THE FOOD FACTORY
by Masse Bloomfield
As I see it, humanity will be able to establish the automated society some time in the future. This is a society that can sustain itself without physical effort on the part of human beings. Robots or machine tools under the guidance of computers will be in charge of all production. The work that human beings will do, with be to monitor the machinery and repair those machine that cannot repair themselves. Human beings will be involved in other tasks but that aspect of the automated society is not part of this paper.
The focus of this paper is on food production. Food production is going to be done in factories, not on the farm as we are doing now. I see no reason why plants or animals have to be exposed to climate changes, to pollution, to predators or to disease. The problems we have now in feeding the world’s population will disappear with the food factory. Those factories are going to be fully automated as well as being decentralized. In my view of the future, each food factory will feed approximately 10,000 people. With a future world population of about ten billion people, we will have about a million of these food factories dispersed throughout the world.
The Limits to Growth written by D. H. Meadows and others in 1972, predicted that the human population would grow to about 12 billion people in 2050 or thereabouts. From 2050, the Meadows book predicts a reduction to about 6 billion people in 2100. The contraction will be due to an increase in pollution, a decrease in resources, a decrease in food production and a decrease in industrial output. These assumptions from the Limits to Growth came from their standard world model chart. Since 1972, I have seen little that would challenge their extrapolation. I see the food factory as the savior of humanity from the catastrophe predicted in the Limits to Growth. The question then becomes will the food factories be developed before the catastrophe and will there be enough of them to prevent mass starvation or the overpowering pollution.
I see the food factory as being a central element in the communities of 10,000. In the cities that we have now which I believe are going to exist much as they are now for several hundred years in the future, the food factory will probably have to be built in existing buildings. I anticipate that in old cities, one of the buildings where people have lived will have to be gutted and rebuilt to house the food factory. In suburbs or in new cities being build from scratch, the food factory will be a central element in the community. The reason I am designing the cities this way is so that no one in a community of 10,000 will have to walk very far to obtain food. These communities of 10,000 people will be the building blocks to the future cities that could hold as many to 10 million people. These communities of 10,000 will have the capability to produce food and provide decentralized services such as education, medical and dental services as well as filling other basic needs. Universities, for instance, will be embedded in the larger city with other specialty services that would be needed by a centralized service such as automobile supplier.
The food factory will make each community a self-sufficient entity as far as food and water are concerned. The individual communities will have to be dependent on centralized automated manufacturing factories for their other goods. Services will be decentralized at the community level. I anticipate that in the future the suburbs will be served by high speed transportation, but the people living in the suburbs will still want to own vehicles much like the automobile for independent travel. Even though the administration of the individual communities is going to be decentralized, there will still be a centralized control for the entire city, the states, the nation and the world. The contact that most people will have will be with the decentralized community areas closely connected to the food factory. The farm as we know it, will still be available for those people who feel they must live on the land and work the land. But the attraction of the city will be as strong for the automated society as it is for the industrial society. However, the produce from the farms will have little effect on the way food will be distributed in the future.
The food factory is going to be designed in such a way that it is going to make the community of 10,000 look like a closed system. The definition of the closed system for the food factory would mean that all the wastes of the community would be channeled into the food factory and reprocessed. Food will be its major product. Water would be purified and reused. Other wastes would be processed for recycling if those wastes were not suitable for use in the food production chain. The closed system of the food factory will be patterned after a closed biosphere that is going to be developed for long journey space vehicles. When spacecraft go on long journeys, they will not be able to store enough supplies for the entire flight. There is going to be a need to either recycle or reprocess the wastes generated on he space ship. The food factory is going in to look a lot like the closed system that will be developed for space. And if we are going to build space cities in low orbit as O’Neill has suggested in his book The High Frontier, then those space ships are also going to have to recycle their wastes as well. Biosphere 2 was an attempt at a closed system. Eight people were involved in that experiment. And Biosphere 2 had elements totally unnecessary for a food factory such as a desert. Several people have written about space recycling for food production. O’Neill in his book 2081 states:
fruits and vegetables in the (2081) ship… were grown in greenhouses using as nutrients chemicals sterilized from sewage. The recycling system has been copied from … the space colonies, … (with artificial light) to permit a twelve month growing season. O’Neill goes on to say: In my view, the development of closed-cycle (greenhouse) agriculture over the next century will be the only effective solution to the problems of agricultural pollution and deforestation and also of year-to-year variations of food production. In the communities that are going to be built in the future, I envision three different systems for waste removal. First, there will be a sewage system connected to toilets only. There will be a system for waste water from sinks and the laundry. And finally, there will be a system to collect solid wastes. There will be no industrial wastes entering the food factories. The industrial wastes will be treated in different systems.
