Published in:
March 2022

What does the future of food entail in a realm of dwindling resources? How might an exhausted terrain project to meet the caloric needs of ten billion people by the year 2050? In order to germinate sketches of speculative agricultural futures, the role of technology in current food systems demands scrutiny of the juxtapositions of a heavily mechanized system. The paradoxical role technology plays serves as both a means to embark upon attempted efficiency while simultaneously invoking waves of ecological devastation. Sections of the world’s land most adept for cultivation are expected to fall prey to drastic climate changes, impacting production and jeopardizing stabilized food sources. With the rise of biotechnology and genetic engineering, the convergence of the natural and the fabricated become an increasingly blurred line. Industrial agriculture perpetuates desecration despite its idealized intent to satiate an ever-expanding population. The challenge of a hyper-populated globe and limited resources renders a quandary that posits itself at the fulcrum of further survival.

The confluence of ecological crises inflicting strain upon contemporary agriculture contributes to global food system challenges from a multitude of angles including emissions, waste, and soil devastation. At the crux of the issue are histories of depletion, extractivist practices that have prompted premature fluctuations and stripped away levels of inherent biodiversity. The predominant form of crop cultivation includes the mass production of a singular crop, a practice that threatens resilience through the erosion of soil and is often heavily reliant on agrochemicals. The dystopia of monoculture prevails over a world inundated by speed and convenience, one which yearns to satiate the mouths of an exponential population.

One-third of the world’s food is currently wasted, a statistic exacerbated by the Covid19 pandemic, while almost 90% of arable land is dedicated to cultivation and over half of the world’s freshwater is outfitted for food production. Why is such an astronomical portion of grown food not consumed? Waste can be perceived as a symptom of privilege; the global south grows exported products to supply the north with year-round fresh food, yet often there are complications in transport that alter the state of the products. An alarming portion of the population goes hungry due to the fact that despite the global south’s possession of fertile land and access to labor, the bulk of technology in both food production and processing are owned by industry giants located in the north, assembling a tyrannical agricultural reign. Economic systems and borders inhibit the free flow of food, resulting in vast expanses of once edible detritus that now mar the surface of the earth. As the incessant pulse of industrial agriculture tirelessly blemishes the face of the earth in a mesmerizing pursuit of commodified crops, the population grows disenchanted by its scars.

The vast majority of crop cultivation dwells under meticulous technological rule, if technology was first imagined as an implement to dominate agriculture, what might be the zenith and what comes after? The inherent collaboration of nature and technology imposes a coalescence, a synergizing of the organic with the man-made, producing initiatives such as lab-grown meat and controlled environment agriculture into increasingly viable methodologies. From robotic milking to driverless tractors, technology has become further enmeshed in natural systems, replacing physical labor while endangering livelihoods and desecrating ecosystems with high-impact machinery.

The food industry is employing innovative strategies to fabricate alternatives to ecologically exhaustive industries such as the meat sector. Nascent initiatives in lab-grown meat, also known as in-vitro meat, are garnering increasing popularity globally, proposing an alternative to the C02 dense cattle industry. Lab cultured meat is a form of cellular agriculture that biologically mirrors meat, in which animal cells are used to produce tissue engineering in bioreactors that control the environment for in-vitro cell management. The current manufacturing process utilizes expensive scaffolding, the apparatuses upon which the cells are grown, often using collagen or gelatin. The first consumer-ready products have already delved into the market, with Singapore vending lab-grown chicken last year sourced from a San Francisco based startup. A few months ago, the country made the product available for home delivery, becoming the first country in the world to publicly consume lab-grown meat.

The world’s largest meat processing company, JBS, had recently set foot in the industry to establish a research facility in biotechnology and cultivated protein, investing over one hundred million and purchasing smaller companies to form a potent conglomerate. The lab-grown meat industry is anticipated to comprise 30% of the global meat market in the next twenty years, making the race to find affordable modes of production ever the more enticing. However, is this truly a feasible endeavor in sustainability, and how accessible will the products be? In the consideration of natural resources, lab-grown meat demands far less than conventional production, severing ties with any form of interaction with land, water, or feed. Yet if the current manufacturing methodologies continue, the meat will solely cater to the global elite, of which whom can afford the costly and supposedly ethical alternative.

