Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wake Up Sheeple!

Okay, first of all, let me say that I despise that phrase. The concept that people who are missing some facts that you have, fail to see their impact, or just don't care are somehow either asleep, bleating sheep, or both, is just insulting and really, really condescending. However, "I feel I may have some information that would be worth considering and perhaps incorporating into your cognitive model" lacks the same punch.

So what idea do I think is worth incorporating into your cognitive model? Let me start with the ideas that I believe to be mistaken. There are actually two opposite opinions that I want to cover here:

1) Nature alone cannot feed our population.

Hunter-gatherer societies cannot sustain large populations, even in a pristine wilderness. There just isn’t enough food available out there to go around. To compensate, we invented agriculture. But eventually that wasn’t good enough so we invented fertilizers and huge equipment. But we know that soon even that won’t be enough. We need to find ever better ways. Nature brings pests and diseases, so everywhere we see a hazard, we cut out nature. Hydroponics and large scale urban vertical farming are great examples. One book on vertical farming stated that urban vertical farms would be sealed with air locks, positive pressure would be applied to the whole building, and workers would have to change their clothes upon arriving, all to make sure no pests got in.

The problem with this thinking is that nature has developed some really amazing tools to work with, but most of them really only function properly as a part of a functional ecosystem. You can’t build that ecosystem if you are too busy excluding most of it or poisoning it into submission.

2) We should give up technology and move back to nature.

This opinion is the counter-point to fallacy #1. These people see the damage done by industrial farming and the wholesale destruction of natural systems and want to toss the whole thing and move back to nature. The idea is that the only way to fix the problems caused by modern life is to throw them out, go off the grid and build a regenerating farm using natural systems.

The problem with this is that just because a technology is being used incorrectly or inappropriately doesn’t mean it is inherently bad. Sure, some parts are bad. I think we could do without glyphosate entirely. But we have some really amazing tools at our disposal that could be a wonderful part of the solution.

So what new thought should be incorporated into people’s cognitive model?

The natural world has developed a whole host of tools that perform a spectrum of functions. It is only through understanding of those tools and their interactions to each other that we can truly solve the problems facing us today. Modern technology can be used in conjunction with natural functions to accelerate the functionality of the whole system.

In essence, by combining human technology and understanding of natural processes we can sort of hack nature to create something better than both, but that is still regenerative. Compost is a perfect example. You will never, in nature, find a well-aerated pile of decomposing organic matter of precisely the right mixture of high-nitrogen and high-carbon material. However, someone figured out that if you create such a thing, the process generates heat and supercharges the soil creation process. It is a combination of natural and human processes to create something that works better than either.

But compost is just the beginning. With a deep understanding of a wide variety of organisms and how they work, combined with some serious systems thinking, a whole new technology could be devised. We could use those natural processes and recombine them into regenerative solutions that solve problems, provide a greater quantity of local, nutritious food. In the process, we surround ourselves with life and bring nature back into our cities, living side-by-side with the people.

This blog is called Mad Bioneer. The –neer is a take-off from engineer, and to that end I like to gear the content here towards practical solutions. And I am not looking win-win here. I am at the least looking for win-win-win. Just how many different functions can we really fit into the solving of one problem? Let’s take a look at an example problem and see what we can come up with.

Problem: Food Waste

Description: Food waste is a huge problem in America. We leave it on our plates in restaurants, we let it go bad in the refrigerator, we let it expire in our cupboards. When thrown out, it rots and smells bad. It attracts vermin, from rats to insects, that in turn spread disease and become a nuisance.

I read a book on vertical farming recently and the author tackles this issue. His suggestion is to burn the food waste to provide energy to power vertical farms. I can’t imagine the energy density is all that great on food waste, and burning it just turns it into greenhouse gas without any side benefits at all. I think we can do better.

The immediate thought is to compost it. It would have to be mixed with lots of brown matter, but in most cities, that can be provided from yard waste. In the process, great soil is produced in large quantities. Win-win. Not good enough.

A simple chicken composter
The bacteria consuming the food don’t give any other functions other than producing soil. Chickens would be a great addition. Scrap the addition of brown matter and feed the scraps to chickens. Chickens are omnivores. They prefer bugs, but will take food scraps and can eat just about anything we eat. They will gobble up leftover food, and leave behind some high nitrogen packets. In the process they produce eggs and meat. Win-win-win. Still not good enough.

If you dump a huge pile of food waste in a bin where chickens can get to it, it will start to rot. While chickens are omnivores, they aren’t scavengers. We need something else to do the bulk of the processing while it rots. Give the chickens one to two days with the pile of food waste, then move them to the next pile. Now we bring in black soldier flies. Black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) are voracious consumers of rotting food waste and thrive on high protein waste that is a little rich for earthworms. In the process, given the right container, they self-harvest and provide an easy, high-quality, high-protein food source. We have fed our chickens already. Let’s use this step for something else.

The BSFL could be fed to tilapia in an aquaponics or similar setup. The protein from the food waste becomes fish food. They process it into meat and their waste products go to fertilize plants in the other part of the system. So now you are producing meat and vegetables off of the waste reclamation process and you haven’t even gotten soil yet.

Unfortunately, BSFL don’t make very good compost. So they would just take up the early part of the process. They pick out the rich foods and the rotting foods and begin the process of breaking them down. But they don’t need to be left in forever. At this point, you add that brown material from your municipal yard waste collection to get the mixture right and add worms. This step will probably take the longest. But when the product is mostly complete, you can add the chickens back in and let them gobble up the worms and any other bugs in the system.

By carefully choosing the vermin we introduce to the system (chickens, BSFL, tilapia, and worms rather than rats and cockroaches), we are able to control the benefits the process confers. Sure, it takes longer, but look at all the production that is gained and value that is added.

Problem #2: Yard Waste – tree trimmings

Problem Description: Tree trimmings are a constant part of suburban life. We like our trees and we like them neat. But sent to the landfill, the organic material rots slowly in a low oxygen environment, producing methane and taking up space.

Some municipalities are now chipping the woody waste and composting it to produce soil. While this is a better solution, it still doesn’t add enough value. How about if we chip those branches up and pasteurize them. Then we can grow gourmet mushrooms on them, like shiitake and oyster mushrooms. While the mushrooms will do the hard part of the decomposing process, they won’t quite finish it off. Worms do a really great job of turning finished mushroom blocks into soil. The worms could then go to feed chickens. So now you have produced mushrooms, eggs, and meat from the process as well as healthy compost to add to soil.


These are just ways to handle resources destined for decomposition. The same thought process can be applied to a variety of problems, including food production itself. All it takes is some deeper understanding of the organisms and processes involved and some systems-level thinking. Let’s get on this.