Geosocial Speciesism: The End of Climate Politics

Ice melts, colors run. Photo by JB Hardy.

(Some thoughts on a recent research article, ‘The Politics of Climate Change Is More Than the Politics of Capitalism’ by Dipesh Chakrabarty, published 02/2017 here)

Humans are both in and of the Earth—just try telling us that.

In a research opinion piece, Dipesh Chakrabarty of University of Chicago dissects our seemingly opposing approaches to the spectre of climate change: a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to stem the rising tides while clinging to the framework of the capitalist paradigm, or an acknowledgement that our agency as humans at the top of the food chain is inextricably linked to the function and demise of all life (and non-life) on the planet.

Through the discussion of a host of recent climate literature, including many critical views of his own earlier writing, he argues that these two perspectives are both layovers along the same continuum that defines the evolution of the Anthropocene. All humans—past and present, poor and rich, developed and developing—contribute to the epoch in their own ways, on their own scales.

While we ultimately may be able only to diagnose but not solve the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change, it is useful to remember that survival of just the rich and capable is still, in some respect, survival of the species. Is it worth the risk?

On the ‘Sovereignty of Planet Earth:’ Bookending the Industrial Revolution with Tales of Life and Living.

Left, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. Right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Left, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures. Right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Two of last year’s most popular films, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, both serve as allegories for humans’ perceived place in Earth’s ecosystem today. Each tells their respective cautionary tales of survival, bookending the peak of the industrial revolution and the logical end of its aftermath. Here we examine the films together in the context of each other, and how our ideas of the past and future reveal where we are now.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant pulls us into a tall tale of history, brimming with frosty mist and crackling firelight, depicting the harsh and sublime realities of nature through a plot driven by the human condition exposed to the elements. Protagonist Hugh Glass is repeatedly thrust into tests of will throughout the entire two and a half hour film. The action is relentless: competing fur trappers, warring native tribes, bears, white water rapids, an avalanche, and a blizzard, against a continuous backdrop of freezing temperatures and minimal food. Through everything, nature itself is the most volatile and persistent threat, repeatedly underscoring our own frailty and isolation in this world.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller flings us into a dystopian future where constrained resources have eroded society into a post-oil, post-television alt-future running on resource scarcity, in an environment with surprising parallels to the pre-oil, pre-television milieu of The Revenant. It’s implied that intervening centuries of mismanagement and aggression led to the dire state we find in the film, creating space for only more oppression, resource-hoarding, and violence. It’s easy to wonder which came first, and whether the loop is as inevitable as the water cycle itself.

Set in the early nineteenth century, The Revenant brings us back to the fur-trapping route across the midwestern US and Canada. Iñárritu draws on motifs of family, loyalty, and friendship in a world that may otherwise appear completely desolate; the mesmerizing cinematography and sound editing are the driving force behind the film’s central theme of survival. Landscape plays a critical role in the film, perhaps even more important than Glass himself. Each location was chosen for its pristine and virgin condition, flawless in the sense that human interaction and development inherently alters (for the worse?) the ‘natural’ trajectory of the planet.

In immediate contrast with Glass’s experience, today we have come to enjoy our ability to mitigate (and to an extent control) the more extreme aspects of nature. First with heating systems, followed by portable air conditioning units, central air and now Nest—‘the learning thermostat’—we live in temperature settings prescribed by our everyday behavior, marking the natural world as a more romantic and exotic experience that exists beyond our daily lives. Glass’s nemesis John Fitzgerald hints at the dawn of this transition in one of The Revenant’s final scenes, mocking Captain Andrew Henry, “Didn’t figure an important man like yourself to be away from your stove on a night as cold as this, Captain. You lost?”