Another alternative form of agriculture that is accumulating widespread attention is that of controlled environment production and vertical farming. A divergence from horizontality due to the increasing extinction of space catalyzes the slow inch towards verticality. With the invention of new methodologies to grow food in increasingly cramped cities, scientists have commenced the exploration of perpendicular possibilities. The decline of arable land and increase of soil degradation has sparked a global movement of controlled environment agriculture that is often erected in vertical form, garnering popularity in megacities such as Tokyo and Shanghai. Hydroponics and aeroponics are both modalities of cultivation that omit the implementation of soil through the use of mineral nutrient solutions administered to the roots of plants. If soil is an increasingly rare resource, is sans-soil agriculture the most seemingly fruitful option? Vertical farming enthusiasts tout that the adoption of these systems will permit stretches of land to return to natural landscapes and nurture a period of restoration. Urban indoor farming is believed to render a trajectory that sustainably tends to the global food supply, producing higher yields and reducing transport emissions.

Theoretically, hydroponics and aeroponics posit an efficient alternative to those that are soil-based, however, there lies the question of accessibility and sustainability to said infrastructure. The energy emissions of these systems include the use of high-pressure sodium lamps and accrue exorbitant costs for set-up and maintenance, diminishing their aptitude as an agent for affordable and sustainable alternatives. In addition to these hindrances, controlled environments inhibit the resiliency of plants and their competence to develop a buffer capacity against natural variables. Underexposure to environmental fluctuations, plants develop secondary metabolites that are not essential for basic function yet augment immunity and growth. These metabolites are not only beneficial to plants, they provide a ripe array of elements for human consumption, such as caffeine and flavonoids.

Controlled environment agriculture should not be discarded, however, if it is to become a potent option to ensure a stabilized food supply, solar photovoltaic systems should be implemented to generate renewable sources of power. Certain companies have commenced the investigation of dimmable LED lights that reduce emissions. These ameliorations to preexisting infrastructure along with government subsidization to shift from monoculture to new technologies could offer a form of farming that could sufficiently address future needs.

These modes of production are not limited to terrestrial production, seven years ago NASA inaugurated its Veg-01 program which grows edible crops such as lettuces in orbit, often employing vertical structures. These controlled environment produced crops lend insight to the manner in which various wavelengths affect the growth of plants, serving as a research platform that expounds upon how to cultivate edible matter in extreme conditions. These conditions are not currently present, however potentially imminent. Are current agricultural endeavors mirroring some of the speculative systems and apparatuses conjured in early science-fiction? The 1952 book The Space Merchants alludes to both controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming, depicting a scintillating tower-like structure that propagated chlorella, presenting an uncanny similarity to versions of contemporary vertical gardens.

In the wake of unprecedented tides, does the future involve a metaphorical terraforming of earth in pursuit of ecological restoration? Practices such as controlled environment agriculture and lab-grown meat intend to sculpt a path for maximized habitability that considers both efficiency and sustainability, yet both need to become accessible beyond the domains of the upper echelon. Does the future narrative of food lean further into the quixotic embrace of biotechnology, or is there a way to salvage the knowledge innate to natural systems? A glimmer on the horizon beckons a return to organic systems and small-scale farming, however, as resources become increasingly limited, the feasibility of such practices on a global scale is challenged. Perhaps the answer lies in technology, but in order to fully kneel to it, the precarity of trust in technological monopolization must be rectified. These burgeoning systems require further research and accessibility in order to ensure a stabilized food source for the future. Returning the status of technology to that of a tool for humanity rather than a dystopic and omnipresent regime over agriculture is an imperative pursuit.