Can algae microfarms build a Green Friendship Bridge?
May 15, 2016 — by Mark Edwards
he Green Friendship Bridge project offers a positive alternative to wasting $20 billion on Trump’s border wall. The Friendship Bridge proposes to build 8,600 algae microfarms and give these high-value, low cost microfarms to Mexican and Central American farmers. The microfarms will enable farmers and families to grow food, feed, biofertilizers and healthy nutritional products on tiny land footprints so they can stay home and not be forced by economics to migrate. Funding equals just 13 miles of additional border wall.
The 2017 DHS $40.6 billion budget does not currently include this project. However, the Friendship Bridge offers substantial advantages compared with erecting 13 miles of additional border wall. Numerous experts, including Congressional members from both parties, have stated the obvious: a longer wall will neither improve Homeland Security nor slow illegal immigration.
Algae microfarms can produce a variety of algae but tend to focus on the high protein and relatively easily grown spirulina. The FAO reported recently that spirulina shows a significant potential for fighting chronic malnutrition and for economic development. A FAO 2008 report said “International organizations working with spirulina should consider preparing a practical guide to small-scale spirulina production […] This small-scale production should be orientated towards:
- Providing nutritional supplements for widespread use in rural and urban communities where the staple diet is poor or inadequate;
- Allowing diversification from traditional crops in cases where land or water resources are limited […]”
“There is a role for both national governments – as well as intergovernmental organizations – to reevaluate the potential of spirulina to fulfill both their own food security needs as well as a tool for their overseas development […]” China has recognized spirulina as a national food.
Many climates in Mexico and Central America can grow spirulina year round. Spirulina is eaten locally, there is no need to preserve it. Fresh spirulina can be eaten directly without any processing or cooking, eliminating costly energy consumption.
Mexico and Central American farmers share numerous factors that make microfarms a logical choice. Huge U.S. subsidies have made corn and some other food staples so cheap that farmers cannot produce profitably. Rural areas especially suffer from high unemployment, and youth unemployment in Central America exceeds 24%.
Each country has areas where over 50% of children under five are severely malnourished. The numbers for the elderly are even worse. Each country experiences severe climate chaos, water shortages and expanding deserts, which limit crop production. Central America has the highest levels of soil degradation in the world, reported at roughly 75%. Fertility depletion and erosion from water and wind have left many families with tiny plots of nearly non-arable land. Microfarms may be the only solution that addresses each of these issues.
Whether farmers choose to grow spirulina, chlorella or a local indigenous algae species, microfarms offer a valuable set of social, health, economic and environmental benefits.
- Beautiful image — The visual image of green growing systems supporting families and community trumps an ugly border wall.
- Education — Green solar gardens provide an excellent opportunity for training people throughout the region in sustainable farming practices. Microfarms are learning environments where lateral learning thrives as microfarmers share their insights and experience.
- Produce food locally — Many areas are not suitable for farming. Microfarms can grow healthy and delicious food nearly anywhere there is sunshine. Advanced growers can supplement solar energy with high-efficiency LED lighting using controlled environment agriculture.
- Employ women, youth, handicapped and elderly — Algae microfarms do not require heavy labor, which enable women, youth, handicapped and elderly to grow heathy food.
- Eliminate childhood malnutrition — Many families are food insecure and do not get sufficient nutrients. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, over 50% of children under five are malnourished. A single microfarm can provide the critical nutrients for several families or even an entire community.
- Support pregnant mothers — Pregnant mothers who get insufficient nutrients from their diet often deliver low birth weight babies, many who become stunted and intellectually challenged. Microfarms can provide sufficient nutrients to support healthy mothers and babies.
- Eliminate pesticide pollution — Only about 1% of agricultural poisons are absorbed by the pest targets. Some of the remainder escapes the field and pollutes local communities. Substantial residuals may remain on produce even after washing. Microfarms can clean the local environment rather than polluting.
- Detox heavy metal poisoning — Global warming amplifies water shortages that are addressed with deeper wells. Research shows that deeper wells tend to increase levels of heavy metal poisons, especially lead, mercury and arsenic. Eating algae foods allows the body to bioabsorb the tiny algae cells that chelate with heavy metals, which are then passed out of the body in the urine.
- Farmers and family profit — Microfarms enable farmers and families to make enough money to stay on their land.
- Disaster relief — Climate chaos amplifies wildfires and fierce storms that create ecological and economic disasters. A common element of disaster is an abundance of wastewater but no clean water and no fresh food. Microfarms can be delivered to disasters sites quickly and provide clean water and fresh food locally in a matter of weeks.
- Recover worn out cropland — Algae biofertilizer has demonstrated the ability to restore degraded and even unfertile land and regenerate fertility. Algae biofertilizer applied through irrigation or spraying continues to grow green biomass in fields as long as moisture is available. The algae become humus similar to the application of organic mulch. Note: Algae biofertilizers and soil restoration requires growing multiple algae species.
- Restore compacted soil — Large areas of desert cropland have become seriously compacted due to cultivation and punishment from heavy agricultural equipment. Crops cannot grow because the soil is too tight to allow roots to grow. Algae biofertilizers have demonstrated the ability to improve soil porosity (looseness) by 500%.
