We are destined to divorce earth’s biosphere. With that I don’t mean that we will leave earth, but that we will radically minimize our footprint on it. And we can only do this by taking food-production, our main and most problematic interface with earth’s biosphere, completely indoors – thus making it part of our ever-expanding technosphere. I’m aware this doesn’t sound very Romantic. But if we want to feed approximately 11.18 billion people by 2100, stop climate change, stop soil degradation, stop pollution, and stop the alarming decrease in biodiversity we have no other choice. We have to separate food-production from the earth’s soils and waters so we can restore their natural ecosystems and maximize food production at the same time. Taking food production from the biosphere into the technosphere will not only save humanity and heal the natural world, it will also make the technosphere more biological and thus, on the long term, compatible again with the rest of life on earth.
Let me explain.
Since the first evidence of advanced human technology there has always been an attempt to replace or modify nature with artificiality. This process has lead us to the technosphere, the technological realm most of us life in today. Our sprawling cities have become technological bubbles where our connection with nature is minimal. Everything inside cities is imagined, invented, designed, produced, moved, tolerated and owned by people. Cities are places where we breathe air-conditioned air and where our hands and never touch soil. The problem is that the earth is a finite planet and that humanity, and its sprawling technosphere, have outgrown its biological support systems. We have already entered what scientist call the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch ‘dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems’.
The growth of the technosphere will not stop anytime soon. There are over 7 billion people on this planet. This too, includes a current population growing at a rate of around 1.12% for 2017. This is an average increase of an estimated 83 million people per year, mainly coming for current developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In a survey published this year, Revision of UN Population Projections, states that world population will be 11.18 billion in 2100. All these people will probably want to have access to food, shelter, transport, work, leisure and the Internet. All these things will become problematic to provide. But providing 11.18 billion people with the same kind of abundance most of us experience today will completely gut earth’s ecosystems. That is to say; if we don’t change the way we produce and consume.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO), food production needs to rise about 70% at least by 2050 to feed the predicted 9.6 billion people then. Today’s horizontal industrial farming practices are not able to meet these growing consumption needs and there is no more available land to expand agricultural production. Much of the land that can be worked is already being cultivated. Moreover modern industrial agriculture is not sustainable at all. It emphasizes a horizontal monoculture of a particular species in order to allow the economy-of-scale of a single automated industrial harvesting method. Basically it prioritizes short-term objectives, like maximum yield and profit, over long term objectives that make sure future generations will also enjoy a healthy and providing planetary biosphere. Not only can current agricultural practices not capture our near future consumption needs, it’s also destroying the planetary biosphere and as a result undermining the long-term changes of feeding even more people.
To meet the consumption demands of the 21st-century, there is an urgent need for an industry-disruptor in the agriculture sector. As the world’s population continues to grow and becomes increasingly urban and digital, how can industrial age farming techniques continue to supply for our future needs? And at the same time make sure the shrinking of biodiversity and climate change is reversed? In order to solve the coming future crisis, humanity needs to enter the era of post-soil food production where farming practices are fully decoupled from the earth’s biosphere - the natural world. Thus making food more technological and less dependent on soil capacity, less disruptive for biodiversity, less pollutant and less of an impact on global warming.
So what does it mean to go post-soil?
Literary it means producing food without using soil in a technologically controlled environment, taking agriculture indoors. In abstraction it means solving how to feed the growing world population by rethinking our current food production network and saving the planet while doing so. In practice it means investing in emerging technological developments and agricultural practices like cultured meat, sustainable energy, eco-taxation, electrification, green house farming, vertical farming and land restoration and bringing these developments together. The direct results of the shift from industrial agriculture to post-soil agriculture will be:
- Farming practices that will take place in controlled technological environments where there will be no need for pesticides and herbicides and where resources can be regulated and recycled and where yields will multiply.
- Farming practices will become part of the urban fabric, which will reduce transport costs and energy usage and will reacquaint urban culture with food production.
- The restoration of former farmland to natural ecosystems will revitalize the soil, store carbon, and will become new habitats for biodiversity.
The biggest sustainability issue of current industrial agriculture practices is the production of meat. About 30% of the world’s total ice-free land surface and fresh water supply is used to support chickens, pigs, and cattle. This includes land for the livestock and to raise the feed for them. Meat production is also a big polluter. Over-fertilization pollutes the soil and toxic runoff pollutes water and air. Moreover, meat production is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, that produce climate-change. Basically there is no other single human activity that has a bigger impact on the planet than the raising of livestock.
