In 2014, I predicted “Desert Greening the Next Big Thing”, would be led by green investors. I’m still waiting for this shift from humanity’s single minded focus on traditional agricultural crops (glycophytes) relying on the planet’s three percent of fresh water. Why so little shift to more sustainable, nutrient-richer, salt loving (halophyte) plant foods, such as quinoa? Because vested interests in the vast incumbent global agro-chemical industrial complex are as powerful and persistent as those in the worldwide fossilized sectors. Corporations like Cargill and ConAgra dominate, along with agro-chemical giants Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, and DowDupont, selling fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and genetically-modified seeds, as well as those selling farm machinery, Deere, Caterpillar, Yamaha and their thousands of dealers around the world.
Courtesy of Scientific American
Industrial agriculture’s global scale requires monoculture of a small group of food crops as tradable commodities: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, along with cotton and others for fiber, fuel and animal feed. These narrow monocultures risk susceptibility to blight and they deplete soils while producing high-calorie, low-nutrient diets — exacerbating Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity, as described by endocrinologist Robert H. Lustig in “The Hacking of The American Mind” (2017). This global agro-chemical industrial complex is reinforced by the vast marketing, branding and advertising sector which influences content of media and consumer choices. Later this article describes today’s rising food activism: the organic, vegetarian, vegan choices, alternative vertical urban crops, fresh local growers and farmers’ markets.
Yet, disrupting the agro-industrial complex is proving as difficult as dislodging the global fossil industrial sectors. Even as CO2 emissions from the incumbent agro-industrial complex now exceed those from fossil-fueled transportation, efforts in the successive United Nations (UN) COP climate summits of the past decades have failed to halt or reverse these trends.
Furthermore, The Economist reports that over 100 of the UNPCC’s climate models assume that as much as 800 billion tons of CO2 must be extracted directly from the air, and sequestered or re-used to keep global warming below 2° Celsius.
So far, this direct carbon capturing and sequestering (CCS) is hardly happening anywhere since “clean coal” capturing of CO2 at power plants was found too expensive and reduces their efficiency by as much as 40 percent. The best hope for direct capturing of CO2 rests on reforming agricultural and forestry methods — Nature’s way of sequestering CO2 in growing global biomass. Start-up firms, including Terraformers, empower home growers, while Global Thermostat is geared to capture CO2 from the air and sell it for manufacturing, cement making and greenhouses to accelerate plant growth. Risky geoengineering proposals to block sunlight by seeding the Earth’s stratosphere with various particles could have possibly disastrous effects, including on agriculture.
Meanwhile the green revolt against industrial foods is growing, since 2009 causing some $18 billion loss of market share by the top 25 US food and beverage companies. Silicon Valley’s animal-free food start-ups, including Beyond Meat, Memphis Meat, Impossible Foods, Finless Foods, MosaMeat, Clara Foods and Perfect Day are testing or producing substitutes for beef, chicken, fish and milk, based on plants, bio-chemical engineering, fermentation, insects and growing meat cells in petri dishes. All this may disrupt the $200 billion annual sales of meat in the USA. The meat-producing livestock industry overuses antibiotics and is a major global polluter and CO2 emitter, while hogging millions of gallons of water and acres of land. Cows require 26 pounds of feed for every pound of edible beef.
Meanwhile billions are invested in the planet’s three percent of fresh water, dwindling due to melting glaciers and rising use by growing populations: in sewage and polluted water treatment facilities, desalination, cleaning up and recycling water, irrigation, pipes, and sanitation, such as in India and conducted by the Toilet Board Coalition. Shifting to renewable energy saves millions of gallons of water used to cool fossil-fired and nuclear power plants. China hopes to secure its increasingly meat protein rich food supplies by its recent acquisition of Syngenta by ChinaChem for $43 billion, so as to raise yields through research and genetic engineering—in spite of Chinese consumers’ fear of Western GMO seeds and foods.
In addition, crop breeders are racing to find wild relatives of familiar food crops, including efforts by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), since all our foods: corn, wheat, soy, rice, pumpkins, tomatoes and apples were once wild. Desertification-reversal efforts include Allan Savory’s Holistic Management restoring land by rotating herds of cattle on some 40 million acres in many countries. Plans for planting trees are envisioned in a Great Green Wall across the African continent to hold back the advancing Sahara Desert. Robots like LettuceBot use AI and machine learning to train huge machines to weed crops on large farms, produced by Blue River, being acquired by Deere & Co for $305 million. Big data-collecting firms are offering farmers data on prices of seeds, chemicals and crop yields on Amazon’s cloud-computing platform, while many farmers are suspicious on how this data will be monetized. Biotech companies promise factory-scale use of microbes for growing food, including from algae, and even natural gas turned by methane-consuming microbes into high-protein animal feed. In Biomimicry Solutions Carbon Report, Janine Benyus outlines nine initiatives including Air Carbon plastic from captured methane, perennial Kemza wheat and Zelfo Technology. Circular economy global recycler ECOR upcycles waste into a range of sustainable materials.