The solid waste system may be further subdivided into paper, glass, aluminum, fabrics, plastics, organic wastes from the kitchen and garden, and perhaps one for other metals. In the cities that are already in existence, it seems too expensive to replumb the whole physical plant into three waste removal systems. In these cities, it would seem to me that we would have the waste water systems for both the sewage, laundry and sinks all in the same flow as we have now. The solid wastes would either have to be picked up as they are now, or it might be possible to install a pneumatic tube system especially for solid waste. At the food factory, the solid waste streams would be separated into various materials for recycling.
The objective of the entire system would be to recycle everything back to some useful item. The food production unit of the food factory will be divided into several sectors. The first sector for organic waste will be basic digesting of the wastes by microorganisms. Thus the first transformation of the waste chain will be from non-living organic materials into living microorganisms. The microorganisms will be filtered from the waste stream and washed. There have been factories for single-cell protein in England and Russia. The single-cell protein organisms are similar to the microorganisms that will be produced in the food factories. Algae can be grown in the waste stream with no difficulty. These algae can convert waste materials into an edible form. Brown in his 1954 book The Challenge of Man’s Future has written about the value of algae over other foods. He wrote that algae outproduce agricultural crops substantially. For instance: existing evidence indicates that algae farms in the tropics might yield 20 tons (dry weight) of food per acre per year. [or as much as 8 tons of protein]. A plantation can produce five tons of sugar annually per acre. On farms operating under good management, soybeans will yield 450 pounds of protein per acre per year, and wheat will yield 220 pounds per acre. By contrast, milk derived from cows fed on grass silage and alfalfa yields but 120 pounds of protein per acre per year, and only 50 pounds of protein per year can be derived from beef grown on the same land. The microorganisms produced in the food factories can the be fed without any further reprocessing as feed for fish. Once fish are being grown from the basic microorganisms, then these fish can become part of the feed for other animals such as chickens. Perhaps a mix of the basic microorganisms and fish meal could become food for humans as well. Thus from a rather simple exercise, it would seem that it would be no problem to produce meat for human consumption.
The varieties of animals that would be possible from this rather simplistic scheme would be fish, chickens, rabbits and goats. Goats could be used to produce milk. The milk could then be use to produce other edible products. The design for plant life will be more difficult. This is true because we will want to have a variety of plants growing in the food factory. The basis for growing plants will have to be hydroponics. Hydroponics is the art of growing plants so their roots are nourished by a liquid flow even though the roots grow in sand. In order for plants to grow, they need light, carbon dioxide, water and nutrients. The plants in nature get their light from the sun, but it is not necessary to use sunlight. It is possible to use artificial lights. With the use of artificial light, it would then be possible to grow plants twenty-four hours a day. It should be noted that plants blossom and produce fruit in response to the length of the day. By genetic engineering and with experimentation, it might be possible to get plants to adapt to the maximum growing conditions.
In some instances, there would be no need for plants to ever blossom. These plants would only be producing stems, roots and leaves. Lettuce could be grown just for its leaves. New lettuce plants could be developed by cloning cells from growing lettuce plants. However, when we want fruits and vegetables, we need to have these plants blossom and produce seeds such as wheat, corn, peas, beans and watermelon. There are plants that produce roots which are edible such as potatoes, carrots and beets. There is no necessity to produce as many plants we use to prepare all the food available in our supermarkets. There will be a need for fast growing plants which can provide food quickly and within the constraints of the food factory. In hydroponics, the light, water and carbon dioxide can easily be channeled to the plants. Light from lamps can provide the optimal radiation frequency for growth. Carbon dioxide can come from outside air blown past the leafy parts of the plants. The water will be coming from the sewage system. Microorganisms will digest the organic material in the liquid flow. These microorganisms when processed should become the nutrients for the plants. Minerals may have to be added to the plant nutrient flow when necessary. Experience with the plants being grown can determine which minerals need to be added. It should be possible to develop the best liquid flow to the plants selected for the food factory so that these plants will grow at extremely fast rates.
