Gerhard Höberth

Blog

Ecoparks as an art project

1. The challenges

We are at a major turning point in the history of mankind. This can be seen in the many crises that are currently occurring in large numbers. Financial crisis, raw materials crisis, climate change, extinction of species, pandemic, ... Although it might seem that the individual problem areas have nothing to do with each other, they point to an imminent change. Many consider me an optimist because I believe that we will survive these crises. I, on the other hand, consider myself a realist, because the course has long been set. The only question is how we will cope with the transition. The more voluntarily and the earlier we make the changes, the less suffering this transition will bring.

 

Some historians argue that we are currently in a "general crisis of capitalism" similar to the "general crisis of feudalism": In the 14th century, there was a sudden decline in agricultural productivity and population due to the Black Death. There were also peasant and weaver revolts. All this was once considered an unfortunate coincidence, but it turned out that the dysfunction of the feudal economy had caused these events. It became an obstacle to technical and social progress. The plague was merely the temporal trigger.

Today, we are in a similar situation for several reasons: climate change, species extinction, pollution, financial crisis, ... all these pose major challenges. And on top of that, there is the spread of Covid-19. The pandemic is causally linked to rapid urbanization and deforestation of rainforests. All of this is only seemingly correlated in time. For all these complications are caused by the same underlying problem: past capitalism, which has reached the limit of its ability to increase prosperity. Too much of the market economy excludes social and environmental consequences. But other forms of society have proven equally useless, making it seem to many that there is no alternative.

Massive changes as consequences of these crises cannot be stopped. Even though there are currently many efforts to obstruct the social, economic, organizational and technological changes and to preserve a patriarchal, ethno-chauvinistic and colonial-hierarchical status quo that has long since become untenable. These blockages to change will not prevent the effects of the crises, but only exacerbate them.
It would be better if we innovated as quickly as possible to meet the requirements of sustainability for global prosperity more quickly. But which innovations do we need? What is viable for the future and what is just retroromanticism?
I myself have very specific ideas about what a new future could look like.

 

  • We need a metamorphosis towards a different market economy that can take into account the social and environmental side effects.
  • We need 100% renewable energy and electrification of the entire energy industry as soon as possible. This is the only way to eliminate many conversion and supply losses and increase the efficiency of energy consumption from the current 14% to over 60%.
  • We need a Cradle2Cradle economy, which, like the cycles in nature, knows no waste, but only raw materials that are released.
  • We need an unconditional basic income, preferably worldwide, so that no one has to do work that is harmful to nature or produce meaningless products just because they need money to survive.
However, the crises are being countered by changes that can help us and that most people do not fully grasp. There are disruptions in almost all areas that will leave no stone unturned in society over the next 10-15 years. Starting with massive development thrusts - in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology, automation, Industry 4.0, blockchain, Internet of Things, 3D printing, quantum computing, virtual reality and bioelectrical interfaces - we are drifting toward a technological singularity whose impact on society today is impossible even for experienced utopians to fathom in its details. But one thing seems clear: The changes in the coming decades will be greater than those of the last 300 years combined. We would do well to keep ourselves mentally flexible. Politicians would be advised to do everything they can to increase the resilience of their citizens' social security in order to ease the psychological and thus also the sociopolitical pressure on citizens that comes with this pressure to change. (My suggestion: with an Unconditional Basic Income via a Negative Income Tax). Otherwise, unrest is pre-programmed. Nothing promotes revolutions as much as an uncertain future.

But I will not discuss all that today. Today I want to turn to another area. The problem that we are taking too much space away from nature through our eating habits and are therefore drastically reducing biodiversity. And an idea of how this will change in the future and what tasks are involved for us.
 

2. Problems of feeding humanity.

Feeding humanity in the future appears to be a difficult task. A key challenge here is to keep pace with the growing population, which is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The world population has increased by more than 200% since 1950, from 2.5 billion to 7.6 billion. However, this growth is currently no longer driven by high birth rates, but by longer life expectancy and the world's developing economies. So two quite positive effects that will hopefully continue in the future. But it will put a strain on existing food systems in many parts of the world and bring new challenges for climate change mitigation and adaptation. To feed the world's population in the future, agricultural production will need to increase by 77 percent in developing countries and 24 percent in industrialized nations by 2050. But the usable land for agriculture will not increase unless we clear rainforests. In 1960, the agricultural land per capita for each Earth citizen was 4,300 square meters. Today, we are at 2,100 sq. m. and by 2050 it will have dropped to 1,800 sq. m.
But the real problem is not the number of people at all. It's the way we farm and what we eat.

