A month ago, I wrote a review on Mark Edwards’ book Green Algae Strategy which discusses the potential of algae as a fuel and food source. Recently, I finished reading Edwards’ most recent book Crash! The Demise of Fossil Foods and the Rise of Abundance which looks at the sustainability of our current food production system and offers algaculture as an alternative.
Crash! is comprised of two distinct parts. The first half of the book deals with why our current farming practices are not going to be sustainable in the long run or possibly even in the short run. Edwards makes the argument that many of the resources that help make farming affordable today will soon become too expensive/inaccessible for many farmers to continue.
One critical resource for farmers that may soon become inaccessible/unusable are aquifers, natural underground reservoirs. For example, Edwards takes a looks at several US aquifers that have experienced massive withdrawals well over the natural replenishment rate. In particular, he discussed the Ogallala Aquifer located in the US that has in some places collapsed due to low levels of water and left many farms without a water source.
Edwards also points to many important natural resources that may have only a few decades left of reserves in the world. He argues that many mineral resources like potassium and phosphorus which farmers rely on as fertilizers are running low in known reserves. As the supply of these minerals becomes more and more constricted, countries that export them may decide to horde instead of selling them which will send the price of the remaining mineral stocks skyrocketing.
The consumption of these fertilizers has also increased over the years, which has helped attribute to the rise in prices. Edwards stated that fertilizer consumption over the past decade has increased by roughly 30% worldwide and by 56% in developing countries alone over the same time period. Edwards continues by stating that this increasing consumption trend isn’t good news for an industry that has seen the price of fertilizer rise in the past year from $400/ton to $1,000/ton, a 250% increase that has attracted the attention of Congress. He argues that these prices could eventually force many farmers out of business.
Leading into the second half of the book, Edwards illustrates how algae and SAFE (Sustainable and Affordable Food and Energy) production can ensure that agriculture as we know it will continue and not, well, crash. He discusses the many applications of algae such as using it as a very nutritious feed stock for animals, using the oil to create green diesel for tractors, and using the remaining biomass as fertilizer for traditional crops.
Since the threat of depletion of important fertilizer minerals is one of Edwards’ arguments for changing the way crops are grown, he argues that algae can be used to help recapture these minerals in farmland runoff. This reuse of the minerals will lessen the burden of continually mining new resources and potentially help shrink “dead zones” by lessening the mineral waste in rivers going to the Gulf and other areas.
From a conservative standpoint, there are several things that worth highlighting. One is that he states a lot of “gloom-and-doom” facts about how our current agriculture practices will lead to a collapse in food worldwide, but he never argues that we can’t overcome this threat. Instead he poses that while the current production practices are unsustainable, the world will be able to sustain the food supply and avert an agricultural crash by switching to the SAFE solution.
Crash! presents many solutions to help prevent the agricultural calamity Edwards warns about, solutions that both conservatives and liberals can support. For example, Edwards argues against many government farming subsidies. Conservatives and liberals would both support the end of subsidies for inefficient programs like ethanol that waste natural resources and taxpayer money. It is arguments like these that I feel will help to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals on some of these environmental issues.
Overall Edwards combines some gloomy scenarios with enough upbeat solutions to give Crash! an even keel about it. He does a good job of pointing out what will happen without becoming too depressingly Malthusian in his predictions and arguably presents SAFE production as the next potential agricultural revolution.
If you want to view the book before you buy it, Mark Edwards has generously placed the complete book in PDF form on his website, GreenIndependence.org . You can view the book online here (FYI: This PDF file is over 3 MB in size so it may take awhile to download).