Closing the Loop on Industrial Agriculture
with Insights from Himkaar Singh
The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report marked a tail spin for people of Earth as we try to cope with our own futures on this planet — let alone the future of our children. From temperature increases to natural disasters to loss of biodiversity, the exact outcomes are unclear, but what we do know is that if we don’t act fast we could be in some deep trouble.
Since tackling wicked problems like climate change is an impossible task for individual nations, international governing bodies have taken the lead to achieve social and environmental conditions which are basic necessities for life. These needs are clearly outlined by the United Nations through a list of objectives called the Sustainable Development Goals. Devised in 2015, these 17 goals range from gender equality to climate action, and they all center around the goal of ending poverty by 2030.
While attempting to solve both social and environmental grand challenges through a single legislation might seem like an ineffective form of policymaking, many of these complex challenges are inter-related, and they encompass indiscernible inequalities and priorities for both people and the planet. Therefore, integrating these complex challenges through a single framework has proven useful.
One exceptional example of this is SDG #2: Zero Hunger, which we can use as a proxy for addressing the other 16 targets. This goal in particular is a challenge because not only does it entail eradicating current hunger demands, but it also requires resilience against the arising difficulties that come with changing climate — which will threaten the suitability of crops in their currently established regions and force agrarian societies to find new sources of food supply and economic security.
So how do we properly address this goal? Rather than continuing full force down a path of exploitative industrial agriculture and hoping to outrun our linear descent to doom, sustainable practices have become a top priority for many farmers. But what exactly is “sustainable” agriculture? And how can it be practically utilized to address our world’s hunger crisis?
According to the US Department of Agriculture’s 1990 Farm Bill, sustainable agriculture is:
“an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
- satisfy human food and fiber needs;
-enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
-make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
-sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
-enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole” (USDA, 2007).
In practice, this concept has taken on many personas. Tactics have spanned from purchasing infrastructure such as no-till planters and drip irrigation systems, to entirely novel agricultural regimes such as hydroponics, aquaponics and urban agriculture. Depending on farmer and consumer preferences, subsidization, regional landscape and climate, any number of these efforts might be adopted in the name of “sustainability.”
For example, over the summer I worked for a non-profit called Plant Chicago. While the organization focuses on all things circular economy, the team is especially adept and enthusiastic about teaching their surrounding, lower-income community about urban agriculture and growing techniques. In their firehouse facility, which they call home, there is a complex hydroponic system, where they grow lettuces, herbs and a host of other veggies. They then use this infrastructure as an educational experience for visitors of their weekly farmer’s market!
As amazing as Plant Chicago’s mission and techniques are, it only work s— of course — because the group operates in an urban setting. So what about those of us living in rural or semi-urban environments?
A critical component of sustainable agriculture, and really any sustainability intervention in general, is that said intervention is tailored to the unique circumstances in which it is situated. (You wouldn’t want to construct a solar farm in the cloudy suburbs of Seattle!)
Luckily, when it comes to agriculture, there is a rich pool of knowledge and centuries of trial and error to draw from. It is not until the 1970s, however, that the importance of ecology and agriculture as a part of a broader environmental system became apparent. Therefore, it has not been until recent years that truly transformative and potentially sustainable systems have been intentionally designed and tested out.
One of the most compelling examples that I have come across is from a company called Compost Kitchen, the culmination of South African civil engineer Himkaar Singh’s life work. Through his entrepreneurship, Singh devised a solution to not only tackle industrial agriculture, but also solve the country’s water crisis and reduce household food waste!
All his life, from his childhood through his graduate years, Singh had a passion for waste — especially food waste. In fact, during his early adulthood, he had a quirky routine in his home in Durban, from which he recalls:
“I was in an apartment, and I had no garden to put [my food waste]. So I used to collect it and go to work and dig it in the garden there when everybody had left because I didn’t want them to think I was weird. So that’s when my obsessions started around [composting].”
But food waste and composting were not just passions for Singh because of some formative childhood experience or altruistic devotion to the Earth. He thought very tactically about the advent of food waste, and all the wasted resources that come along with that.
“ If you buy a bunch of bananas, maybe it’s $3. Then you take home the bananas, you eat the bananas, and you throw away the peels. But actually you’ve also paid for the banana peels because it has come in the weight of the banana, and the peel is typically one third of the weight of a whole banana.
That means that you spend $1. You’ve thrown away $1 in peels. If you buy a bunch of bananas every week like I do, then you’ve wasted $52 in peels alone.
That’s just one item in the food basket. There’s many other items too, like potato peels or pumpkin seeds, so you’re always throwing away money.”
As a result of Singh’s ecological concern and economic gripe, he decided to start his company, called The Compost Kitchen. This service engages customers in soil and water management, which are fundamental components of sustainable agriculture, by making them participants in the composting loop. Essentially, subscribers to this service collect their food scraps in provided bins which are then picked up by The Compost Kitchen’s collection service. The scraps are broken down using a vermicomposting method (aka lots of worms), and the resulting compost is re-distributed to subscriber’s to use on their home gardens.
Ultimately, Singh and his Compost Kitchen team have created a system which targets drought, and will help feed South Africans for generations. By reducing food waste to the landfill and producing this soil conditioner teeming with organic matter and nutrients, the resources needed to sustain a bountiful food system in the area are dramatically reduced. Singh condenses this sentiment graciously, expressing that:
“When you think about it deeply, compost seems to be the holy grail that our scientists were always looking for. The elixir of life. A beautiful metaphor where death, and gross, disgusting, decaying matter comes to life again, and feeds us with the richest of fruits and vegetables we could find. ”
Singh’s system is a primary example of not only the immense ecological value compost provides, but also how we can begin to engage our society in the life cycle of our food.
So although the USDA’s goal of “sustainable agriculture” and the UN’s goal of “zero hunger” may have an infinite number of potential “elixirs,” The Compost Kitchen and Plant Chicago’s hydroponic wonderland are some of the most inspiring, cyclical systems that I have come across. By introducing life into desolate places and engaging the community in the growing of their food, these organizations hold the key to our future agricultural systems.
Perhaps in the coming years, we will begin to see more of these small-scale efforts — to create a network of sustainably-focused growers providing the nutrition, education and environmental quality we need for our livelihoods all across the globe.