Center for Genomic Gastronomy
AN ARTIST-LED THINK TANK THAT EXAMINES THE BIOTECHNOLOGIES AND BIODIVERSITY OF HUMAN FOOD SYSTEMS
Most of what we eat is grown on a farm. Many of the fabrics we wear, the materials we build with, and the medicines we consume are grown on farms too. As human civilisation transitions to a circular economy, reducing our reliance on nonrenewable resources, more and more of the objects that we live with will derive from farms. The 21st century is indisputably the biological century, and the farm is where the action is. Farming is messy and imperfect. Organisms and environmental flows do not follow the linear paths we lay down on diagrams, or observe in clean rooms. Changes on farms require field tests. Our future may very well be high-tech, slick and highly designed, but our future will be grown, not built. Farms — not mines or oil wells — will form the foundation of our sustainable civilisation, even if those farms look unusual or unfamiliar.
FARM CYBORGS: A BRIDGE SPECIES?
From Silicon Valley in California to the Silicon Docklands in Ireland, there is a race on amongst engineers and entrepreneurs to embed sensors in every possible organism and environment related to farming. Cows, pigs, trees and grass have all become 'Farm Cyborgs', outfitted and equipped with wearable sensors, and reporting back to the glowing screens of humans. Fields are surveilled from a distance, through drones and satellites in the sky, and sensor networks embedded in the soil. These farm cyborgs are an interesting bridge species. They are born partly out of the desire for control, uniformity and automation that characterised the 20th century, but the data they generate is a reintroduction to the nonlinear dynamics, complex relationships and responsive adaptations that characterised pre-industrial farming. It would be ironic if putting sensors on everything is what allowed us to remember that biology doesn’t work like electrical engineering.
WE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN BIOHACKERS
Farms, crops and livestock do not consist of a standardised set of static parts. Plant breeders and other biohackers are constantly developing new varieties and testing them in the field, where they are exposed to varying conditions. Humans are part of an ongoing process of co-evolution with pests, pathogens, plant microbiomes, soil and more. In FIELD TEST we feature three very different kinds of capsicum in the exhibition, all developed within the last decade. Each has unique traits, and seemingly different eaters in mind. One pepper is small, very sweet and can be eaten raw: a perfect snack for single people who are time poor. Another pepper was bred for its extreme spiciness and perhaps appeals to those who like their food to be a challenge, a competition, or a ritual. And finally we have a pepper which was bred in consultation with restaurant chefs, and fits their culinary requirements of flavour and texture. Plant breeding is increasingly a sphere for articulating a range of human desires through design. As methods for plant breeding become more precise, quick and widespread, will farming be a new arena for fast fashion, with new collections coming out every season? How will this activity conform or upend the intellectual regimes and legal battles around seed ownership that have been constructed over the last century? Perhaps a rising interest in fashionable cultivars will lead more people to preserve traditional 'retro' varieties, keeping our agricultural heritage alive in the Anthropocene — the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
IN VITRO MEAT: HOPE OR HYPE?
To many people, one of the most unconventional forms of future farming is in vitro meat — growing tissue culture in the lab or in a factory. This imagined future farming technique has received much media attention and hype during the last decade, but in FIELD TEST visitors can witness and debate the material reality of the research as it stands. A bioreactor in the exhibition will be growing insect cells in the gallery, a project from an artist who has been growing and serving in vitro meat since 2003. We also have the plastinated leftovers of the first in vitro beef burger — served publicly by a scientist in 2013 — for visitors to examine. Can we imagine a future where the meat being produced by kitchen-top bioreactors is significantly larger than the original organism itself? Is this the organism of plenty that should be celebrated, or a monster to be rejected? What happens when our entire in vitro meat farm gets infected, and needs to be pumped full of antibiotics? One unusual culinary question that in vitro meat raises for us is about the biodiversity of the kitchen. If society embraces a farming future where only muscle, fat and bone cells are grown in vitro will we stop producing and eating organ meats? Does agricultural biodiversity apply to organs as well as organisms?
Our own research at the Center for Genomic Gastronomy has primarily been on farming for food, studying the organisms and environments that are manipulated by human food cultures. Our mission is to map food controversies, prototype alternative culinary futures and imagine a more just, biodiverse and beautiful food system. The artifacts and artworks presented in FIELD TEST map out the controversies around seed saving and intellectual property, compare two key in vitro meat prototypes and present examples of farm cyborgs and future farms that visitors can embrace or resist in the process of articulating their own desires. We feel honoured to have worked with so many scientists, hackers, chefs and farmers who are conducting their own field tests: imaging, contesting and building the human food systems and farms of the future.NEXT ESSAY