Changing the global food system
Colin Austin © 21th June 2021 Creative commons this document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged.
Tripling of population
In my life time the worlds population has increased three fold (actually 3.47) and all those mouths have to be fed.
We have seen the massive increase in agricultural productivity – the green revolution, pioneered by Norman Borlaug and now often slanged as chemical industrial agriculture.
This has been highly successful from a simple criterion of volume of energy food produced – we are producing enough energy food to feed some thirteen billion people if it were equitably distributed – (that is a social problem not a resource technical problem). That’s an increase of 4.5 times in my lifetime, spectacular.
How does this work? We just need plants – which take carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil uses the suns energy to make carbohydrates (while releasing oxygen). We can then eat these (or animals that eat these) burning the carbohydrates to release energy to power our bodies while releasing carbon dioxide and water back to the atmosphere as wastes.
Are there any problems? We are not short of sunlight – enough sunlight falls on the earth in one hour to provide enough energy to power all humans on earth for the rest of the year.
Energy is not a problem.
Of course to use that energy we have to make things to harness it. In my lifetime I have watched a spectacular expansion of our technologies. If you think that a 4.5 times increase in energy food is spectacular it is nothing in comparison with our ability to make stuff.
With the digital revolution, automation, artificial intelligence, robots etc we would need to measure the increase in the tens. Labour used to mean manual labour now it means sitting in front of a computer screen telling machines what to do.
Again the wealth created is not equitably distributed which is a social, not a technical or resource problem, but most people are enjoying a better life which we hope will continue into the future?
Focus on the real problem
Let us not waste our mental energies focusing on problems that are not on the critical path but hone in on the really serious issue. That is not energy, vitamins, minerals or what you may expect but trillions of bugs. (I use the word common word bug rather than the more technically correct term micro-biology for clarity and emphasis).
Now I don’t mean Covid – that is bad but there is worse – the lack of well being of the good bugs on which all our lives depend.
Bugs unfortunately hired the wrong PR company with disastrous consequences – their public image is something that bugs should be killed at all cost. That image could be the biggest hazard facing humanity.
Bugs are simply everywhere, clean any surface with the most powerful antiseptic until not a single bug is left alive and within the hour the surface will be repopulated.
We are totally dependant on bugs, there may be a few dangerous ones but the vast majority are either neutral, beneficial or more often essential for our survival.
Whether we like it or not the future of humanity lies with the bugs.
To understand bugs we have to study evolution.
Sadly people paraphrased Charles Darwin as ‘survival of the fittest’. Sadly that is not what he said and it not true – a better quote would be ‘survival of the randiest’. It does not matter how strong or swift a species is it will only survive if it can breed and propagate – how fast and ferocious is a cane toad?
Bugs were the first living creature on earth, no other creatures could exist without the work of the bugs. It started with the bugs breaking down rocks to form the first soils, we can still see this today with the work of lichens and mosses.
The process was incredibly slow, taking a billion years or so because the process needed energy and the early bugs did not have an efficient way of harnessing energy. But eventually they made just enough soil for plants of grow.
The arrival of plants
But that all changed with the arrival of plants which could harness the sun’s energy to produce sugars. They exudes these sugars from their roots into the soil to feed biology, particularly the bacteria and fungi, in the soil, which in turn feed the plants. This created the greatest deal of all time – the synergistic relationship between plants and soil biology – on which we still all depend for our food. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.
We are destroying our soil at an unsustainable rate. We need the bugs to regenerate the soil. Bugs are very fussy about water and again we are exhausting our aquifers which have accumulated over thousands of years.
Our private bugs
But we, like most animals, have a similar synergistic relationship with our own personal bugs. They are everywhere on and in us, particularly our guts which do much more than help us digests our food.
As far as I can know guts and their bugs were considered very boring by the micro-biologists until along came DNA sequencing when they could study the trillions of cells and thousands of species which make up our guts.
Then someone found out that each individual cell was communicating with its next door neighbour. This got me really excited because I realised we were looking at a super computer inside us which was taking the critical decisions about how we were operating.