 

2.1 Meat consumption is the greatest enemy of nature

The global meat industry and intensive agriculture have become the main drivers of environmental degradation. Habitat and biodiversity loss is at an all-time high. The reason is the conversion of natural ecosystems for feed production or pasture.
The main problem is the increasing monoculture, which relies on pesticides. This leads to the destruction of the soil, which in turn leads to an even greater redistribution of natural land. Meat production uses large amounts of fossil energy, fertilizer and water. The victims are birds, mammals, insects and microbial organisms that lose their habitat. Agricultural production of meat is responsible for an average of 30% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. (Average because, depending on the study, the figures vary from 18% to 52%. In any case, it is more than the sector of all transport).

Meanwhile 66% of all animal biomass of this earth are slaughter cattle. Humans account for 30% and only 4% of the fauna biomass is wildlife.

There are 8 billion people on earth. But we kill 60-75 billion farmed animals per year (not including fishing.). This means that large amounts of feed must be grown. It is estimated that 75%-80% of the total agricultural land on earth is used for livestock feed. This is a huge area, larger than the entire continent of Africa! Large amounts of water, fertilizers and pesticides are used for this purpose. To get one calorie of meat, you have to use at least 10-15 calories of plant food if you slaughter the animals as soon as they are full grown. If one slaughters them later, i.e. not already in their "teenage years", then it is correspondingly more. However, the number of calories that can be produced by this method is only 16% of the world's food supply, and that is with 80% of the land! So currently 84% of the calories of human food grow on 20% of the land. Thus, we are feeding 7.2 billion people while 800 million are starving. In summary, this is not only a gigantic cruelty to animals, but also a huge waste of food and a socially irresponsible action.

If the harvests were used immediately for human consumption and did not take the detour via meat, it would be possible to feed 34 billion people with the area used for agriculture today.

People like to counter that slurry is needed as fertilizer for vegetables and cereals, and that many areas where animals graze are not suitable for arable farming at all because nothing grows there. But neither of these is true.

First, the gut of animals is not a magic chamber that adds something to the feed that would not have been there before. Everything that comes out the back of animals as fertilizer previously came in the front as food. It was just transformed by the gut bacteria. A process that in a healthy soil can also be done by the biodiversity of microorganisms. Biovegan agriculture also works without animal excrement as fertilizer.

Second: In Jordan, steppes and semi-desert areas were fenced off on a trial basis so that grazing animals could not eat away the sparse plants. Within a very short time, these fenced-off areas have turned into green oases. So it's not that we have to practice livestock farming in such areas because nothing grows, but that nothing grows because we practice livestock farming there.

 

2.2 Energy crops?

Recently, food production has also been getting competition from the cultivation of energy crops. Oil palms, rapeseed and corn can be used to produce biodiesel and biogas in an apparently almost climate-neutral way. But the large-scale cultivation of bioenergy crops has a massive negative impact on biodiversity. The cultivation of energy crops has a negative ecological balance. Among other things, it leads to the loss of valuable habitats and damages the climate. Palm plantations and rapeseed fields for the production of vegetable oil destroy habitats for animals and plants. The expansion of the cultivation of such energy crops is just as damaging to biodiversity as climate change itself. In Germany, the regional growth of corn fields for biogas production is particularly dramatic. Corn is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops and requires energy-intensively produced artificial fertilizer that is lacking elsewhere.
In the "corn deserts" in the fields, biodiversity suffers.
If the same area were to be equipped with ground-mounted photovoltaics, the energy yield would be 31 times higher. And this does not even include the energy required for the cultivation and fertilization of corn. Each hectare of cultivated land yields about 16 MWh of electricity, requires about 200 kg of nitrogen, and for one kg of nitrogen you need 8 kWh in production. So you have to subtract at least another 2 MWh. Calculated differently: in 2020, the agricultural area for energy crops (corn) in Germany was 2.8 million hectares. The same energy yield could be achieved with 90,000 hectares of open-space photovoltaics (per hectare, such a plant generates about 500 MWh of electricity annually), vegetables could be grown underneath, and 2.7 million hectares could be renaturalized.
The problem is not that we would then have too little energy, because after all the same amount of energy is produced with much less effort. The problem is that we would then have no work for people (in this case, farmers). Energy crops are seen as an alternative source of income for farmers who can no longer make a living from food production. So these are not reasons of efficiency, but of job creation. → Work ruins the world!
If renewable energy plants are owned by large corporations, the division of society into rich and poor will increase. Since it will not be possible to make state interventions in ownership and capital investments on the necessary scale - especially not without undesirable side effects - it will become necessary to avoid capital accumulation and to make the technological wealth of an ecologically sustainable economy generally accessible by means of capital taxes and an unconditional basic income (possibly combined as a negative income tax).