Fast forward through our comfortable and climate-controlled present to a future in Fury Road. A series of wars that may or may not have been nuclear but definitely involved oil and water transpired sometime during living memory, devastating civilization and bringing with them a vernacular of radiation sickness (tumor-riddled War Boy Nux is nearing the end of his “half life” and needs a nourishing transfusion from his captive “blood bag,” Max); a scrappy, scavenger mentality (those beautiful cars!), and a messianic fervor (“I live, I die, I live again”) as only the post-apocalypse can. Obviously the idea of coming back from the dead also pervades The Revenant; in his pursuit of Fitzgerald, Glass proclaims that he is unafraid to die, because he has died already, presumably along with the totems of his chosen life, his Pawnee wife and son. He tells his son (and is again told by his wife’s apparition), “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.” He is living to live, for the sake of being alive, like the elk, the buffalo, the bear. It is survival. He is aware that his nemesis, Fitzgerald, has everything to lose, even though Fitzgerald lamented at the loss of his pelts, “Life? What life are you talkin’ about? I ain’t got no life! I just got a living and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!” Fitzgerald’s is a different kind of survival, one dictated by commerce, and work, and supply and demand. It is a living, and yet he feels he has no life. Glass and his foil are stand-ins for how the Industrial Revolution churned humanity away from animal-like survival, inventing a “living” as replacement for “life;” livelihoods moved away from the family unit, workers moved into the great (climate-controlled) indoors, and greenhouse gases began their rapid release into the sky. Yet the social, political, and climatic consequences of the IR, intended or not, seem by Max’s time to have boomeranged us back to yearning for a more basic existence, one rooted in family (blood or chosen), and the investment of human capital (mother’s milk and “hi-octane” blood, both byproducts of human existence, are active sources of sustenance). In Fury Road, Nux’s persistent quest for a meaningful death (“I live, I die, I live again”) transforms his first half-life living as a grunt War Boy into a second life-half for the survival of his chosen family: Furiosa, Max, the Brides, and by extension, everyone at The Citadel. The narrative has revolved full-circle, but what got lost in the process?

Beyond the narratives, both films were technical feats, becoming two of only five films ever to be nominated for all seven of the Academy Award technical categories (Fury Road walked away with five of the seven, losing out to The Revenant only in Cinematography and the non-technical category of Directing.). In order to create The Revenant’s spectacular visuals, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski only shot with natural light. But, it does seem dissonant to continuously tout the importance and difficulty of shooting with natural light, and avoid any CGI for its repugnant artificiality (aside from the bear, of course), while paying hydro-companies to raise the water levels of the rivers to achieve a certain effect. Even if we could, would we really desire a world where nature can be easily preserved, visited and manipulated, existing as a separate ‘Jurassic Park’ from our own comfortable daily routines?

In contrast, much of Fury Road was generously manipulated in post-production with CGI, including the more apocalyptic elements of the environment, but the cars and the majestic War Rig were authentic. The “western on wheels” is powered by a collection of handmade, foraged-from-scrap, gloriously souped-up muscle cars that all would have come off the assembly line sometime in the pre-1979 original Mad Max world, ironically for these post-apocalyptic scavengers, a time of gas-guzzling and low MPG (though surely their tinkering could solve that problem out of necessity; the sturdy hulking shells are what matter here). Notably, neither film won for visual effects, perhaps because of their vocal adherence to authenticity, however manufactured.

Furiosa drives the Brides in the War Rig off-road to forge her own path through the red wilderness, a “Fury Road” that leads away from Gas Town toward the Green Place of Many Mothers. That lush green place is now a miasmic blue bog, a literal quagmire populated by other scavengers: crows and the stilt-walking Crow Fishers, “Vuvalini who stayed behind” to eke out a living in their degraded homeland.

Deserts and bogs are archetypal no-man’s-lands, aptly set in juxtaposition as the barren wastescapes through which our fertile heroines are pursued. The Vuvalini who return in Furiosa’s caravan carry with them heirloom seeds saved from the Green Place, lushness frozen in time and space. The Citadel has turned inward, using the technology of indoor vertical farms and ersatz terraced green roofs to generate at least enough surplus produce to trade with Gas Town for guzzoline (presumably to close the loop by keeping the vertical farms running and the water pumping ever upward). These seeds—themselves heirs to a forgotten, landbound life of changing seasons and cyclical weather patterns—are tiny capsules of potential carried through treacherous terrain in hope of finding a new place to root. They are transported and protected to the death by the elder Vuvalini, along with a Bride and the War Boy Nux (from the Latin, “nut,” aka, the seed of a tree). This satchel of seeds is the bridge between the lost past and the future they are fighting for, the mechanism for both a way of life and life itself to survive passage through the inhospitable landscapes onscreen.

But in real life, deserts and bogs are, of course, just as teeming ecosystems as any lush green place on Earth. The film was shot in Namibia in part because the original setting in Australia was too lush after years of unusual rainfall—a phenomenon not unlike the El Niño-inspired superbloom that happened in Death Valley this spring or the Atacama Desert last year. When a place so accustomed to drought gets just a little bit of rain at the right time of year, all those markers of life that were there all along, just beneath the cracked and finely-tuned layer of lichen, bacteria and other microorganisms found in a cryptobiotic crust, come out of their (totally natural) hibernation in a way humans recognize as “alive,” even though the landscape was alive all along.