The food factory should not be aiming for optimal growth but for maximum growth of the plants and animals selected. Plants like lettuce and spinach have been grown on polystyrene boards floating on a foot of water. Crops that tend to become vines such as tomatoes, cucumbers and melons can be grown vertically so that these plants can use strings for climbing. Using hydroponics techniques, it is possible to grow plants on conveyor belts. In these cases, the plants are bathed in a nutrient solution. The conveyor belts allow for some ease in harvesting such crops as lettuce. It is possible to grow plants on conveyor belts without their roots being in soil. These plants could be grown on conveyor belts with their roots exposed to air. These traveling plants would get their nutrients from a root spray. There are ways to tailor plants and microorganisms in the food factory using genetic engineering. With genetic engineering, it will be possible to increase the yields from the plants selected. This could be done with the reduction of stems or roots or leaves.
In other instances, it would be possible to increase the size of the fruit. With the use of chemicals, we should be able to control the growth of plants. These chemicals will provide for taller plants, faster growth or shorter plants depending on the needs of the food factory. When it comes to harvesting the crops or animals, there will be sophisticated techniques to do this. When harvesting lettuce, this should be on the basis of color as the endless conveyor belts make their way through the food factory.
The whole process of growth would be monitored by sensing devices to be sure the plants were growing properly and the speed of the belt moving so that plants would be at their desired maturity for harvesting. With an endless belt, the plants would be sheared from the belt and dropped through tubes to the food processing floor. Since the food factory is designed for the community of 10,000 to come to the factory to pick up their food, the food processed would be in packages ready for pickup. When it comes to harvesting crops like tomatoes, robots will pick off those tomatoes with the proper color. The robots would then deliver the tomatoes to another tube for delivery to the food processing area of the food factory. Other crops would be harvested by robots as well. As the plants would be under strict surveillance while they were growing, the harvesting would be part of that surveillance program. Another approach to growing food has been suggested. This method would be using tissue culture from the plant stock and use sugar as the nutrient.
The food factory begins with waste. Some of the waste will be cellulose. This cellulose could become the feedstock for the sugar needed. This tissue culture version has been described in an article in the January-February issue of the Futurist for a factory producing orange juice. There are no orange trees or oranges. The juice sacs are grown in culture. Also flour can be fabricated and not made from wheat. The inputs to these factories are enzymes to regulate the growth of plant tissues and a basic nutrient feedstock from which the plant tissues produce food. Tissue culture is a kind of biotechnology that is considerably less celebrated than gene splicing but no less impressive in its results. If you want to produce orange juice in a factory, the juice making sacs have to be fed a steady supply of sugar. The animals in the food factory would be treated much like the plants. We now have chicken ranches that resemble factories. The chicken ranches have runs that are closely monitored to be sure that the animals are healthy and well fed. The chicken runs in the food factory would resemble those we have now. In the case of chickens, the eggs would drop onto a conveyor belt and the shipped either to the place in the factory where would be incubated or be sent to the food processing floor for pick up by consumers. The chickens themselves would be harvested at the appropriate time. They could be grown on a conveyor belt much like the plants. So that after a period of time, they would be ready for butchering.
The food factory, if they wanted, could process the meat of the animals either ready for cooking at home or be pre-cooked. The convenience of the community would determine how the meat from the food factory would be available. No matter how carefully the food factory is monitored, disease can be expected to creep in. The food factory will be built in modules. When disease does strike, it should be isolated in one module to one kind of plant or animal. Once the disease has been identified, the module would be closed tight and all biological activity killed by heat. Once the disease has been eradicated, the module would be converted either to its original use or to some new plant or animal.