But let's come back to the food question:

 

2.3 The future is vegan

The future is vegan, there is no doubt about that. The number of vegans has increased worldwide in recent years. Some large corporations are switching to environmentally friendly plant-based foods. This is because more and more people are aware of what they are feeding their bodies and how it affects the environment.
Eating meat is one of the most environmentally damaging things we do on a daily basis. The production of meat requires enormous resources and has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The meat production industry is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. It also leads to massive methane emissions, which contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect. More and more people are choosing a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons, but also for environmental reasons. If we want to survive, we have no choice but to switch to a vegan diet.
But there are also more and more vegan alternatives to meat consumption. These alternatives are not only healthier, but also environmentally friendly. From burgers to bacon, everything can be made from soy, wheat gluten or mushrooms. In Chile, a start-up has established itself (NotCo) that uses artificial intelligence to copy animal products almost perfectly on a plant basis. Milk has already been perfected and requires 74% less energy, 92% less water and 74% fewer greenhouse gas emissions to produce than milk from cows.
For those who still don't want to give up meat, invitro meat will be bred in the future. A new facility in the San Francisco Bay Area is already producing lab-grown meat on a large scale, capable of producing an astonishing 200,000 kg per year. The factory covers 5,800 square meters and is operated by a subsidiary of Berkeley-based food technology company Upside Foods. The lab-grown meat industry is just getting started, and new facilities are opening all over the world. The benefits are tangible: Ending our dependence on livestock could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions - while preserving for us the ethical pleasure of a juicy burger, without animal suffering.

 

2.4 Vertical farms

But there are not only alternatives for meat. Technology also offers improvements for vegetables, salts, herbs and roots with less space required, more yield: Vertical Farming! This is a type of farming where crops are grown in vertically stacked layers. These farms require significantly less space than traditional farming and produce higher yields. They can be set up where the food is also consumed. There are other advantages as well:

  • Fewer resources are needed, as no refrigeration and only a short transport route are required. Less food is also lost during transport, which also benefits the environment.
  • Multi-level cultivation allows small areas to serve many people.
  • Because water does not percolate or evaporate in the recirculating system of vertical farming, water use is less than in the field.
  • Because Vertical Farms are not subject to the changing seasons, yields are significantly higher and independent of both season and region.
  • The plants grow in a controlled environment and are independent of climatic conditions or other environmental influences. This is particularly advantageous in view of climate change, as extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.
  • The controlled environment means that there are already good growing conditions, so fewer pesticides are needed.
  • Exotic fruits and vegetables regionally available: Exotic plants can also be grown in the adjustable greenhouses.
  • Computer-controlled environmental conditions can specifically influence the plants and change their flavor ZB through special lighting conditions.
  • By using land more efficiently, fields can be returned to their natural state. This conserves resources.
  • The oxygen produced by plants can enhance the air in urban areas.
  • Compared to field cultivation, vertical farming does not expose workers to pesticides or other health risks often associated with farming.
  • Low personnel costs: Almost all processes are automated.

Vertical farms seem to have one disadvantage. Due to the fact that they work with LED light instead of sunlight, they have a higher energy consumption. But is that really true? We can't keep our global food network running without cheap oil. The dependence on fossil fuels of traditional agriculture is enormous. We put about five times as much energy into running industrial agriculture than we get back in calories from it through our food. Vertical farms can be powered by solar panels mounted on the building itself or immediately adjacent to it in agrovoltaic systems. But organic waste produced can also be used directly to generate electricity in a nearby biogas plant, and the residues are converted and returned to the cycle as fertilizer.

 

2.5 Bioreactors

But that still leaves the big protein suppliers like cereals. Do we still have to grow wheat, barley, rye, potatoes and soy on a large scale?
A company from Finland ("Solar Food") also has an idea for this: hydrogen is produced by electrolysis via solar systems and mixed with air and fed into water tanks in which bacteria - similar to yeast for brewing beer - produce proteins from CO2 and hydrogen. After the fermentation process, the company can skim a slurry from a liquid that gets thicker and thicker, and that slurry is then dried into a powder. The result is "Solein," a protein powder like flour that can serve as a base for pasta, but also as a meat substitute. Solein consists of over 50 percent protein. 20 to 25 percent is carbohydrate. The food also contains 5 to 10 percent fat. The advantage of flour produced in this way is obvious: it requires neither arable land nor irrigation and is not dependent on climatic conditions.