I was trained as an engineer but have spent much of my life writing code and here was a computer which was the intelligent control system for our body. This was a really big thing, but unfortunately I could not find the code – let alone how it worked. But I knew enough about how code works to make a pretty good guess.
I had a particular interest in diabetes (my wife is a medical doctor and diabetic which should not happen – but did). Diabetes is the worlds fastest growing disease affecting millions of people across the globe. It was easy enough to find out that diabetes was caused by fat in the pancreas shutting down insulin production and reducing the effectiveness of the remaining insulin in the rest of the body.
I could find out about hormones like ghrelin and leptin which control our appetite and whether we store fat or not but what was controlling the release of these hormones?
And then there were those experiments with faecal transplants where simply by going along to a trendy inner city pooh swapping party you could swap pooh and make yourself skinny or fat according to your choice.
I was never invited to any of these parties but I did learn of research into the gut biology of hunter gather tribes and people living in the blue zones and found that they have a far healthier gut biome than the rest of us and that this changed from season to season as their diet changed.
Clear proof that you can change your gut biology simply by diet.
It all starts in the soil
The obvious thing to look for is the difference between the type of plants they were eating and what we are eating in our modern society. While there were eating a much wider spectrum of plant species than us, what was really apparent was the difference in the soils with their much higher levels of both micro and macro soil biology.
We may not know the exact pathway from the soil to our gut biology but it is there.
Growing up and growing old
Babies are born weighing a couple of kilograms and will increase their mass by a factor of between thirty and fifty times. But all that time our body parts our ageing or wearing out. This varies from bit to bit but we can over simply and say every two or three months we have a new body – when they say he is not the man he used to be they are spot on.
This extra mass is often made from very complex chemicals which must come originally from our food. Many of these are made in our guts by processing trace minerals.
The critical list
Our gut does three critical jobs.
– they control our appetite so we have enough energy but don’t overeat
– they manufacture the complex chemical we need to replace our body parts as they age
– they host much of our immune system to protect us from infection
Human survival depends on this synergistic relationship between us and our bugs and sad to say our modern food system is screwing this up.
Modern chemical industrial agriculture is also destroying the soil biology which actually makes soil.
For our health today and the food supply for our grand kids and their grand kids modifying the way we grow our food is at the top of the list of must do’s for us humans.
I have spent my life in innovation, I was selected as among the top one hundred innovators for my pioneering work on computer aided engineering and later pioneered Wicking Beds as a way of saving water. It is natural that I should see resolving our food crisis as my next major challenge.
I understand the process of innovation. It is not sitting in an arm chair waiting for some magic idea to appear out of the blue. There are four distinct phases each one getting progressively more difficult.
The first stage is easy, studying everything that has been done before. In the days of the internet this is much easier and in my case with food meant travelling to remote places which were still practising traditional agriculture – really quite pleasant (as long as you can handle rural loos.)
The second stage is the thinking stage tying to get all this information into some form of perspective. With a topic like food and diet, where there seem so many totally opposed views, this can be challenging, but hopefully leads to the experimentation phase.
The third phase is experimentation to test out if the ideas actually work in practise. They rarely do – so an ongoing cycle of failures and retries are needed. A bit of obstinacy is an essential requirement for an innovator.
The final stage is by far and away the most difficult and depressing – persuading other people – probably saturated with vested interest or out dated paradigms – to adopt the new thinking and technology.
This is where we are at now.
The Gbiota technology
The aim of the Gbiota technology is to grow plants which are natural pre and pro biotics providing our bodies with the biology we need and the food to feed the bugs and also include essential minerals.
And the answer is right in front of us, humans have been collecting or growing food in a sustainable way for hundreds of thousands of years – so we already know the answer.
The challenge is to do it fast enough, it is easy to have a sustainable food system when there are just a few million people on earth, but to do it at a speed which will feed the current eight billion people – and growing – on earth is the challenge.
This stage three of the innovation process is solved – it is simple, people are already using it and it works.
