, along with communist paranoia, drove co-ops out of business after the war, as bomb makers converted their factors into fertilizer and pesticide production—using hefty government subsidies to pay for advertising about the perils of profit sharing and collaboration.
But now, co-ops are back, and they’ve become a symbol of resistance to the kind of food future biotech firms would like to see for us. While they still represent just half a percent of the nation’s food retailing business, many co-ops report swelling memberships and sales growth of 10 percent or more each year.
Co-ops have a long list of sustainability advantages over big retailers. They support local agriculture, resulting in a reduced food transportation footprint, put money and jobs back into local economies, encourage organic farming methods and can provide food security to almost any demographic group.

Quantity vs. Quality

As we try to predict the future of food security, these issues make it clear that our current food system is unsustainable. It may be cheap and fast, but it’s also out of control.

Although U.S. citizens, on average, spend only 10 to 12 percent of their income on food (compared with 40 or 50 percent in places such as the Middle East), the hidden costs are much higher. We’re sick more often, and exposed to more pollution in our fresh water and in our food. We waste precious water on inefficient irrigation, and our health care costs are among the highest per capita in the world. The Office of Medicare & Medicaid Services predicts that healthcare costs in the U.S. will double by 2022. Yet we don’t tend to live any longer than people in places who spend much less.

It’s simply costing too much in resources and environmental damage to maintain our current food system: transporting inferior foods vast distances, and shopping at gigantic retail outlets that constantly hammer prices down (resulting in lower quality produce). Wal-Mart, for example, now sells almost a third of the nation’s food. When box stores and factory farms link arms to bring prices to their absolute rock bottom, you can bet that the real costs—to the environment and public health—are not being counted.

Factory farms seem to have a monolithic hold on the American diet. But the signs of structural stress are beginning to show. Our history includes a long list of “has-been” industries that seemed invulnerable before the sea of time swept them away or shrank their magnitude. Look at the railroad industry, the steel industry, the ship-building industry, and most recently, the nuclear power industry.

“What we are seeing today is nothing less than the rapid-fire downsizing of nuclear power in the United States,” notes economist Marc Cooper of the Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment. “It is important to recognize that the tough times the U.S. nuclear power industry faces today are only going to get worse.”
 
It’s no secret that big biotech firms see our food future as one that is largely created in laboratories: Their ideal scenario, says Rifkin, would be to break all food material down into a bioengineered cellular paste that could then be manipulated to resemble foods we know. Kurzweil says that by 2049, we’ll all be living on “nano-produced food” [made with tiny robots], which has the correct nutritional composition and the same taste and texture of organically produced food. Does that mean the kitchen of the future will contain just one primary appliance—a 3D printer? Consider the implications.

In this biotech dream scenario, any raw cellular material could be considered “food,” making price the only differentiator. Food would truly become a commodity that could be produced in any country (lowest price wins, of course), barely regulated—and the consumer (a.k.a. human being) would never know the difference.

Decision Points

Set aside the “yuck factor” this is likely to stir in the average person. Will we embrace such technology, simply because the genie is out of the bottle? Is nano-engineered food “inevitable,” as many futurists believe? Are stoves and refrigerators headed for extinction?

The late, brilliant George Basalla, who wrote The Evolution of Technology, would say “no.” I spoke with him on a similar topic a few years ago. We discussed the reasons that some technologies
gmos
become mainstream and others fade away. His lifelong research showed that the adoption of new technology is NOT inevitable simply because it exists, nor because it might be necessary for survival. Human beings tend to think more creatively than that. They crave diversity and novelty.

“The history of technology is not a record of artifacts fashioned to ensure our survival,” he wrote. “Instead, it is a testimony to the fertility of the contriving mind, and to the multitudinous ways the people of the Earth have chosen to live. Seen in this light, artifactual diversity is one of the highest expressions of human existence.”

What Nukes Can Teach Us

Back to the nuclear power industry. After the Chernobyl disaster, Germany’s Green Party surged out of nowhere, making that country a solar powerhouse that has banned nukes. And Fukushima’s ripple effect is now having a similar effect on the U.S. The nuclear power industry here is in a state of “near collapse,” according to some experts.

What’s the takeaway for the future of food? All it takes is one highly publicized “scare” to cause the public to do a complete about-face on technology. Will that event take the form of tainted meat from factory farms, or a deadly sickness that can’t be cured with current antibiotics?  

At present, most Americans are highly dependent on the factory farm system for their food. Even
nutrition
states once known for their farms are shadows of what they were. Farmland in the past 10 years in the U.S. has declined by 7.5 million acres. Soils are used more aggressively, ever more dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. With greater understanding of these “externalities,” we believe, will come greater resistance to a factory farmed future. GB

THE CELESTIA FORECAST

The future of food security in the U.S. will ultimately be decided by the public. To put it in Star Wars terms, if big agribusiness is the all-powerful empire, the rebel force is everybody else: permaculturists, farmers, state governments, millennials, foodies, parents, preppers and anyone who cares about their health, or the health of people they care about. We’re betting on the rebels. If novelty and diversity are the cornerstones of innovation, in our view, high-tech approaches to our food futures won’t go away. But instead of using them to create food, we will put them to work restoring the damage we’ve already done—making it possible to produce safe, healthy food. This future will be easier to achieve in the U.S. than in other, hard-pressed regions with depleted soils and fewer resources. Bio-tech firms will find willing buyers there. But freed from the anxieties of food insecurity, our example here in the U.S. ultimately will inspire other nations to seek more holistic solutions, and slowly, ever so slowly, the dream of abundance will become reality for all.

    

The End of Factory Farming

Like cracks in a dam, the negative aspects of factory farming could bring the whole poorly built structure tumbling down.

“There are more kilograms of antibiotics sold in the United States for food-producing animals than for people. This use contributes to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals. Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals, and people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic-resistant infections.”
—Centers for Disease Control

“Consumers [want] to know where their food comes from. The symptoms are evident in increasing consumer interest in food that is organic, natural, sustainably produced, locally produced. […] Since factory farming is positioned as antithetical to the things that reassure consumers about their food, this also provides insight into the effectiveness of the activists’ campaign.”
—National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Survey

Past Mistakes. The age of centralized supermarkets is long past, commemorated in the Celestia Museum of 2100. (CLICK IMAGE TO ZOOM)

Celestia Kitchen of 2100

The kitchen of the future supplies its own power and water, taps into site-grown veggies, and features recycled as well as salvaged materials.

taggedCelestiaKitchen

A: Food Is Abundant and Within Arm’s Reach. Note the use of fish tanks to feed indoor plants, along with indoor growing stations powered by low energy LED lighting (running on stored solar power at night).

B: On-Demand Water. Collected rain supplies much of our drinking/dishwashing water. A small water storage tank with a digital meter contains potable, filtered water. Water-smart fixtures (Kohler Karbon served as our model) provide a durable, high-performance combination.

C: Translucent PV. Glass serves double duty, producing electricity as well as providing daylight.

D: Point-of-Use Power. Whenever possible, household devices power themselves. Note the addition of the tiny wind turbine above the vent fan.

E: Zero Waste. Scrap food is fed into an indoor composting station, recovered as a compost “tea” that can be added to roof gardens and hydroponic plants.

F: Super-Efficient Dishwasher. Stainless steel models (the Bosch 800 served as a template here) operate quietly, using very little water.

G: Recycled Countertops. Made from recycled materials, yet highly durable, countertops can be easily repaired or even resurfaced over the years (Caesarstone products provided modeling for these tops.).

H: Salvaged Materials. Flooring is made from discarded bottles. Bar stools consist of
used bicycle parts.