Engineering Agriculture to Reverse Anthropogenic Desertification

The Problem with Agriculture

Modern civilization is trapped in a destructive cycle that is slowly rolling over the natural world, and crushing it. Monocultures, intensive use of agrochemicals, and tillage transform living soil into little more than an inert growing medium. As the soil dies, input costs begin to overshadow declining revenues. Consequently, the land is abandoned, and fertile ecosystems are clear-cut to sustain agricultural productivity. Climate change further exacerbates this process, and in arid regions the soil is left in a state where it will not recover naturally for centuries; this phenomenon is commonly referred to as desertification. Approximately 40% of Earth's total land area is currently degraded, and every year we lose approximately 100 million hectares of land to desertification, leaving massive swathes of land depreciated by up to 17X its former value. This creeping destruction of natural environments exposes 38% of the global population to increased risk of food insecurity, drought, natural disasters, and zoonotic diseases; resulting in a negative impact to the global economy of approximately $15 Trillion per year.

It is actually extremely easy to halt and reverse desertification; it all starts with water, and ends with regenerative agriculture practices. A common practice for agriculture in arid regions is to draw on groundwater, but this is a finite resource, and overdrawing can cause the groundwater to salinate. In fact, many agricultural communities in these locations have already turned to reverse osmosis to render salinated groundwater suitable for irrigation. However, this “business as usual” consumptive mindset perpetuates land degradation; overdrawn groundwater will continue to increase in salinity until it becomes as saline as seawater, or even brine.

Water is simultaneously the world’s most precious and most undervalued resource. It is routinely taken for granted, until it runs out, upon which it is worth its weight in gold. Global aquifers are being depleted at rates that are orders of magnitude higher than their rate of replenishment, and major cities are rapidly approaching their “day 0”, when municipal water supplies will run dry. Despite this, agriculture accounts for over 70% of global water consumption, and due to the estimated $700B in global subsidies related to water, farmers rarely pay for the actual value of the water used on their land. With desalination constantly touted as being too expensive for drinking water (never mind agriculture), the field has suffered from chronic underinvestment, setting humanity on a path toward ecological and humanitarian disaster where groundwater and reservoirs are depleted, and we are left with little recourse to supply the needs of communities, industries, and agriculture.

We See the Opportunity to Develop the Technology that will Become the New Normal for Agriculture

At the boundaries of the world’s harshest environments lie thousands of kilometres of coastal degraded land, which are host to vast untapped resources: sun, wind, and sea. This confluence of ample yet affordable land and abundant natural resources represents a huge opportunity: a technology that can revive this land, will not only return it to its original value, but also unlock its latent productivity. By deploying high-impact regenerative agriculture technologies on degraded lands, our company aims to generate economic value and create lasting ecological benefits for these regions. 

Modern industrial agriculture is not only environmentally destructive, but is also narrow-minded. More often than not agriculture is conducted as a monoculture, and agricultural residues leftover after harvest decay into CO2 and methane. Emerging evidence, however,  suggests that agroforestry and silvopasture systems can result in higher productivity and profit than conventional agriculture systems, and that agricultural residues represent an immense untapped value. In fact, the growing carbon capture and sequestration market indicates that, in the face of climate change, the leftover biomass can sometimes be more valuable than the crop itself. There are numerous examples of companies capturing waste biomass, converting it to biochar (a very stable form of carbon), earning credits for stabilising the carbon, and selling the biochar as a soil additive. By acquiring degraded land at a steep discount, and producing agricultural inputs more affordably than competing technologies, a company can tap into successful business models, while undercutting the costs incurred by their competitors; a business opportunity that is hard to ignore.

Our Approach To This Opportunity

We are developing a technology stack from the ground up that accounts for agriculture and ecosystems as interconnected cycles, not isolated linear processes. Through DSV’s rigorous first-principles scoping process, we’ve developed a system of technological and commercial strategies that will allow successful agricultural ventures in coastal arid regions.

  1. Mimic environments where we know life thrives: We have explicit evidence that shows life is most abundant in areas with higher humidity, and where temperatures are optimised for photosynthesis. We also know that it is possible to replicate these conditions cost effectively at large scales.

  2. Minimise the non-value added costs of desalination: The reputation of desalination is often derided as being too expensive and energy-intensive to solve the water crisis. What is not considered in those statements is the cost associated with all desalination being run as industrial reverse osmosis facilities.  These include large-scale engineering, ongoing maintenance, membrane replacement, treatment, pressure vessels, and purchased (not generated) electricity. By targeting the true cost drivers of conventional desalination systems, we can construct smaller, modular, mass-producible devices — effectively, the solar panels of desalination.

  3. Optimise diversified revenue streams: Our technology stack leverages synergies that maximise revenue from multiple products, minimise capital expenditures, and increase reliability to generate high value for both landowners and the Earth; producing fresh water, enabling fruit and vegetable cultivation, and even capturing carbon.

  4. Use every resource available: Through a rigorous ground up, first-principles thinking approach, we've examined every variable in coastal arid regions and state-of-the-art desalination to create an elegant system of technologies that extracts maximum value from abundant natural resources, like sun and wind, recycles outputs, and minimises environmental impact. Arid regions can provide 1 KW of low-grade thermal energy per square metre to evaporate water, evaporating water can cool solar panels to improve efficiency, brine can be used to make water treatment chemicals and purify water. Virtuous cycles make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. 

How You Can Get Involved

We’re currently recruiting a co-founder to work alongside me, Brad S. Roan, P.E., to further refine the concept and launch a company within the next 6 months. If you have experience launching or supporting early stage companies operating in the Climate-Water-Food-Energy nexus, have a strong background in regenerative business development, and are passionate about making the world a better place, we would love to hear from you!