Of course there are many scientific questions still to resolve but these are typically resolved once the technology is proven practical and beneficial. The steam engine did not appear because Carnot discovered thermodynamic cycles, Carnot did his stuff because steam engines worked and were useful.
We now have to move onto the stage four of the innovation process – persuading people they should be feeding their gut and head brains with Gbiota food. But first lets look at how Gbiota beds work.
How Gbiota beds work
The inputs for the Gbiota system are waste food and organics, manure and minerals – particularly the trace minerals which are essential for human health but plants either do not need or only need in small amounts. There is no great innovation here.
Then we need the real workers, I don’t mean the humans that work the system I mean the bugs and the worms and the creatures of the soil which do the real work. These may be added as inoculants but in many cases they will just appear if you make the conditions right which brings me to water.
We are basically breeding beneficial biology in organic waste, manure and minerals and letting them move into our guts. We may be a bit lite on pathways but bugs seem to know a good thing when they are on to it.
The bugs and the worms and creatures of the soil are actually very fussy about water – it has to be not to wet and not to dry – just right -Goldilocks water.
Water is really funny stuff, it behaves just like a real fluid and will flow under pressure as we expect a fluid to do. But we don’t want a soil which is saturated we want it just moist to keep the workers happy.
To do that we have to exploit one of the peculiarities of water, although it is nominally a fluid it has the remarkable property of having tensile strength like a steel wire. That is how water rises to the top of tall trees – it it literally pulled up by tensile forces as the water evaporated from the leaves.
Making a Gbiota Wicking Bed
Full details of how to make a Gbiota bed are in my web site www.gbiota.com but here are the basic principles. Go to videos, blogs and growing in the menu.
Gbiota beds have a waterproof base, it could be clay, a plastic film or a self contained box.
Ag pipe (or pipes) run along the base of the bed and then up and over a leaky soil dam before returning to a sump.
Initially the base of the bed is filled with organic waste then covered with soil.
A meshed basket (or just an augured hole) sits above the base pipe and is filled with a mix of food and organic waste, manure and minerals (ecomix). Worms or biological inoculants may be added if needed but if the conditions a right they may just appear (for example Sunflowers will attract mycorrhizal fungi which just appear).
Water is pumped from the sump and dispersed through the ecomix forming a compost tea which just floods the base of the bed, this tea will wick up into the body of the bed and any excess will drain out through the leaky soil dam and back into the sump.
This partial flood and drain cycle is expelling stale air and sucking fresh air back into the bed so it is aerobic and the compost does not go putrid.
As the organic material in the bed decomposes and the surface drops the ecomix in the basket is spread over the surface as a mulch and the basket refilled – this is a very effective composting system.
Plants are grown in the normal way except no toxic chemicals are used which may harm the biology.
Pest damage can be minimised by tipping, just cutting the tips of shoots as in micro-greens. Watch Food for health tipping.
The ecomix should preferably be labile or young compost which is mature enough that any growth inhibitors, often found in plant roots, have decomposed.
Some manures, particularly human, may contain pathogens. These can still be used in a two stage process. Gbiota beds, using this suspect waste, are used to used to grow specific plants which are used as green manure (such as Easter Cassia Senna Pendula) which are then used as the organic input in the food production beds.
Innovation stage 4 changing the food paradigm
Profits v community
The final stage of innovation is always the most difficult – particularly so in this case.
We are not trying to sell Cabbage A as opposed to Cabbage B we are really asking people to rethink what it is to live in a democratic and capitalist society choosing a system in which short term profits are replaced by considering what it best for society both now and for future generations.
There is little doubt that the modern system of chemical industrial agriculture and supermarket distribution provides the cheapest and most convenient food supply. But is it really best for our health and the health of our grand kids? The answer is clearly NO but how do we get people to make that paradigm shift and use the power of their wallet to support regenerative farmers.
Gbiota beds are already being used by home growers who are happy to mess around in their back yards growing some food for their own use. This is simply not enough, we have to persuade the majority of people they should be eating Gbiota food.
