According to the USDA, 50% of all land in the United States is used for agriculture, but nearly 30% of this land is squandered. Worldwide, about 1.4 billion hectares of available agricultural land is used to grow food that is ultimately wasted. This is almost as much land as three Amazon rainforests put together!
This fact of wasted farmland is problematic now but could prove to be catastrophic in the future. By 2050, food production will have to have increased by 60% on 2005 levels to feed the world’s growing population. On top of that, scientists estimate that Earth has lost more than 30% of its arable land in the past 4 decades due to erosion, pollution, and over-farming. As we look to the future, it is vital to use land as efficiently as possible to ensure there is enough food to feed everyone in 2050 and beyond.
Luckily, we don’t have to face this problem on our own. We can look to organisms that have spent centuries mastering the art of getting the most out of each and every speck of dirt.
The Inspiration: Freaky Fungi
I have an experiment for you. Take your quarter-cup 2050 Smoothie scoop, walk into your backyard, and scoop up some dirt. Now, unwind all of the the tiny fungal filaments in that scoop of dirt and lay them out in a straight line (Pro Tip: Make sure you develop superhuman sight first, since these mycelia are invisible to the human eye). At the end of this experiment, you may end up with a single string several miles long!
Fungi are everywhere. These strange organisms, which include mushrooms, molds, and yeasts, represent a kingdom of their own, but are actually closer to animals than plants. The largest organism on Earth is an underground fungus in Oregon, covering 3.7 square miles with an estimated weight of 35,000 tons!
Each footstep you take in a forest send ripples of impact through fungal networks for as far as 300 miles. Fungi break down tough organic materials in the soil, generate vital nutrients that plants need to grow, and even help trees communicate via a type of underground world wide web. Fungi do not bring their food inside themselves to digest it. Instead, they ooze digestive enzymes into the soil around them, absorbing whatever is nearby to maximize the nutrients absorbed in a given gram of soil. This makes fungi the ultimate harvesters. Not only do they make the most of every cubic inch of soil around them, but they leave this soil in a better shape that they found it, allowing plant life to survive, thrive, and ultimately provide more nutrients for the fungi in the future.
The future of farming probably does not involve oozing our stomach acid into the dirt of our backyard to absorb nutrients. However, there is a lot we could learn from these bizarre creatures to improve the way we grow our own food.
Lesson 1: When they grow low, we grow high.
The first lesson we can learn from fungi is to think in 3D. Whereas humans only grow food on the surface of the earth, fungi extend several feet into the earth to greatly increase their nutrient intake in every square foot.
While fungi grow deeper into the soil, we can grow higher into the sky. Companies and governments around the world are already investing in a shift to vertical farming. By stacking several layers of farmland into a city block, we could reduce the total footprint of agriculture. Plus, vertical farming could allow us to shift some farming into cities, giving access to fresher produce with a smaller carbon footprint.
Lesson 2: Cheaper Richer Than Dirt
Another thing we can learn from fungi is the importance of maintaining quality soil. Generating a mere 3 centimeters of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and we’re running through it at a breakneck pace. If current rates of degradation continue, all of the world’s topsoil could be gone in 60 years. Fortunately, fungi are the experts at using and improving the soil around them.
One solution to erosion is no-till farming, where the thick mats of fungal mycelia that lie beneath farmland are left in place, holding soil together and providing nutrients to the crops grown above. We may even be able to use some fungi in place of chemical fertilizers to boost output while actually improving the quality of soil.
Lesson 3: Waste Not
Finally, it is important to take nothing for granted. Each berry you bite and burger you grill has an incredible origin story starting in the dirt beneath our feet. The most important lesson we can learn from fungi is to never squander a single nutrient. Every time we throw food in the trash, we are also throwing away the valuable water, energy, and land that made it.
This lesson is at the core of our mission at The 2050 Company. The 2050 Smoothie was designed around the sole task of reducing food waste not only on farms, but in your own house. The 2050 Smoothie can sit on your shelf for up to two years. No need to worry about throwing out these berries and bananas!
This has been the third installation of The 2050 Company’s “The Invention of Waste” blog. Each month, we will take a look at a resource used in the production of the world’s food. We will compare our current system’s use of these resources to the systems in place in the natural world, and explore how we can shift our perceptions and habits to reduce waste, improve lives, and ensure a prosperous future by the year 2050. To follow along with us on this exploration, please subscribe to The 2050 Newsletter here!