Going Green Means Embracing Technology, Tough Decisions

A good friend of mine and I have frequent debates about the future of ‘green.’ We both believe that humanity’s survival depends a great deal on how we cope with our non-sustainability today, and that we need to change certain aspects of our lives in order to make those changes (though we also both think that we needn’t make sacrifices to our standards of living; just adjust our standards so that they are equally high, but consuming different resources).

The biggest point of contention between us, however, is where we both stand on genetically modified foods.

A little background on the man opposite me in this argument, Mischa Hedges. He is a very prolific environmentalist, filmmaker (his documentary, Sustainable Table has won a handful of awards and has been shown in many solid film festivals), amazing vegan chef and all around ‘green’ guy. He composts and rides public transportation and is making a movie about living without a car in Los Angeles (he sold his car to make the movie…that’s dedication, people!). He doesn’t live in a tree or converse with squirrels, but he’s about a close to that as you can get without standing out as a deviant in everyday society.

Where I differ with Mischa is my approach to being green, which reflects my philosophy on the subject. I recycle, and I have been slowly reducing my carbon footprint over the past few years, significantly decreasing the amoung of paper both myself and my clients use. My main tool in this effort, however, is technology. I reduce paper usage by doing more business online. I seldom drive my car because I take on more projects that allow me to work remotely. I purchase products that are well-made and sustainable, and reduce the number of consumables I purchase each year by consolidating and buying second-hand when possible.

Based on the above, you can see why our approaches to finding a ‘green solution’ to the world’s food and water problems are very different. I propose that we invesdt more money to increase our understanding of plants, ecosystems and wildlife so that we might create super-foods that can be grown in sky scrapers in urban areas. These so-called ‘skyfarms‘ would be strategically positioned so that each would provide enough fresh food for the people living in the surrounding area. This would significantly reduce the cost and pollution created from interstate (and international) transport of produce, and would allow for much fresher, healthier foods.

Even better if the plants can be genetically engineered so that each stalk of corn would providing 4 times as much as a normal stalk of corn! This would leave each skyfarm with a surplus of food, which could then be exported to any area in the United States that is suffering from a deficit of food (for whatever reason…think natural disasters), or overseas so that more international money would be brought to the area, supporting local food, education and environmental efforts.

It is on this last point that Mischa strongly disagrees with me, and to a certain point, I can see his logic. He argues that the creation of genetically modified foods is a barely-understood science, the practice of which could destroy all-natural crops, denying farmers their use and potentially risking the loss of the vegetable species as a whole if something goes terribly wrong with the genetically modified version. He also references a good point made by the movie The Future of Food, a documentary that lambastes the company behind ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds, Monsanto for their business practices. In essence, Monsanto created a seed that 1) is patented, 2) is suicidal (it kills itself after one crop, so a new bag of seed will have to be purchased next season), and 3) is slowly spreading to their neighbor’s farms, who Monsanto then sues for possessing their seed without paying for it.

To me, these problems seem to be more an issue of economics and legalities than science. If we have the ability to manipulate seeds to limit them in such a way, just imagine what we could do to improve upon them? All we need are smarter laws about the patenting of genetically modified life (which shouldn’t be possible to begin with, in my opinion) and a business model that allows them to profit off the seed without having to cripple it to do so.

Think about it: if we do not continue to improve crops, then we are limited by what nature produces doesn’t choose to produce each season, which greatly limits the scope of what humanity is able to achieve. With better, smarter technology and the right amount of oversight on the industry (watch your back, Monsanto), we could potentially eliminate starvation worldwide, not to mention making sure that the food we consume contains the healthiest possible balance of vitamins, nutrients and such. Plus, if we start to produce too little or too much in a given year, creating more or less the next year will be as simple as adjusting a thermostat…the technology behind the skyfarms would regulate that.

What do you think? Is technology a savior to the green movement, or a wolf in sheep’s clothes? Let me know by commenting below!

13 comments

  1. Hey, Colin! A few quick thoughts:

    1) While it is a noble pursuit to want to end world hunger once and for all, it is an impossible one. Human beings aren’t exempt from the laws of nature concerning food availability, and as food production grows, so does the population. We will never reach a point of finally producing enough food for everyone, with no one going to bed hungry–because by then hundreds more babies will be born to the well-fed masses. Populations, human or animal, will always grow or shrink in direct relation to the amount of food available.

    Think about it this way–you’ve been seeing “starving kids in India” commercials for years, right? People all over the world have been dying of hunger for as long as we can remember, right? Yet the population is still growing exponentially. The solution is not more food, but rather efforts to make communities depend on locally grown and harvested food, rather than foreign imports (making a growing or shrinking food supply effect a much smaller, more local population of people), and increased availability of simple, safe, culturally accepted family planning methods.