Salicornia, a key halophyte crop – courtesy of Beth Hodges, the Seawater Foundation
Yet in spite of this enormous global investment and R&D to increase human food production, restore its nutritional content while saving fresh water and restoring the planet’s 3.9 billion acres of arable land, investors are still blind to the shift I described in 2014 to halophyte foods and agriculture, as well as fuels for saltwater-grown algae, as well as many fiber and feed crops. Like their obsolete view of fossilized sectors, mainstream finance cannot see the risks of stranded assets and mal-investments in this bloated unsustainable global agro-chemical industrial complex.
Asset allocators steering pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds, as well as consultants, advisors and brokers still warn investors that these new green investment are “too risky,” overlooking the risks already lurking in their clients’ portfolios and 401Ks. As I described in 2014, we humans are still overlooking those four globally-abundant resources for augmenting our food sources more sustainably: the 10,000 varieties of halophyte plants, many already hybridized into replacements for corn, wheat, soy, rice and other vegetable crops; the 97 percent of water on this planet that is saline; the 40 percent of scrub and desert lands and all those daily free photons we can harvest from our Sun. (see “Investing In Desert Greening” TV show.)
Behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow (2013), calls this cognitive problem, “theory-induced blindness.” Combined with other cognitive biases, they have contributed to the mis-allocation of our agricultural investments, along with media and vested incumbent industries steering research favorable to retaining control of this crucial global industry.
Salicornia, Greenhouse – Courtesy of Beth Hodges, the Seawater Foundation
Yet, today, the new climate crises evident in 2017’s many powerful hurricanes, floods, fires and droughts, are making a transition of our food supply from total reliance on glycophytes to incorporating halophytes ever more urgent. This shift also seems essential if we are to capture enough of the CO2 emissions already in our atmosphere, since we can no longer rely on today’s robust transition to green renewable energy we track in our Green Transition Scoreboard®. Continued misuse of the earth’s land and depletion of soils may turn them from carbon sinks into CO2 sources. While startups in direct capture and use of CO2 are welcome in the CO2 Utilization Conference, Tampa, FL in 2018, Nature’s capture of CO2 in growing plants can be increased by expanding use of halophyte foods, already growing and available in many countries.
Furthermore, while legacy food crops lack necessary nutritional value due to depleted, over-used soils, halophyte food crops contain exactly the mineral nutrition vital to human health! Why are we still waiting for this healthier greener food transition?
Article by Hazel Henderson D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, is founder of Ethical Markets Media, (USA and Brazil), a Certified B Corporation. She is a world-renowned futurist, evolutionary economist, a worldwide syndicated columnist, and author of award-winning Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy (2006) and eight other books. She created the Ethical Markets TV series in global distribution at www.films.com , the EthicMark® Awards, the Green Transition Scoreboard® and co-created Ethical Biomimicry Finance®.
Her editorials are syndicated globally by InterPress Service, Other News, 3BL and her book reviews appear on SeekingAlpha.com. Her articles have appeared in over 250 journals, including Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, as well as journals in Japan, Venezuela, China, France and Australia.
Since becoming a full-time media executive in 2004, Hazel has stepped down from many of her associations, including Calvert Social Investment Fund (1982-2005), the Social Investment Forum and the Social Venture Network. She has been Regent’s Lecturer at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Horace Albright Chair in Conservation at the University of California-Berkeley, and advised the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Science Foundation from 1974 to 1980.
She remains on the International Council of the Instituto Ethos de Empresas e Responsabilidade Social, Sao Paulo, Brasil; is a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and the World Business Academy; and is an Honorary Member of the Club of Rome. She shared the 1996 Global Citizen Award with Nobelist A. Perez Esquivel of Argentina. In 2007, she was elected a Fellow to Britain’s Royal Society of Arts, founded in 1754.
In 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014, she was honored as a “Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior” by Trust Across America. In 2012, she was honored with the Reuters Award for Outstanding Contribution to Development of ESG & Investing at TBLI Europe. In 2013, she was inducted into the International Society of Sustainability Professionals Hall of Fame.
Her 2014 monograph, Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age, published by ICAEW and Tomorrow’s Company, UK, is available for free download from www.ethicalmarkets.com
 The Economist, Nov. 2017
 Fortune “The War on Big Food, June 2015
 Fortune, Dec. 15, 2017
 Sierra Magazine, March-April, 2017
 New Scientist, Sept. 10, 2016
 Bloomberg BW, Jan. 15, 2018
 Fortune, Sept. 1, 2016
 New Scientist, Nov. 19, 2016
 Full Disclosure: Henderson is technical advisor to ECOR
 Science Daily, 2017
 Dennis Bushnell, NASA 2017