ADVISOR AND CREATOR OF URBAN FARM, AN AGRICULTURAL STARTUP BASED IN DUBLIN
“You'll never plough a field by turning it over in your mind” — an old Irish saying that Dixie, my grandfather, would shout when he'd catch me daydreaming instead of working in his little market garden. As a young boy I would think up ways to improve his methods and, in turn, make my work easier. Some of my early field tests worked, others destroyed his beloved crops — I was a curious kid, what can I say?
Although it's good to plan what you wish to accomplish in your mind, you still have to go out and begin taking the steps toward putting your plan into action. Dixie's garden is long gone, a three storey supermarket car park now occupies the space, but my daydreams are still very much alive and growing.
The fields I dream of ploughing now are high up on the city's rooftops. With the necessary technology becoming readily available, my dreams of an efficient, modern, market garden have become reality. Urban agriculture can be defined as growing fruits, herbs, and vegetables and raising animals in cities — a process that is accompanied by many other complementary activities such as processing and distributing food, collecting and reusing food waste and rainwater, and educating, organising, and employing local residents. Urban agriculture is integrated into individual communities and neighbourhoods, as well as in the ways that cities function and are managed, including municipal policies, plans, and budgets. The urban agriculture practice of growing and distributing food in a town or city has traditionally been soil-based vegetable growing in market gardens and allotments spread out over the city, worked by part-time growers subsidising their incomes by selling their produce locally.
Currently, reasons for practicing urban farming are similar — earning income through food production — but the ever-increasing demand for land sees these precious little patches of soil all but disappearing. In their place, apartment blocks and high rise office buildings are constructed. In turn, these small, intensive farming activities are pushed further away from the cities that consume their produce.
With an increased public consciousness when it comes to food: how it's produced; the associated food miles; and the use of genetically modified seeds, pesticides, fungicides, and petroleum-based fertilisers; both producers and consumers alike are now seeking transparent, local, organic food production models.
According to the United Nations Population Division, by 2050 around 70% of the world's population will be living in urban areas. Feeding these people will mean increasing our food production through a combination of higher crop yields and an expansion of the area under cultivation — but the additional land available for cultivation is unevenly distributed, much of it suitable for growing only a small variety of crops.
It is now that my daydreams are really being put to the plough.
Through the use of controlled-environment aquaponics (the simultaneous farming of fish and the cultivation of plants in a symbiotic environment) housed on rooftops inside climate-controlled greenhouses, we can produce high-value crops at maximum productivity in an efficient and environmentally friendly way. Aquaponics, the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics, works within a closed loop system, where we feed fish that produce ammonia through their waste products, and we use this nitrate cycle of waste as an organic food source for the growing plants — and thus, the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in, creating a balanced organic cycle.
These greenhouses can avail of natural daylight and supplemented by horticultural light-emitting diodes. The atmosphere is controlled for temperature and humidity, as well as automation of the fish nutrients, pH and EC levels of the water. Relay-controlled pumps recirculate the nutrient rich water between fish tanks and grow beds with a 90% reduction in water consumption compared to soil-based operations. Wi-Fi capability allows constant monitoring from a smart device, with alarm parameters set to ensure instant notifications, and all functions are instrumented which simplifies data collection for crop management.
Someday, we will probably be able to plough fields by just simply thinking about it (with a little help from artificial neurotransmitters). For the moment, I'm happy to check on the garden sensors, feed the fish, irrigate the plants and mostly stay at home daydreaming about mushrooms, all with a few texts from my phone.
Dixie would be amused, and to quote him, “The apple will fall when it's ripe.”
That time is now.
HEAD OF PLANT AND & AGRIBIOSCIENCES CENTRE, NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND GALWAY
Read about the project that Charlie is involved with called 3D4AGDEV in the Open Ag Lab section of FIELD TEST.
FIELD TEST ADVISOR AND PROFESSOR IN NATURAL SCIENCES, TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN
SUSTAINABLE FARMING IN THE FUTURE: IS ECOLOGICAL INTENSIFICATION THE SOLUTION?