 

2.6 80% of agricultural land becomes free

With lab meat, vertical farms and Solein, we are virtually independent of all external conditions in our food production. Vertical farms use only 1/50 of the land area of vegetable gardens. Bioreactors and meat labs have almost no land consumption.
Does this free up all agricultural land for renaturation? Certainly not. There will continue to be agrovoltaics with vegetable cultivation, biovegan agriculture and permaculture, possibly also in combination with "mercy farms", which will continue to raise livestock to preserve the old breeds of breeding animals, but without slaughterhouses. Just when other disruptions change society in such a way that we can introduce an unconditional basic income, it will free people from the necessity of economic success in their actions and they will be able to turn more strongly to their ethical interests. It is possible that ecological and no longer only economic value creation will then be financially rewarded. But we will also have to cultivate oil plants (rapeseed, soy), fiber plants (hemp, flax) and trees for wood on open land for a while until they too become available through bioreactors.
What we can expect, however, is a freeing up of up to 80% of today's agricultural land. What do we do with it? Should we just let it lie fallow? The problem is that we have inflicted deep wounds on the ecosphere and should nurture it back to health. This is also our responsibility.

 

3. How do we renaturalize the areas that become vacant?

So what should we do with this land, and most importantly, what can we do today in preparation for this time?

 

3.1 Flower strips and tree islands as a wrong way

Since insect mortality has been on everyone's lips, flower strips and flower sowings on traffic islands have become a fashionable trend. Mostly, however, seed mixtures are used that are of little use to native insects. Most flowers come from Asia, Africa or America, look nice, but do not help Central European biodiversity.
But how does it look if you pay attention to native seeds? Unfortunately hardly better. They are rather insect traps than insect promotion. And for a variety of reasons.

  • Flower strips between fields and roads attract insects near the road. Cars, however, are one of the biggest insect killers.
  • Flowering strips are only a few meters wide and therefore never far from the field, which is usually treated with insecticides.
  • Flowering strips must - in order to receive government funding (in Germany: FAKT E 2.1 and E 2.2) - be removed, mulched or incorporated into the soil before the beginning of the next spring. Even if insect-friendly flowering plants were actually sown, this kills the entire animal population living on them. This is because many insects overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae in or on plant stems. Animals are attracted by the flowering strips and the entire offspring is destroyed for the next year. This is not a help, but an additional mass destruction to the pesticides.

Tree islands in fields are only slightly better at preserving biodiversity. They are also too close to industrial agriculture.

 

3.2 Compensation areas

German law: "The polluter is obliged to compensate for unavoidable impairments through nature conservation and landscape management measures (compensatory measures) or to replace them (substitute measures). ..."

Whenever nature is lost in one place as a result of a construction project, this must be compensated for elsewhere. According to the Federal Nature Conservation Act, for every square meter of land that is sealed, compensation must be provided elsewhere. Accordingly, measures must be carried out on compensation and replacement areas that ecologically enhance the areas. However, this is formulated very vaguely, which means that "ecological enhancement" can already be defined if a field is converted into a tree monoculture plantation in order to harvest timber again later. Flowering strips can also be counted as compensatory areas. However, all of this is geared towards the fact that land is becoming less and less and therefore needs to be ecologically preserved. In the future, however, we will have areas left over that have been destroyed and should be renaturalized. Simply leaving them to themselves would be an option, but first, it would take a very long time to build up a functioning ecosystem that has the appropriate biodiversity to help heal nature, and second, it would be an aesthetic step backwards if we were to turn our cultivated landscape into steppes. Hence my proposal for ecoparks.

 

4. Ecological art project: Ecoparks

We should approach the renaturation of these liberated natural areas not only as ecologists, but also as artists. The objective should be to use regional plants, but also plants adapted to the changing climate, to maximize biodiversity, and to appeal to people's aesthetic sensibilities and involve the local population.