    2) I agree that living organisms shouldn’t be patentable. However, the reality is that they are and the only ones to currently benefit from genetically modified food is big business. Small farms can’t afford the research and therefore end up paying large agribusiness for modified seeds, which destroys the idea of keeping food/money local. Until we get a grip on the laws concerning GM foods (which is doubtful we ever will, considering companies like Monsanto’s wealth and political power) the focus should be on natural foods we know don’t adversely effect our health and the health of the environment (consider GM corn and the devastating effect it had on monarch butterflies–what else don’t we know?).

    Just my two cents! Nice article!

  2. Hey, Colin! A few quick thoughts:

    1) While it is a noble pursuit to want to end world hunger once and for all, it is an impossible one. Human beings aren’t exempt from the laws of nature concerning food availability, and as food production grows, so does the population. We will never reach a point of finally producing enough food for everyone, with no one going to bed hungry–because by then hundreds more babies will be born to the well-fed masses. Populations, human or animal, will always grow or shrink in direct relation to the amount of food available.

    Think about it this way–you’ve been seeing “starving kids in India” commercials for years, right? People all over the world have been dying of hunger for as long as we can remember, right? Yet the population is still growing exponentially. The solution is not more food, but rather efforts to make communities depend on locally grown and harvested food, rather than foreign imports (making a growing or shrinking food supply effect a much smaller, more local population of people), and increased availability of simple, safe, culturally accepted family planning methods.

    2) I agree that living organisms shouldn’t be patentable. However, the reality is that they are and the only ones to currently benefit from genetically modified food is big business. Small farms can’t afford the research and therefore end up paying large agribusiness for modified seeds, which destroys the idea of keeping food/money local. Until we get a grip on the laws concerning GM foods (which is doubtful we ever will, considering companies like Monsanto’s wealth and political power) the focus should be on natural foods we know don’t adversely effect our health and the health of the environment (consider GM corn and the devastating effect it had on monarch butterflies–what else don’t we know?).

    Just my two cents! Nice article!

  3. Very good points Ember!

    1. Though humanity definitely hasn’t totally separated itself from the laws of nature quite yet, I would argue that we’ve already pulled away from many of them (developing agriculture was the first major shot across the bow, but I would say that evolving sentience was what got the ball rolling to begin with…consciousness allows for a lot of creativity in adapting your environment to suit your needs, rather than adapting yourself to suit your environment). Sure, patterns thus far have followed the trend of ‘more food created by fewer people = more specialization and more people,’ but I see no reason why, with an increase in birth-control education and usage along with some shifts in worldwide cultural mores, hunger couldn’t be a thing of the past. It would take some doing to get there, for sure, but there are a lot of things going on today that very intelligent people only 50 years ago would have labeled as impossible. For my part, I prefer to assume that something is possible until proven otherwise (and what’s nice about science is that you can’t even PROVE something is impossible, just strongly support the assertion :)

    2. The GM foods business really is a broken one right now…it’s right up there with the power grid, cell phone and cable plans, the education system, representative democracy and just about everything else in the modern world that seem like they should be so much better based on the available resources and technology!

    But I digress. I strongly believe that having some government funding attached to building local skyfarms (or some equally beneficial and locally palatable substitute) would go a long way to loosening the stranglehold that some major corporations have on the food industries (and hopefully build inroads to do the same with water) while at the same time providing fresh, healthy, delicious food to the locals. Taking away the dependence that we have on traditional farming methods would deflate companies like Monsanto a bit, and hopefully lead to a more organically-evolving (pun!) food economy in the future.

    This doesn’t, however, address your concern about the healthiness of GM foods. My only strong argument against this is that without research and development, we never move forward. It’s wonderful to want a nearly-free method of open-communication that would enable the instantaneous spreading of ideas around the world, create an entirely new economy and eliminate the overheads costs completely for many businesses, but without all of the R&D that went into the creation of the Internet, we’d still be paying long-distance fees, mailing handwritten letters (and knowing how to write in cursive!), wondering what’s going on in other countries and not having any way to find out, and blissfully unaware that ‘SPAM’ could mean anything but packaged meat (okay, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad…). Trying to stand in the way of progress is a losing battle, so what we really need is to figure out the best way to develop GM foods in a safe and secluded way so that they can be optimized quickly and won’t harm any other plants, animals or people if something goes wrong.

    Anyone have ideas on how to best do that?

