Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is the future of agriculture?

This week I came upon two very different articles online regarding where our food comes from. They both focus on how technology has impacted the way we farm, but come to different conclusions about the benefits of current farming technology. I think they raise some interesting questions about what role technology should play in food production in the future.

The first article, on, discusses an art project conducted by photographer David Liittschwager, wherein he photographed all the species that pass through a cubic foot of area in different locations around the world. The result is a unique way of visualizing an area's biodiversity. Locations such as a public park in South Africa and a tree in Costa Rica contained more than a hundred different species of plants, insects, and animals. He also examined a typical Iowa cornfield - part of a huge system of industrial monoculture that provides much of our country's food supply. How many species did he find there? Eight. Including the corn. Over two nights and three days of observation, he didn't even find a single bee.

This total lack of biodiversity strongly contrasts the previous state of the Iowa prairie landscape, where a century ago hundreds of species coexisted in a complex system. Liittschwager's work raises questions about the benefit of our industrial agricultural system. What are we losing when we eliminate almost all species in a natural ecosystem? To what extent does the health of the soil and the crops depend on the complex network of interrelationships that we have destroyed without fully understanding? Industrial agriculture on this scale requires energy input in the form of fertilizer produced by burning fossil fuels. How long can we sustain these practices before we run out of materials or permanently alter our atmosphere and climate?

Another perspective on technology and farming comes from, where you can find photographs by Freya Najade of another technology-dependent method of food production: self-contained robotic farms. These facilities can produce food, without soil or sunlight, separate from any natural ecosystem. They are touted as possible models for production of food on the moon or in space, and similar systems have been developed to grow food in urban spaces previously considered unusable for food production. These systems, like the industrial corn farm mentioned earlier, feature a stark lack of biodiversity, but instead of destroying an existing ecosystem to create these farms, unfarmable areas have instead been transformed into a place where food is produced. Using computer-controlled systems, food can be grown locally, closer to consumers, and with less effort by humans, increasing efficiency. However, we don't fully understand the consequences of using these systems, which exist completely outside the natural environment or season, and which require the input of energy in the form of electricity and heat to function.

So, where do we go from here? What will be the role of technology in the future of food production? We have already used technology to enormously increase the efficiency of food production, with mixed results. The US spends, per capita, the least on food and the most on health care compared to almost any other industrialized nation. Industrial agriculture is changing our climate and eliminating biodiversity in our environment. Currently, the way we produce food is efficient but destroys our health and local ecosystems. Some proponents of systems such as biodynamic agriculture say that going back to a method of farming where we avoid monoculture and grow a diversity of plants on smaller farms that also include uncultivated natural spaces is the way forward. Could we also use more advanced technology to grow food outside of natural systems, farming previously unfarmable areas with the help of computers and other advanced technology. Can technology allow us to farm more efficiently, with fewer people, and closer to the consumers of food? I suspect that both of these approaches will be tested in the no-so-distant future, as we try to address the complicated problems with our current systems of food production. It may be that the best solution is a synthesis of old wisdom about how to care for plants and the soil and new knowledge of how to manipulate energy, information, and plant biology.

(Image: hydroponic farm 035, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from missdrummajorette's photostream)

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