- Dissolve embedded salts — Substantial areas of cropland are infertile due to salt invasion and the land has to be abandoned because the salt kills rooted crops. Algae have no roots and algae biofertilizers have been shown to improve soil porosity so that salts can percolate with rain or irrigation below the root line.
- Sustainable local food production – Microfarms offer a very efficient and productive method for sustainable food production that consumes few non-renewable resources and delivers a positive carbon and environmental footprint.
- Save cropland — Algae microfarms grow in containers that may be sited on non-arable land or where soil fertility has been degraded. Growers can also use rooftops, parking lots, hillsides, train right of ways, deserts or other locations not suitable for field crops.
- Save water — Microfarms consume only modest amounts of water compared with field crops. Some models can reclaim wastewater.
- Eliminate fertilizer pollution — Only about half of agricultural fertilizers are absorbed by crops. The rest blows or flow to waste streams causing serious pollution of waterways. The only thing microfarms emit to the environment is pure oxygen.
- Save fuel — Microfarms may operate with no or minimal fossil fuels. Some operate off-the-grid using green power sources.
- Reduce black smoke pollution — Microfarms do not use the heavy diesel equipment that emits huge amounts of black particulates. Local food production reduces carbon and particulate pollution emitted by trucks and trains.
Microfarms offer a new form of food production called Freedom Foods, which are free of fossil resources including fertile soil, fresh water, fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides. Freedom food production mimics nature by growing and at the same time improving the environment to benefit future generations.
How will the Friendship Bridge product proceed? The project will rely on the Algae Ambassadors selected from the Algae Industry Magazine 2015 International Poll for design and direction. This team, supplemented by additional volunteers, has decades of experience in designing, building and operating algae microfarms.
The 8,600 microfarm sites may be selected by lottery after the design team determines how many microfarms are allocated to each country. Site selection will take into consideration local geography and climate. Most locations with adequate solar exposure will be eligible, independent of altitude. Spacing is important because each microfarm will want singular access to the local community for algae-based foods and bioproducts. Microfarms spaced at minimum of 50 miles apart, except in large cities, should allow each microfarm to flourish.
The process will need to create careful policy elements to assure the opportunity aligns with the culture of each region. Microfarmers will need to have skin in the game, possibly by paying a small percentage of their produce revenue to the Friendship Bridge Cooperative. Microfarmers will also be expected to attend trainings and pass a competency test. Tom Dempster, manager of ATP3 based at Arizona State University, is conducting a similar model microfarm training at Santa Fe Community College in May 2016. Aaron Wolf Baum also conducts excellent algae starter workshops.
An excellent set of educational materials for microfarmers has already been created. Robert Henrikson, an Algae Ambassador, has conducted research on spirulina since he served as CEO of Earthrise Nutraceuticals in the late 1970s. His work provides a clear path forward for Friendship Bridges. Robert has been building Smart Microfarms along the West Coast for several years, producing spirulina and conducting research on the most productive operational methods and technologies. These systems are smart because they have remote monitors and controllers that can be networked across multiple growing systems.
Robert wrote an excellent 5-part series on algae microfarms for Algae Industry Magazine. Robert manages several free websites dedicated to promoting algae microfarms, spirulina and the future of our global society:
- SmartMicrofarms.com – focuses on how to build and operate microfarms locally and how to network systems for cooperative assistance.
- SpirulinaSource.com – provides exceptional resources including scientific research on the social, economic and nutrition value of spirulina.
- AlgaeCompetition.com – provide visuals and examples of our algae future for food, feeds, medicines and living buildings. The Algae Competition was a global challenge to design visionary algae food and energy systems. The site includes fabulous graphics of algae microfarms as well as attractive algae recipes.
Microfarm field research has benefited from the assistance of engineers and scientists, notably Jean-Paul Jourdan, in developing a method of growing spirulina at the local level, simply and effectively. Simple methods of cultivating spirulina are especially suited to developing countries and to the environments with hot and desert climates. Recent books provide considerable guidance for microfarmers.
Robert Henrikson’s Algae Microfarms: for home, school, community and urban gardens, rooftop, mobile and vertical farms and living buildings provides the value proposition for families, farmers and community algae microfarms. Peace Microfarms: A green Algae Strategy to Prevent War explains how algae microfarms give growers the freedom to produce food, feed and other valuable bioproducts locally. Growers can produce a wide range valuable bioproducts using no or minimal fossil resources. Communities and countries do not have to go to war over precious farm land, water, fuel, fertilizers or other agricultural inputs. Francisco Monteverde, a senior executive at Grupo Carso graciously translated Peace Microfarms into Spanish, which will benefit microfarmers is Spanish-speaking countries.
A Green Friendship Bridge provides a beautiful alternative to a $20 billion border wall. The 8,600 algae microfarms sprinkled throughout Mexico and Central America will become a superb image of U.S. goodwill. The microfarms will enable farmers and families to grow food, feed, biofertilizers and healthy nutritional products on tiny land footprints so they can stay in their communities and not be forced by economics to migrate north.
DHS has responsibility for borders, disaster preparedness and building a resilient nation. The Friendship Bridge project achieves these objectives. Microfarms offer a green algae strategy that provides significant social, health, economic and environmental benefits. When DHS, USDA or another agency funds the Friendship Bridge, they can experience the joy from enabling people to help themselves and their communities, instead of living in the shadow of an ugly American fence.