  4. Very good points Ember!

    1. Though humanity definitely hasn’t totally separated itself from the laws of nature quite yet, I would argue that we’ve already pulled away from many of them (developing agriculture was the first major shot across the bow, but I would say that evolving sentience was what got the ball rolling to begin with…consciousness allows for a lot of creativity in adapting your environment to suit your needs, rather than adapting yourself to suit your environment). Sure, patterns thus far have followed the trend of ‘more food created by fewer people = more specialization and more people,’ but I see no reason why, with an increase in birth-control education and usage along with some shifts in worldwide cultural mores, hunger couldn’t be a thing of the past. It would take some doing to get there, for sure, but there are a lot of things going on today that very intelligent people only 50 years ago would have labeled as impossible. For my part, I prefer to assume that something is possible until proven otherwise (and what’s nice about science is that you can’t even PROVE something is impossible, just strongly support the assertion :)

    2. The GM foods business really is a broken one right now…it’s right up there with the power grid, cell phone and cable plans, the education system, representative democracy and just about everything else in the modern world that seem like they should be so much better based on the available resources and technology!

    But I digress. I strongly believe that having some government funding attached to building local skyfarms (or some equally beneficial and locally palatable substitute) would go a long way to loosening the stranglehold that some major corporations have on the food industries (and hopefully build inroads to do the same with water) while at the same time providing fresh, healthy, delicious food to the locals. Taking away the dependence that we have on traditional farming methods would deflate companies like Monsanto a bit, and hopefully lead to a more organically-evolving (pun!) food economy in the future.

    This doesn’t, however, address your concern about the healthiness of GM foods. My only strong argument against this is that without research and development, we never move forward. It’s wonderful to want a nearly-free method of open-communication that would enable the instantaneous spreading of ideas around the world, create an entirely new economy and eliminate the overheads costs completely for many businesses, but without all of the R&D that went into the creation of the Internet, we’d still be paying long-distance fees, mailing handwritten letters (and knowing how to write in cursive!), wondering what’s going on in other countries and not having any way to find out, and blissfully unaware that ‘SPAM’ could mean anything but packaged meat (okay, maybe that last one wouldn’t be so bad…). Trying to stand in the way of progress is a losing battle, so what we really need is to figure out the best way to develop GM foods in a safe and secluded way so that they can be optimized quickly and won’t harm any other plants, animals or people if something goes wrong.

    Anyone have ideas on how to best do that?

  5. Well played arguments sir. You are a gentleman and a scholar.

    Here’s my two cents…
    One more hit to Monsanto/GMOs: another problem with GMO crops is that they have infiltrated non-GMO crops in many areas, putting smaller (organic) farmers’ crops at risk (the pests just move over to their crops from the ‘resistant’ ones). They also are homogenizing the diversity of heirloom varieties. It’s silly to think that we can ‘out-invent’ nature. Look at how many billions of years it’s taken for these species to come into existence. Look how quickly we’ve wiped many of them out. We might be inventing ourselves out of existence if we’re not extremely careful.

    On tech and growth/progress:
    One thing that isn’t mentioned in your piece is population growth. Think about every Chinese adult owning a car with an internal combustion engine. They’re on their way. With each new person afforded a healthy life in the world, we get many, many more. This is not to say that life isn’t sacred; it is. What isn’t sacred (or sustainable) is exponential population growth.

    Although eliminating starvation, increasing quality of life for all, and becoming more efficient with our resources are all causes that I support and strive to do all I can for; even with technology, there is a carrying capacity that will be reached (some say we’re already far above it) no matter how efficient or technologically advanced we become. It’s just a matter of how long it will be until we HAVE used all of our resources, even if we’re using them more slowly.

    Over and over again in nature, we’ve see species eliminate themselves when their natural predators are taken away. They overpopulate, eliminate their resources quickly, and then die off until sustainable numbers exist.

    There are a finite amount of resources available on the planet (again some think we’ve exhausted these beyond unsustainable levels). Sustainability (for humans) is about living in a way that we can preserve biodiversity of the planet while maintaining our quality of life. Sacrifices will be made, and it will be an exciting (and difficult) transition to the human race living sustainably. Very few ‘green’ thinkers believe that we can’t do it (why listen to the naysayers anyway-there’s no HOPE there), but many wonder if we’ll be able to do it in time.

    MH

  6. Well played arguments sir. You are a gentleman and a scholar.

    Here’s my two cents…
    One more hit to Monsanto/GMOs: another problem with GMO crops is that they have infiltrated non-GMO crops in many areas, putting smaller (organic) farmers’ crops at risk (the pests just move over to their crops from the ‘resistant’ ones). They also are homogenizing the diversity of heirloom varieties. It’s silly to think that we can ‘out-invent’ nature. Look at how many billions of years it’s taken for these species to come into existence. Look how quickly we’ve wiped many of them out. We might be inventing ourselves out of existence if we’re not extremely careful.

    On tech and growth/progress:
    One thing that isn’t mentioned in your piece is population growth. Think about every Chinese adult owning a car with an internal combustion engine. They’re on their way. With each new person afforded a healthy life in the world, we get many, many more. This is not to say that life isn’t sacred; it is. What isn’t sacred (or sustainable) is exponential population growth.

