Introduction to Exponential Thinking – Part 1.2

Aquaponics and the Exponential Food Industry

Now that we’ve gone through some of the basics of exponential growth vs. linear growth, the S-Curve, and the deceptive growth phase, let’s get into the good stuff.  Why am I so convinced we are poised for explosive growth in food production?

Let’s look at the data!  An analysis of the long-term trends of human food production gives us a fascinating insight into the history of our entire species and our oldest ancestors.  This analysis also yields remarkable comparisons to the exponential growth curves we’ve just gone over.

I have crudely split the nuanced history of human agriculture into 5 monumental epochs that each redefined our relationship with food and expanded our ability to provide for ourselves.  The story of these epochs is the story of a race of very smart apes having a go at it here on this big scary planet.  It is OUR story.


Food 0 – Hunting and Gathering 10,000BC and Older (100,000+ years)

 food 0.0In the early days of our species, we were hunters and gatherers, foraging for eggs, seeds, and berries and hunting for wild meat.  This was the least food secure state humanity has ever faced.  The hundreds of thousands of years of this state made a lasting effect on every facet of what it means to be human.  Our very DNA is encoded the way it is because of our unknown ancient ancestors.  This period lasted so long because with such food insecurity, the human race had a difficult time accumulating knowledge, expanding existing settlements, and other long-term activities typically associated with civilizations.  This is the looooong beginning of the exponential curve of human progress in the food industry.  At this point, we were progressing slower and then as fast as the x=1x progression curve, as in, each new generation knew just about the same amount of stuff as the generation before it.


Food 1.0 – Original Agriculture 15,000BC – 1700AD (13300 years)

food 1.0The earliest advances beyond this limbo came in the form of agroforestry, or selectively culling a forest environment to remove dangerous plants and promote food-yielding plants.  Each family would tend their own garden and slowly cultivate the most favorable plants to their families survival.  Then between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, there was the transition to what is known as the Neolithic period. Humans began to domesticate animals (animal husbandry began with dogs, sheep, and pigs, i.e. Old MacDonald could have been around as early as 9000 BC), cultivate cereal crops like grains, and populations began to swell.  Thus began the original transition from Food 0.0 to Food 1.0 and so began the long steady climb to the next transition point.  We are still in the long deceptive growth phase but have begun to progress faster than the x=1x progression curve.


Food 2.0 – Industrial Agriculture 1700AD – 1900AD (200 years)

food 2.0For all human history, farming was a team effort between humanity and the animals we’d domesticated.  And this is the sort of teams like George Milton and Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men… and we were Lennie.

Then all of a sudden, it was the Industrial Revolution.  Humanity seemed to collectively decide to start inventing a ton of really cool stuff all at the same time.  

This is really an example of the effect of the exponential returns on forwarding progress.  The further we advance, the easier it becomes to advance even farther.  This is called recursive growth, and it is one of the secret underlying reasons why we are living in such an amazing time.  We’re living on top of countless generations of recursive growth.

Industrial revolution inventions helped farmers collect seeds, plant seeds, and harvest quicker and easier than ever before.  Infrastructure was created to support transportation of food to far off places, which created nationwide markets.  

This new technology, in conjunction with the massive advances from bringing crops from the “New World” to the “Old World”, created the first global food revolution.  Did you know potatoes are originally from the Americas, NOT Ireland?

We continued honing skills like transcontinental food shipping for the next few hundred years.  Some of these innovations are growing more popular even today.  If you like India Pale Ales, then this is for you: we got the super hoppy IPA style of beer because hops helped British beer stay fresher on the long journey to India!


Food 3.0 – Chemical & Assembly-Line Agriculture 1900AD – ~1990 (~90 years)

food 3.0We really just transitioned towards Food 3.0, as recently as the early 1900s.  Chemical innovations like the Haber Process allowed cheap ammonia to be produced industrially, effectively creating the agricultural chemical industry.  The Haber Process created a ton of cheap ammonia, which was converted to nitrogen fertilizer via the natural nitrification process.  This is not unlike our aquaponics systems converting ammonia from fish waste into nitrates for the plants with the aid of beneficial bacteria.  This huge glut of nitrogen fertilizer appeared to drastically increase production in the field.  Today, we know that chemical fertilizers have quite a few unintended side effects that call into question their long-term viability.