This doesn’t have to be this way. The obvious solution is to limit the consumption of meat. But because this will be culturally difficult, science and tech has found another way to solve the problems. The goal is to take away animals from meat production. Companies like Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, and Impossible Foods wants to introduce lab-grown, in vitro, cultured meats, as the future of meat consumption. Cultured meats take the techniques used in regenerative medicine to utilize tissue engineering to grow meat. Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University introduced the idea in 2013 as a means to advocate for clean meat; the alternative to industrial livestock production. The method allows for stem cells provided by animals to be grown into muscle tissue that can be used to produce as a burger. The only difference is that the in vitro burger has almost no fat, which makes it less tasty. But, according to Mark Post, this will be solved soon. The ecological promise of in vitro meat is breathtaking. Technological meat that can economically compete with biological meat can produce a watershed moment in the manner and scope we interfere in the earth biosphere.
That leaves us with the production of eatable crops. Enter the vertical farm, an evolution of the good old green house but then without the glass. Think skyscraper or industrial warehouse meets farming. It’s farming but planting, watering and growing upwards. Vertical farms will potentially be the urban farms, the neighborhood grocery stores and the local restaurants of the future, while also providing educational experiences. Vertical farming, also known as the Third Green Revolution, typically utilizes techniques in aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponic to grow crops in a completely climate-controlled, pest-free atmosphere. Farms like AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey, and the world’s biggest operation, Green Sense in Northern Indiana, uses a complex robotic network and tracking system for their plants, which controls ultraviolet lighting conditions, watering times, and harvesting.
The potential of vertical farming implies nothing less than the complete removal of the mankind from the biosphere. When we can grow our produce indoors we can start repairing damaged rural ecosystems. And because indoor farming is pesticide-free there will no longer be agricultural pollution of soil, water and air. There will be year-round crop production, yields will skyrocket and no crops will be lost due to weather-related events.
Vertical farms also have the potential to restructure how the world’s food supply is produced and distributed; as typically they are focused either in or right outside the urban space. One study suggested non-local, food distribution systems of globalized horizontal farming used 4 to 17 times more fuel and emitted 5 to 17 times more CO2 than the local and regional transportation of food. Vertical farming takes out the middlemen in the supply-chain. These farms can form a direct connection between producer and consumer on a commercial scale. Therefore, imagine a future where you can walk from your earthship home to your neighborhood vertical farm/grocery store and buy fresh tasty pesticide-free and nutrient dense foods, readily and easily. The building itself displays growing green walls, and a lush rooftop garden. From there, you walk into the scene of stacks and stacks of food that you can pick from moveable walls or allow the robots to pick it for you.
Now, the technology and process behind these farms are not without critique. Professor Dickson Despommier, the conceptualist of vertical farms, is also one of the biggest critics of this new trend. In his lecture on Big Think, he discusses the enormous energy that is needed for these farms. Much of the existing vertical farmers are also solely focused on growing leafy greens and herbs, as energy costs rise in relationship to a plants weight and space needed for its root system. Vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, and grains, require more energy and space to produce, and thus make for an unreasonable price to sell. Despommier introduces several questions that vertical farmers need to solve to make the whole industry more effective. Such as, how can natural sunlight be introduced to indoor farming to reduce electricity costs? How can water be supplied and recycled efficiently for vertical farming? How much space is needed for these farms in order to supply the surrounding population’s consumption needs? How can large-scale produce such as fruit-trees be grown inside? How do you address the extra CO2 discharge from power plants, which vertical farms will produce? These are legitimate problems but eventually they will be solved. While it’s only in its early stages of understanding and development, lab-grown meat and vertical farms will alter the urban landscape of our cities.
While urban agriculture has yet to be proven to provide food for whole cities, one aspect of these trends is that they can teach us to reconnect to food and the culture of farming. Vertical farming is bound to transform the cultural fabric of the agriculture industry to one that celebrates innovation, sustainability, ethics, and efficiency. On this trend, I typically go with Despommier, who believes the vertical farms of tomorrow will, “save water, save land, and save lives”.
Vertical farms and cultured meat will lead to huge amounts of land reclamation and restoring degraded ecosystems. Where there was once highly contaminated, pesticide-polluted land, there will be major reforestation projects aimed at reintroducing former native species. On land reclamation and restoration, biologist E.O Wilson frames the morality of the post-soil future best:
Here is the means to end the great extinction spasm. The next century will, I believe, be the era of restoration in ecology […] biological diversity has an intrinsic value that humans have a responsibility towards other living things and an obligation to future generations.
Considering the ethical question of moving our food production into the technosphere; most will probably comment that this would lead us more into the technosphere and continue a further separation of our ways from the biosphere. It’s a legitimate point if one considers human wellbeing. If one considers the wellbeing of the biosphere, and all life in it, our lack of presence is probably a good thing. Our interaction in the biosphere has only been disruptive and destructive. The only way to heal the biosphere is removing most human activity from it. What is needed now is a full system separation of our food-production from the biosphere to avoid further damages of the earth, protect other inhabitants, and at the same time maintain our species survival. Furthermore, one can argue that by making food production fully technological, one will eventually make the technosphere more organic – making technology in the long term perhaps more compatible with life itself.
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