The food factory should be designed so that even closing a few modules would not have any impact on the total food production. Again, one of the factors in developing the food factory, will be the availability of cheap and abundant energy. Energy should not be a limiting factor for the operation of the food factory. Many of the floors growing plants will need energy for the robots monitoring the crops, for the lights shining on the plants, for the moving belts and for pumping liquids through the factory. The design of the food factory will be such that there will be no waste coming from it. The waste stream going in should be used up entirely, with the exception of some metals and plastics. Because the food factory will also be the solid waste collection center, there may be some solids leaving the factory for reuse elsewhere. This could be true for those materials that will not be needed in the food chain. In many cases, there will be metals that will have to be shipped off to a center designed especially for those metals. With abundant and cheap energy, the materials can be processed at the food factory so that they will leave in an optimum form ready either in the local community for further processing or for shipment to another automated plant.
The community of 10,000, the building block of the automated city, will be as self-sufficient as it can be. The waste materials of the community will be processed in the food factory. The organic wastes such as sewage, will be recycled into edible food for either human or animal consumption. The size of the factory will not have to be overly large. It has been stated that in order to feed 10,000 people, only 150 acres of land would be necessary. The factory would be a high-rise, so that twenty floors of the food factory on some ten acres of ground space, would be able to house 200 acres of food growing space, more than enough to feed 10,000 people. In addition, it could be possible to use the roofs of the high-rise apartment buildings to grow other foodstuffs. Perhaps, the roof top areas could be used for the diversity that the food factory will not have or nor would want. Is this kind of food production possible? The answer is affirmative. However, hardly any of the elements needed for the food factory have been tested.
Research is needed for the preparation of the soil or sand, the species of microorganisms needed, the computers and robots needed to control the environment and the growth of the plant life and animal life, or in other words, almost every facet of the food factory has to be developed and investigated. One of the current problems that is possible to solve with the food factory is water pollution. There will be no pollution from a food factory. The nature of a close systems means everything is recycles. The algae blooms that have been experienced in our estuaries need to be stopped. These algal blooms develop because the runoff of nutrients from sewage and fertilizers have supported their growth along the sea coasts. Part of the research for the food factory should be directed toward removing nutrients from flowing streams and rivers. The problem has been reported in the Los Angeles Times, where algae slimes dense enough to suffocate marine life have been swelling around the world, especially in coastal bays. They are largely caused by fertilizing nutrients from sewage and farm runoff. Some marine expects said that if the nutrients do not stop then the nutrients could destroy America’s most scenic and commercially valuable waters. Research has shown that large volumes of fertilizing nitrogen is falling from the air mostly from car exhaust. In some urban areas, one third of nutrients polluting waterways are linked to air pollution. Some large volumes of human waste and farm runoff carried into streams can trigger eutrophication where algae blooms so dense that oxygen levels drop to zero near the bottom. Without oxygen, many fish suffocate and sea grasses where fish and shellfish breed and nurse, will die.
Perhaps we can do something about this problem as part of the preliminary research for the food factory. Once such project has shown that we can treat liquid farm waste with algae. Dr. Adey at the National Museum of Natural History has developed a process where algae are on screen grow by removing the wastes from liquid animal waste. The Algal Turf Dr. Adey has developed, is available now to remove nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from human and animal sewage flows. For some reason, there are only three sites where this technique is being used. At one site, the water from a fish farm is processed through the Algal Turf to provide algae as food for the fish. The large cattle feedlots, the pig farms and chicken ranches need to use this technique to eliminate the sewage pollution from these farms.
Perhaps it might be possible to build algae screen which filter water from streams to control the pollutant load. The fish could consume the algae. There are parts of the research for the food factory that could be progressing now. With this brief introduction to the food factory and how it could run, the food factory will make it possible for the human population to grow to almost any size on earth. The limiting factors as I see them, are the availability of unlimited, free energy either from terrestrial solar cells, terrestrial solar thermal units or from solar satellite power stations. Also energy may be developed from other renewable sources like windmills, hydroelectric power or from burning biomass. In our present industrial society, energy would be one of the limiting factors in operating a food factory.
The automated society will take a huge initial capital investment to build. The food factories and the installation of the robots and computers will not be cheap. But once the factories are in place, human beings will have very little to do in the way of physical effort to maintain the factories. All that will be needed to operate the automated factories will be energy from renewable sources, plus human monitoring and maintenance. Populations many times larger than our present six billion people will then be possible and everyone will have all the goods and services they want, especially food. But will we want that many people on earth? Also available from the National Technical Information Service Product Search Page as PB96-149117.