Closing the Local Food System Loop

…by recycling poop.

For several years I’ve been working from a theory that we could be near a radical shift in our primary food production systems – an Agrarian Devolution. Barring the technological leap that brings on a cheap, abundant fuel source, or a massive drop in global population, the combination of high fuel, fertilizer and transportation costs and conservation challenges are making high input, centralized production and distribution less viable. If unhindered, economics will drive agriculture back to its agrarian roots of local production for local consumption. High input costs and high transportation costs should re-establish local food networks as the low-cost option in most areas.

Quality niche and specialty foods aside, the general populace still votes with their wallets. And despite a lot of lip service to local food, that vote is still very much for low cost, convenient options. It is a safe bet to assume therefore, that if (or when) local food starts to trump imported food on a cost basis (albeit with both at a higher nominal level than today) sales will surely follow.

Now, those with libertarian-leanings are probably thinking, ‘market signals will push our food systems back to the local level – stay out of the way and let it happen, end of story, get on with your life.’ But with the politics of food as it is, that shift may not be as simple as sliding along a supply-demand curve. Food is big business, with billions of dollars, rupees, yen, euros and yuan on the line. The existing multi-nationals have a vested interest in squeezing out expansion in local competition. And they have never been above lobbying governments to distort markets in their favour through twisting agricultural subsidy programs – the chief offenders being in the United States of America and the EU. Fifty years from now our food system could look the same as today, if governments are willing to squeeze their citizens for taxes to subsidize cheap food. Large-scale agricultural producers in some regions will continue to win, but the total number of farmers will decline, and small-scale producers would continue to live on the edge of going broke.

I believe, a little foresight and planning is needed to promote efficient, sustainable production. We need to level the playing field with public agricultural policies and support programs that focus on production efficiencies. That is to say, food production is worthy of some public funding, but don’t base that support on the total volume of output or the area in production, but rather the ratio of outputs to inputs. Expand a framework supporting a transition to lower input costs without greatly sacrificing production levels. And this should include closing the production loop in local agriculture systems by returning our food, human and agricultural waste streams back into food and energy production on much larger scale than is currently practiced. Close the loop, recycle your poop.

A few examples of what can be done with existing technology:

1. Mandate phosphorus recovery from every sewage treatment facility. Phosphorus is an essential element for crop production and coincidentally (or maybe not so much) one of the primary water pollutants in the western world. Humans contribute over 3 million tonnes of phosphorus annually to global septic systems. And many technologies already exist to recover phosphorus from sewage, including ‘mouse-trap’ cones developed at the University of British Columbia that pulls this valuable plant nutrient out of sewage effluent and creates a high-quality slow-release fertilizer. Local waste becomes a local resource.

2. Build the infrastructure to create biodiesel from algae fed on sewage water. There are already many private enterprises with viable systems to turn oils extracted from sewage-pond-grown algae into biodiesel. We can use carbon taxes on fossil-fuels to build a network of algae farms and biodiesel plants, and then sell back the fuel to agricultural producers and processors at cost without an accompanying tax. Incentives could also be given for farm-scale algae production ponds utilizing on-site manure and crop wastes to generate some or all of the on-farm energy needs. Again this turns an environmental liability into a production efficiency.

3. Use sewage sludge or waste water to fertilize farm forestry plantations. The trees then become a source of fibre for solid wood products or bioenergy, and can also be placed on-farm to serve soil and water conservation roles. A potential win-win-win solution.

And there are other practical options available too, including biogas generation or mandatory community composting programs that return that valuable humus to build soils. The important first step is removing any incentives that externalize the costs of waste generated in our food systems by letting producers and consumers pollute water with excess nutrients. And then through directed R&D and selective taxation, provide support to production, recovery and regeneration systems that operate at the highest efficiency.