It was around this time that relatively modern methods of commercial fishing using steam and gas powered ships drastically increased fish harvests.  These bigger harvests seemed great…for awhile.  As we know today, we actually ended up overfishing many natural fish stocks.  This was first famously apparent by the hunting and subsequent disappearance of whales.  To this day, whaling is banned by most countries.

We fully transitioned into the Food 3.0 epoch roughly halfway through the 20th century, hot off the tails of innovators like Henry Ford, who popularized the assembly line with his revolutionary River Rouge factory building the famous Model T.  Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) started to pop up in the 50s for chicken, 70s for beef, and 80s for pork.  CAFOs take the assembly line model and apply it to animal husbandry.  In some of these cases, production increased faster than the vanilla exponential curve.  “In 1966, it took one million farms to house 57 million pigs; by the year 2001, it only took 80,000 farms to house the same number of pigs.”  Likewise, as fish harvests dwindled, contained aquaculture really started to take off in the late 1980s.  The same goes for hydroponics, although its roots date back all the way to 1627 with Sir Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum.  


Food 4.0 – Sustainable Agriculture 1990AD – Present (~25 years)

food 4.0Now, merely 25 years later, we are entering the Food 4.0 revolution.  As old ways of thinking subside in favor of the ideals of biomimicry, value preservation, and natural capitalism, we are seeing a dramatic shift towards food systems that yield high value at a fraction of the cost of old technologies and in a fraction of the space, all without negatively impacting the natural environment.  This revolution is truly an opportunity for us all.  Aquaponics, smart farms, distributed farming, these are the technologies empowering a new wave of entrepreneurs to create the self-sufficient cities of tomorrow.  We are right on the cusp of the next evolution of humanity.  What are you doing to take part in it?


So How Does this Line Up with Our Exponential Curve?

Let’s plot these massive transformations in the food industry onto our exponential curve.  These are rough plots, but I think they illustrate the idea very clearly.

exponential thinking on growth of food technology


A Most Exciting Time to Be Alive

So now you’re probably thinking, “OK, cool charts Spencer… but what does that all mean?  How does it affect me and my loved ones?”  Imagine what the exponential growth of food production will look like in our daily life within the next decade.

With simultaneous improvements in smart agriculture technology, online education, and aquaponics system hardware/design, many homes, apartment buildings, schools, and other structures have aquaponics systems running passively.  Every one of these homes is earning passive income from food production similar to a house with solar panels selling energy back to the grid.  Any food you don’t consume yourself can be sold at your local market.

In order to facilitate this, entirely new categories of jobs are created, such as the local harvester who maintains production in the many aquaponics systems throughout the area.  Think of it like the Uber of food, locals driving around to pick up excess production from dozens or hundreds of local farms, distributed throughout the community.  This massive, diverse harvest is aggregated (more new jobs) and sold directly to the community through a truly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  Large quantities of high-quality, fresh, local food will become much more affordable, driving out unhealthy and unsustainable options we are currently used to.

With local production booming, we will be far less reliant on generic food that has been genetically optimized for shipping.  No more mushy red water balloons we unwittingly call tomatoes.  Unique local food specialization will create a new age of heirloom varieties.  

This creates the rise of a whole new industry: food vacations.  You’ll now have the ability to go on a world tomato tour and taste the subtle, nuanced differences between a North Hampton tomato in a fresh salad, a Brazilian tomato alongside a juicy grass-fed steak, and a rich tomato sauce from Italy.

By this point, distributed farms and dematerialized distribution systems (like how Uber dematerialized the Taxi industry) will have explosively increased global food production, making hunger a non-issue.  With hunger a relic of the past, all humans are able to climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs towards self-fulfillment.  This will accelerate innovation even further as billions of once hungry humans are now able to contribute their own innovations to the global economy, rather than worry about their next meal.


This is truly a fascinating time to be a human and we are on the precipice of a truly advanced world. Next week we’ll take alook at how we all can partake in this new paradigm in our food industry and take advantage of the trends we are beginning to see. .

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