A recent Lucky Peach article discusses an innovative new “food computer” that has been designed by a group at MIT. Talk about space age: the thing produces food without soil. It’s not even an aquaponic design, in which a symbiotic system provides water in which to raise fish whose waste in turn feeds plants. Instead, a computer sprays blasts of nutrient-filled air onto the plants, which then supposedly grow faster/bigger/better than anything that unimaginative old Mother Nature could ever dream of producing.
If I sound skeptical, it’s because when snazzy new technologies come along, not only do I wonder about the potential unintended consequences (remember the Green Revolution, anyone?), even with such a noble open-source gadget like this one promises to be, but I also can’t help but think about what could be lost. You may call me a Luddite, but I think that stewardship of the land is vitally important to society and civilization and all of those big picture humanity concepts.
Don’t get me wrong; I think technology can help make agriculture exponentially more efficient, be it with harvesting or storage, transportation or distribution. And ending hunger is clearly as vitally important a cause as I can think of. But something gets lost when food is just view as a commodity. I was reminded of this firsthand last week while I was fortunate enough to be on the west coast and had the chance to visit the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, aka ground zero of the organic food movement.
Not to get all romantic with farming, because I know firsthand how strenuous and taxing it is, but I do believe that agriculture is best understood in context. That is to say, when it is part of a thriving ecosystem.
There’s something restorative about a carefully maintained garden or farm.
This is just a hunch, but I suspect you can’t get quite the same sense of peace from a food lab.
And there’s something so satisfying about the interplay of the different jigsaw puzzle pieces of a farm. Your chickens will eat veggie scraps and then add nitrogen back into the soil; your cover crops will get plowed back in to provide nutrients to the next set of plants. You’ll test out unique plant varietals and then experiment in the kitchen to find out what flavors complement each other. You’ll prepare those foods for others and potluck at the barn. You’ll watch the way light lengthens and softens and settles out over the fields.
Farming also keeps land in agricultural use. Farmland isn’t developed, covered-in-concrete land. Farmland can have wildlife habitats and the ability for rainwater to naturally permeate into the soil.
Perhaps this is all a moot point, because in places where the land is so battered and abused and hunger is rampant (see: current drought in Ethiopia) it simply may not matter how food is produced or even where it comes from. All that matters is getting nutrients to the people who desperately need it. I suppose there’s a time and place for each method of food production.
But I challenge you to tell me that a food computer could be more life-affirming than this.