Technology-driven, modern intensive farming seems pretty far removed from ‘nature’. And yet, unseen ecological processes still drive these systems: soil organisms break down dead material and recycle nutrients to maintain soil structure and fertility; flower-feeding insects transfer pollen between flowers to ensure fertilisation and seed and fruit production; and natural enemies of crop pests lurk in and around fields, keeping potentially damaging pests under control. These ecological processes, which we can think of as ‘services’ provided by nature, are as fundamental to farming now as they were at the dawn of agriculture.
Farmland also delivers more than just marketable products: landscapes which can benefit the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors are created and maintained, and farms contribute to large scale biogeochemical cycles for carbon, water and oxygen. Thus, they provide other services which support and enhance our lives in many ways. Unfortunately, modern agriculture, with high inputs in terms of chemicals and machinery, and the high carbon emissions associated with these, can erode the ability of ecosystems to function and provide these services.
The irony is that modern intensive farming, and its associated high inputs, aim to replicate these ecological services. Artificial fertilisers are applied to soil to provide nutrients, crops that don’t require insects to pollinate the flowers are favoured, and pesticides are used to get rid of crop pests. And although artificial fertilisers and pesticides may have some short-term benefit, they can have unseen longer term effects: degrading the environment and negatively affecting human health, and disrupting the pest-control services that natural enemies provide. Shifting production to wind-pollinated crops further depletes resources for pollinating insects, and just shifts the problem to somewhere else in the world — we still need the vitamins contained in insect-pollinated crops in our diets.
A solution may be found in “ecological intensification”. This means managing agricultural practices to replace artificial inputs with ‘free’ natural services like maintaining soil fertility, pest control and pollination. To be effective, this requires an understanding of how biological communities that provide services (both above and below ground) are influenced by land use at different scales — within farms, between farms and across entire landscapes. We need to understand which organisms deliver these services, and how they behave, their population dynamics, and how they interact in order to maintain the flow and stability of service and to maximise yield. We also need to learn how to manage the multiple services delivered by these organisms, the associated trade-offs, and how much this costs. How much is it going to cost to farm ecologically (in terms of managing to promote service providers, and potential yield loss in the short term) versus how much benefit will there be to the farm (in terms of reducing cost of inputs and machinery, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, future resilience to pest outbreaks and other unpredictable events)?
And how can farms practice ecological intensification? One answer lies in diversity and variety: the more different habitats there are in the landscape, or microhabitats there are on a farm, the more different resources there are and the more species can exist in that place. This diversity might be fostered by growing different crops in a rotation system, maintaining diverse hedgerows, or creating or restoring habitats like woodlands or ponds. If there are more species, there are more chances for beneficial organisms, such as natural enemies, to establish sustainable populations so that they can provide services, like controlling pest populations before they reach economic injury levels. Alternatively, pollinators may be encouraged by planting flowers or allowing wild-plants to flourish and flower in non-cropped areas. These approaches can also have knock-on benefits for farmland birds, wildflowers and other wildlife.
Farms of the future need to work with nature, not against it, and maximise the potential for ecological processes to produce high quality yields. The benefits of this approach can ultimately contribute to healthier lives and ecosystems, and an agri-food industry which can be sustained long into the future.
FACULTY MEMBER AT THE NATIONAL CENTRE FOR BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES, BANGALORE
AN ATOMIC DANCE AT A PLANETARY SCALE
The thing that always shocks me about DNA, when I find those rare moments to contemplate it, is the power of the genome as an algorithm. A sealed bag of flour containing a few beetle eggs can turn into a sealed bag of beetles, given enough time. No matter goes in, no matter comes out. Instead, what happens is a fine-tuned and rapid atomic-scale rearrangement of everything in the bag, taking it from passive dead white powder to a dynamic, living population of organisms. This atomic dance is choreographed by DNA.
Strands of DNA have an equal capacity to transform the planet Earth, the bag of flour in which we all live. Indeed, they already have. The transformation started 3.5 billion years ago when the autocatalytic and self-replicating chemistry of DNA was first invented, and continues unabated. The far-reaching consequences of this process are even visible from space, from hundreds of light-years away: true planetary engineering.
We humans have been engaged in our own attempts at planetary engineering for ten thousand years or more. The invention of farming and the subsequent development of sophisticated agricultural practices led to a boom in the human population, a new system of political economy, and then directly to our modern technical civilisation. In their time, the proto-cells of 3.5 billion years ago and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria of 2.5 billion years ago could lay claim to being the single most influential species on the planet. That dubious honour is now ours, and the Anthropocene is well under way.