    Although eliminating starvation, increasing quality of life for all, and becoming more efficient with our resources are all causes that I support and strive to do all I can for; even with technology, there is a carrying capacity that will be reached (some say we’re already far above it) no matter how efficient or technologically advanced we become. It’s just a matter of how long it will be until we HAVE used all of our resources, even if we’re using them more slowly.

    Over and over again in nature, we’ve see species eliminate themselves when their natural predators are taken away. They overpopulate, eliminate their resources quickly, and then die off until sustainable numbers exist.

    There are a finite amount of resources available on the planet (again some think we’ve exhausted these beyond unsustainable levels). Sustainability (for humans) is about living in a way that we can preserve biodiversity of the planet while maintaining our quality of life. Sacrifices will be made, and it will be an exciting (and difficult) transition to the human race living sustainably. Very few ‘green’ thinkers believe that we can’t do it (why listen to the naysayers anyway-there’s no HOPE there), but many wonder if we’ll be able to do it in time.

    MH

  7. Only one cent,

    Technological Progress:

    Going green definitely means embracing technology. In our industrious and globalized world, technological progress will allow businesses to minimize factor costs, minimize the use of depleting primary resources and still allow mass production to continue. Technological progress will make alternaive resources our primary source when wind turbines, solar panels,etc. can efficiently capture the energy and then produce more of it. Technological progress will then drive costs down and make products affordable. Technology has the oppurtunity to create a sustainable world. We don’t necessarily have to ‘out-invent’ nature, but we can create a world that technology and nature can work can work together.

    – jonathan

  8. Only one cent,

    Technological Progress:

    Going green definitely means embracing technology. In our industrious and globalized world, technological progress will allow businesses to minimize factor costs, minimize the use of depleting primary resources and still allow mass production to continue. Technological progress will make alternaive resources our primary source when wind turbines, solar panels,etc. can efficiently capture the energy and then produce more of it. Technological progress will then drive costs down and make products affordable. Technology has the oppurtunity to create a sustainable world. We don’t necessarily have to ‘out-invent’ nature, but we can create a world that technology and nature can work can work together.

    – jonathan

  9. Pingback: Okay, 26 is a Large Number | Exile Lifestyle

  10. I like the idea of building skyfarms to produce close to the market, but only if the air in the cities is clean which means we need electric transport first, and cleaner factories.

    But just like your friend I’m totally against genetically modified crops, because indeed we don’t know enough about it, and we don’t know what consequences they will have on the health of people. I also don’t like the fact that farming is becoming a business only for multinationals and that the small farmers are being pushed out of business by abusing legalities and by influencing policy makers. Unfortunately that’s the consequence of our capitalist economy that is designed to converge to a monopolist world.

  11. Honestly, I think it’s much better for food to be natural.
    But I do see your point about making food sustainable. Personally, I think that the best solution would be to create a vertical farm where crops are grown either hydroponically or aeroponically (grown in air, and having the roots spritzed with water). So then, you could have a lot of area of grown crops condensed into a few square meters, since you would basically have a skyscraper chock full of crops. New technology in aeroponics enable plants to be grown in higher yields than in regular soil, so you’re going to have a have a higher yield of crops (ex: bigger heads of lettuce and whatnot) that are practically disease free because of less plant to plant contact, so there are no need for pesticides. So, if I think about it, genetic engineering is unnecessary, since we can already produce higher yields of organically grown, pesticide free crops naturally and sustainably. Also, costs will be reduced. The only cost would be for providing the electricity necessary to grow the plants, and that could be supplied using solar, nuclear, geothermal, etc. energy. This could also eliminate costs associated with growing crops today, like:
    -land transformation and degradation, or clearing natural areas to create tilled fields, the leading cause of biodiversity loss evident today
    -eutrophication caused by adding artificial fertilizers to the soil, which percolates through soil into our sources of freshwater, resulting in too much nutrient in aquatic ecosystems, which can lead to fish kills, further loss of biodiversity, and undrinkable/unusable water.
    -pesticides/poison. Enough said
    -Climate change. decomposition of matter and denitrification of anaerobic cells in to soil contribute to more CO2 in the atmosphere. And we all know that’s not a good thing
    -transport. Crops don’t have to be hauled across oceans to appear in your local supermarket
     
    So in conclusion to this really long post, a mix of vertical agriculture,new growing methods, and sustainable energy can completely feed the world’s population with nutritious, organically grown pesticide free food, while sustaining the environment and promoting biodiversity. Genetic engineering isn’t something that’s necessary. Sure, we can play around with it in the future if we want, but only when we know more about it. So I say, technology all the way. It has the potential to benefit everyone.

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