Incentivized for Self Destruction

Published on August 27th, 2021

Consider this statement:

The United Nations FAO estimates 33% of the Earth's soils are already degraded, and over 90% could become degraded by 2050.

Given that food is one of the most fundamental survival needs, this should be of significant concern.

Given that we are well into the information age (with almost limitless technology at our disposal), this should be a solvable problem.

Now imagine the technology that will be available in 2030 or 2040. Companies like SpaceX have ambitions to develop god-like capabilities to terraform Mars. Imagine what science can do!

And yet, the predictions from the UN are dire. They suggest that we may triple the amount of degraded soil to 90%. NINETY PERCENT! Now, of course, the UN isn't all-knowing. Things could change by then. But what's puzzling is that with all this technology and industrial farming, why would the prediction point into the negative direction.

It's All About the Incentives

Farmers produce produce. This is typically the only way of covering their costs and eke out a living. As such, they are incentivized to extract as much of the nutrients out of the soil. This is a transactional practice. Sure the Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at a rate of 18 Colorado rivers per year. Sure, soil health is on the decline, and we need to import and heavily fertilize constantly.

Until farmers can figure out ways to get paid for restoring the health of the soil, they can't afford to do it. This is why farmer's in South America were slashing down rain forests in order to grow some crops for a few seasons. Even though the world benefits from keeping the rain forests, their need to survive forced them into optimizing for the short-term to put literal food on the table.

This is why companies like Nori and Regen Network are so important. While most farmers can only sell their crops, these companies are opening up ways for farmers and land stewards to get paid for things like reforestation and regenerated soil practices. Effectively, it's a digital farmer's market. Only instead of corn, they can sell carbon credits.

They have big ambitions and a long road ahead. However, unless we find a way to incentivize the right behavior, all the technology in the world doesn't seem like it will solve the soil crisis ahead of us. At the moment, we are simply extracting too much too quickly. We are incentivized to continue our own destruction of our food supply.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.