So what’s different this time around? Why is this transformation any more or less dangerous, unpredictable, or powerful than those which came before? Is it our ability to plan ahead? Surely the first farmers knew all about planning. Is it the scale of our ambitions? The architects of the Industrial Revolution had enough ambition for all future generations put together. I suggest that there are two differences: first, human-driven climate change is a confirmed scientific fact, whereas it was something we could only have guessed at earlier. The idea of irreversible tipping points in global geochemical cycles is frightening, and renders us temporarily powerless. Second, we now know about DNA, and we have started to understand its algorithmic nature. Along with this understanding, we have gained the remarkable capacity to manipulate DNA.
The transformational power of DNA is juxtaposed with our seeming powerlessness in the face of climate change. These two ingredients, one at the atomic scale and the other at the planetary scale, collide when we consider the future of farming. Where will we live? How will we feed ourselves? FIELD TEST invites us to contemplate these perhaps overwhelming questions, through the work of the scientists and farmers who are creating this future, and through the eyes of the artists who give it meaning.
AUTHOR OF THE BLOG EDIBLE GEOGRAPHY AND NEWYORKER.COM WRITER
FROM SEED DRILLS TO CYBORGS: FORECASTING FARM FUTURES
Jethro Tull — the man, not the British prog rockers — invented a horse-drawn seed drill in 1701. Using his machine, a farmer could, with a single motion, sow their seeds at regular intervals and at the correct depth. Because Jethro's drill planted seeds in a straight line, it opened up the possibility of using a machine to remove weeds between the rows of crops. Jethro went on to invent a mechanical horse-drawn hoe to do just that. Combined, his innovations reduced waste and greatly increased yield: the resulting productivity boost helped fuel Britain’s Agricultural Revolution, and, thus, its subsequent Industrial one. Of course, Jethro’s seed drill — commonly considered the first agricultural machine — also set the stage for many of the most serious problems facing farming today, from monocultures to erosion.
More often than not, thinking about the future of agriculture means thinking about the future of food. How will changes in the contents of our supermarkets and the composition of our dinner plates reshape the landscape around us in five, ten, or even fifty years? FIELD TEST offers a rare opportunity to consider this fundamental relationship from the other, less- considered point of view: how will changes in the science and technology of farming change what we eat — and how we live?
If history is any guide, those changes will be both all-encompassing and rather slow. The dawn of agriculture, for example — an invention that is described with equal frequency as humanity’s best and worst idea — eventually led to the development of mathematics, measurement, property rights, and government, while disrupting the planetary nitrogen cycle, triggering the Sixth Great Extinction, rewriting genomes across hundreds of species, and even weakening human shin bones.
These kinds of massive changes occurred over millennia, but even smaller shifts take generations: it wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1800s, that Jethro Tull’s seed drill finally displaced the ancient method of hand-broadcasting seed. Farmers are not, as a general rule, Luddites: as in any field, there are first adopters and laggards, and new technology often requires time and iteration in order to work at scale and economically. Plants and animals provide their own inertia, by virtue of their lengthy growing cycles — if a newly planted tree only starts to produce apples after five years, ripping out an orchard to introduce new cultivars or make space for robotic harvesters may also have to wait.
Meanwhile, forecasting the future is a notoriously failure-strewn activity; humans are especially bad at imagining transformations that are long, slow, and interconnected, as those prompted by agricultural innovation tend to be. Nonetheless, the seeds of future farms are here now. When Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mechanical reaper machine began the “power farming” era in 1831, it harvested as much grain in a few hours as two or three men could in a day, but it was for the most part seen as noisy, unreliable, and impractical.
Few contemporaries had the foresight to imagine that, over the next 150 years, mechanization would mean that farming would slip from a majority activity to a specialised profession carried out by a tiny percentage of the population.
Today, as embedded sensors, drones, and robot harvesters promise to revolutionise farming once again, can we do any better at predicting the future? If we follow their logic across continents, cultures, and climates, what can the signals gathered here—the kitchen bioreactor, the franchised apple, acoustic pest control—tell us about future ecosystems, epidemics, economic models, and, of course, meals?