We are now in the Anthropocene when we humans have the numbers, power and technology to exterminate our species or more likely make a lot of us very, very miserable. Just think of the problems we face today, Covid, global warming, autocratic rulers, refugees, food shortages and those chronic diseases like diabetes.
There is no doubt there are dangers ahead, global warming receives the most publicity but we are not all going to fry to death – but there is an even bigger danger – that if we don’t manage our soil, water and bugs we simply won’t have the right type of food to maintain a healthy population.
Smart and cooperative
Humans are smart and generally cooperative – human traits which have enabled us to become the most dominant creature on earth – by far. We may have the innovation and technology but that needs to benefit the community as a whole and not just few already wealthy individuals and corporations.
We are not allowing our natural willingness to cooperate to shine through and instead adopt last centuries economic philosophies of profit being the sole criteria for how to run a business together with a relaxed attitude to the neo-monopolies that currently dominate our global economic system.
The massive and very clever advertising by the food industry may have convinced the bulk of the population that modern food is healthy and there is no problem – but if our grand kids and their grand kids are going to be fit and healthy from eating the right sort of food we have to change that paradigm.
Bugs, soil and water
We need to change the way we manage – bugs, soil and water.
If we mismanage these then our grand kids and their grand kids will suffer. But this is not some problem in the future – failure to feed out gut brains means they no longer properly control our appetite – so we overeat and are prone to diabetes, the most rapidly growing disease and compromise our immune system making us more susceptible to infections – not good in the middle of an epidemic. This is totally avoidable if we understand the issues and have an action plan.
We have allies
We already have many home growers using Gbiota beds, we know they work, change gut biology and reduce food cravings. We know that soil biology is aerobic and gut biology is anaerobic so we assume that the anaerobic biology is moving from the guts of the soil animals, particularly the worms. We certainly need more research to understand the pathways.
We assume that having a healthy gut with the essential minerals will lead to a longer and healthier life, we have no way of proving that in, the strict scientific sense, by conducting a gold standard trial with a control group deliberately on a diet lacking the biology and minerals we know are essential. Try getting volunteers let alone getting that through the ethics committee.
We do not live in a prefect world with prefect knowledge and are forced to take decision based on the best available evidence – even if far from perfect. Covid has taught us that providing us with some valuable lessons.
Clearly the right decision is to educate people about the importance of gut biology and trace minerals and hope they take the right decision free from the commercial pressure.
But we do have one factor on our side, the wide spread understanding of the need to practise regenerative agriculture of which Gbiota beds are a supreme example
Production capacity is not the problem – there are thousands of farmers who are practising regenerative agriculture and are perfectly capable of installing and operating Gbiota beds.
One issue with the Gbiota system is persuading people to eat food grown in a process dominating by recycling waste, manure, bugs and worm pooh. People have been indoctrinated that food should be clean and sterile and seem to prefer getting fat, sick and diabetic rather than eat the food we evolved to eat.
The wonderful world of the web
The modern food industry spends billions of dollars on advertising to persuade us that their food is healthy. It is just a reality that no one, even Governments, can afford to compete against this mass spending might.
The obvious solution is the web – but the web isn’t the web it used to be. Once one of the greatest equalising forces on the globe it has degenerated into a home for manipulative advertising – very clever and effective but it has created a feeling of total suspicion and saturation bombing which has left people adverse to listening, even to reasonable arguments.
This is not my area of expertise, but it is impossible to avoid noticing the rise of influencers, it seems that people want to have contact with a real person they hope they can trust.
May be a global network of food influencers may be the answer.
All the scientists with their arrays of carefully checked facts had little impact on the Governments to take effective action on climate change. I can only marvel at the impact of a tiny school girl from Sweden. I hope that somewhere out there is Greta Foodberg.
Or may be its is something totally different – a group of grumpy grannies who feel it it their role in life to protect their grand kids from manipulation.
If you can relate to this drop me an email.
Implementing the Gbiota project actionplan8june21
Community Supported Agriculture and coops csa11june21
The battle of the bugs battle