Accelerated returns in food production

August 19, 2012 by Sam Ghandchi

Average daily calorie consumption in countries (credit: Interchange88/Wikimedia Commons)

Ray Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” is a very viable economic theory that can be used to address many of the issues that economists are facing in our times, but unfortunately most university departments of economics pay very little attention to it, whereas the old economic theories are not able to answer issues that global economy has been facing since the inception of computer revolution of the last thirty years (1).

In fact, when the global economy is struggling with issues such as chronic unemployment and the traditional economists are consulted about it, their answers are repeating the same solutions that have failed over and over again, whereas Kurzweil’s theory opens a new way of thinking to fix the economy (2).

It may be a good idea to address specific issues from the angle of the law of accelerated returns and ask economists to respond and start a dialogue on this new futurist approach of Kurzweil to seek solutions for the problems facing humanity in our times. Challenges of food production in the global economy, at the time when some countries in Africa are facing famine year after year, show the need for a new understanding to help us to come up with working solutions.

In the industrial society of the last 300 years, agriculture was the last to be industrialized and much less than the crafts in the cities. Agriculture not only produces food but it also grows crops such as cotton that are used to make clothing. In other words two of the three basic needs of humans have been historically produced by agriculture over the millennia, and this fact did not change much in the industrial society.

Only in the later part of industrialization have we seen synthetic materials used for garment production. And food production mainly remained in the sphere of agriculture until recently.

Limits to growth?

Since space colonization in the last half century has proven to be a lot more distant to achieve than previously thought, the land on Earth is pretty much the limit of what is available to humanity for the foreseeable future and therefore traditional agriculture becomes increasingly problematic.

Maybe improvements in desalination of water and expanding arable land into the deserts can help, but the limitations of useable land are a reality that humanity will be facing more and more despite the efforts at controlling the population. All of this means that we need to rethink the way we produce food.

Basically, food production is made of crop cultivation and animal husbandry. The former is being improved in two ways today. One is by trying to expand arable land or considering multistory buildings for growing crops, also known as vertical farming. The other is by using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Currently, companies like Monsanto are creating genetically modified crops such as drought-resistant corn that are used right now in the drought-hit areas of corn production in the U.S. Not only do GMOs address hazards like drought but they improve the yield of various crops by orders of magnitude.

Animal husbandry is the other component of food production. Not only do cattle contribute to air pollution, but the land they use is becoming less economically feasible to keep and companies in more advanced countries are moving such production to less developed countries.

Intelligent food

An alternative is using tissue engineering to create in vitro meat.

Currently, a tissue-engineered hamburger costs about $300,000 and it may seem formidable and humorous to propose it as an alternative. But this is exactly why we should look at Kurzweil’s law of accelerated returns. Forty years ago it seemed like a dream to think that every individual would have a computer on their desk.

But in 10 years, PC’s were made and nowadays not only in the advanced countries but all over the world one can see computers on every individual’s desk and $99 PC’s are no longer wishful thinking.

Production of meat by tissue engineering can not only bring abundance of meat production in the world, but it can free up land to be used for building homes.

Looking at developments like this may seem incredible when viewed with the glasses of old economic theories but just like the way personal computers and cell phones took over the world in such a short time, the law of accelerated returns can be our guide to see these potential developments for food production in the world.


1. Social Justice and the Computer Revolution
2. How to Fix the Economy?