 

4.1 Interfaces have the triple biodiversity

Of course, one could simply plant as many trees as possible. This is also done in many reforestation projects. Often, monocultural pole forests are the result. But sometimes also good mixed forests. Depending on the project and the project management. But when you focus on biodiversity, other priorities emerge. Every ecosystem has its inhabitants. The forest, the meadow, the lake, the moor ... But the greatest diversity is contained in the interfaces.
Let's take the forest edge as an example: the area where the forest turns into a meadow is an ecosystem in its own right. The plant and animal inhabitants of the forest live in it, as do the inhabitants of the meadow. But as a third, the forest edge inhabitants also find their home there. Boundary areas have the triple biodiversity. Ecologically attractive forest edges have a stepped, structured structure. There is the forest mantle consisting of edge trees of the forest stand and deadwood, the shrub belt containing young trees as well as shrubs, and the herbaceous margin consisting of grasses, rushes and wildflowers. In total, the forest edge has a width of 15 meters in the best case. 15 meters with extremely high biodiversity.
A healthy, natural forest edge provides an ideal habitat for many animals and plants. The changing environment, including light, temperature and soil, creates a high level of biodiversity in an open environment. Plants that need a lot of light and cannot thrive in the forest tend to grow at the forest edge. Wild bees, ants, heat-loving lizards and snakes thrive in this environment. Forest dwellers are not the only pest hunters that love this place. Many bats also enjoy hunting for insects here. A wide variety of bird species nest and breed at the edge of the forest, while game finds shelter and space to feed undisturbed.
Stepped forest edges also perform an important task by deflecting strong winds upward and allowing some air to pass through. This prevents air masses from piling up, as happens in forests whose edges are linearly and abruptly terminated by man for economic reasons. Because this causes violent turbulence which is the cause of windthrow and breakage.
Similar important tasks with the advantage of high biodiversity are performed by other border areas. Therefore, it is advantageous to increase the number of boundary surfaces.

4.2 Fractal images as bases for plantings of native grasses, shrubs and trees.

Mathematically, the largest interfaces are created by fractals. It would therefore be helpful to create afforestations as such fractals. Besides, such mathematical structures also appear highly aesthetic.

Gravel areas and/or rock piles should also be established in the border areas, which is an important area for lizards and snakes. In the initial phase, such planting can also serve as a recreational area for people. However, further encroachment thereafter should be kept to a minimum so that the new planting has a chance to run wild. After all, initially this is not yet a mature forest. Soil life must first establish itself. In every natural forest, there are fungal networks in the soil that make the ecosystem a holistic organism. This takes time and must first be established. After that, however, it should ideally become a self-sufficient ecosystem for plants and animals.

4.3 Future vision: networking of the islands

Since each reforestation project, which takes the form of fractal planting, is regionally limited, but the areas for renaturation will increase in the future, these areas could grow together in the future. For this purpose, eco-bridges over roads can be envisaged in the long term, as is already being planned for some highways. This is also important for the gene exchange of wild animals and thus also serves biodiversity. If we want to renaturalize 80% of today's agricultural land in the long term, thus ending the 6th mass extinction, then it is important that the ecosphere grows together again.

 

5. The way from the ACTUAL to the TARGET state

I realize that this all sounds very utopian at a time when many believe that we will not have enough land to feed all the people there will be on this planet by the middle of this century. But the technology for a global disruption of the food industry is already being developed today, and some of it is already here. Right now, the costs are still too high to be economically competitive, but that will change within the next 5-10 years, and after that it will happen very quickly. Before 2030, this disruption will have become economically established. Therefore, we should already be thinking about how we are going to deal with this vacated land in an ecologically sound way.
What is the next step to get these changes underway? We need initiatives dedicated to this task. Groups of diverse people need to come together. Farmers and vegetable gardeners, energy engineers and technicians, but also lawyers and politicians. In addition, of course, artists, landscape gardeners and ecologists, nurseries and restaurateurs, and - last but not least - investors.
If a farmer somewhere gives up, this group should be ready to buy the land before it is taken over by large agricultural corporations. The farm should be converted into a vertical farm, bioreactors should be set up and possibly a restaurant should be opened where these products are processed and offered. An information center could be opened to inform visitors about this project. The land should be planted with agrovoltaics and vegetable gardens underneath, so that about as much food can be produced as the farm previously produced in conventional agriculture. The rest of the arable land will then be converted into an eco-park, with parking around the edges, so that visitors to the museum and the restaurant - and possibly the farm store - can walk in the eco-parks while they are still not too overgrown.Lawyers should examine every possibility of using existing laws, such as the provision for compensation areas, to help finance the project, and politicians should set the course in the regional administrations for realization in the individual regions.
I myself am not a landscape gardener, not a biologist, not an ecologist and not a farmer, I am an artist and philosopher. There are probably a lot of misconceptions in this concept, not as far as the future of food is concerned, but as far as the possibilities for implementing ecoparks are concerned. This is also only a first idea, which perhaps serves as a seed that will contribute to a new ecological turn in the future.

Gerhard Höberth, Wasserburg, November 2021