Perhaps it is again ironic that these films warning of the imagined effects of human-caused war, desperation, and resource depletion should have been hindered by the inadvertent effects of an IRL changing climate like this. Whether it is the unvarnished terroir of abundance in which our resourceful protagonist Glass nevertheless finds himself starving, or the scorched earth across which our merry band of antiheroes rebound toward their foregone origin in Fury Road, the desolation inherent in both landscapes is integral to the stories that unfold against them.

This twist in the narrative begs the question of what a post-nuclear landscape might actually look like. Is it so unlike a pre-nuclear landscape? In one expert’s opinion, a nuclear winter would mean a blackened sky, plunging temperatures, global ice age, and mass die-off. But, with the death of civilization would come a grinding halt to both human-influenced global warming and desertification. The water cycle would chug on. Dams would break without infrastructure maintenance, aquifers would recharge without crop irrigation or fracking runoff contamination. Any species that survived the ice age would grow anew, and start to evolve into new species.

By manipulating the actual scenery in The Revenant, Iñárritu nods to the delicate harmony of horror and beauty that exists in nature, and its subsequent interruption by American colonialism. As Glass lies dying, infection spreading deeply in his wounds, we are transported to a vision of the afterlife. Here, Iñárritu literally places Glass at a dilapidated altar in a snowy field with branches just beginning to sprout through the crumbling masonry. Glass clutches his murdered son only to realize he is clinging to a tree. Fury Road draws the inverse image of this same visual with the tree sinking into a dead oasis. Rather than civilization subordinating to nature, our future selves have marginalized nature to a mere bag of seeds and mechanized its processes with indoor vertical farms, Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, and the dead Green Place. This central theme of balance is repeated formulaically in Iñárritu’s overt symbolism: at the brink of starvation, fish and bison appear, Glass’s infection is cured by foraged Pawnee herbs, and, when the blizzard sets in, shelter manifests. In Glass’s survival, he paid penance, and nature came to the rescue. Max’s survival odyssey through a seemingly-dead landscape (“Who killed the world?”) also depended on a sort of foraging—sustenance through scavenging depends on available, unowned resources, points to the idea that even the post-apocalyptic world will continue to turn. We just have to make sure we have place in it.

“One of the problems when you have a regressed world is that people become territorial in the sense that they believe in a kind of sovereignty, either of a little patch of earth or an ideology. And it’s that kind of ignorance and rather limited view of the universe that is, I’ll be presumptuous enough to say, at the heart of all evil, of all the warmongering that goes on—in the film and in actuality. We’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief only when the sovereignty of the planet Earth overrides all other sovereignties, be they ideological, national, or geographical.” – George Miller

Maybe Mad Max’s future is the best scenario we can hope for after all.

Elasti-City: Thoughts on Urban Resiliency Through Regional Policy

Detail of systems image by JL Bollinger.

Detail of systems image by JL Bollinger.

Like a mature ecosystem, a city is shaped by its users. Any healthy system produces waste, whether it is a digestive system, an ecosystem or a citysystem. It is helpful to think of the abandoned, in-between, leftover land in cities as leaves on a forest floor, or fish bones on a seabed; if the system is functioning properly, all will be absorbed back in. The waste itself is an indicator of the system’s health and vitality. Without abandoned spaces, how can a city turn inwards for growth? If a city is truly healthy, elastic, and vital, it will continue to produce wastescapes, only to reabsorb them to produce something new. By their nature, elastic things are at times taut, and at other times slack; it is in slack times that citizens (root word: “city”) can choose a path of abandonment or one of revitalization; they can leave, or they can take a stand and snap back to a taut state.

We can’t know whether specific extreme weather events are the direct effects of global climate change. However, we ignore the chance at our own peril. Pervasive car culture and creeping sprawl are the result of federal policies that unfortunately have much more localized consequences. Horizontal spread really should be dealt with on a single horizontal level of policy, namely the regional level. Densification in and of itself is not the solution to save declining cities for which there my be many causes for blight and abandonment, but coupled with the most important element of all—a willingness for elasticity, flexibility, fluidity, and agility—it is an important place to start. Local and regional authorities bear the burden of having to take the most effective action, as they are where the policies will be most effective. We have seen the need to align our notion of ownership with one of stewardship, recognizing existing ecosystem borders as more significant than political borders in deriving ecosystem services sustainably. Most important, we have seen the integral role of collective citizen participation and initiation in policy response; even below the local level, change starts with one individual. From the concrete canyons of New York City to the informal riverside settlements in Jakarta, it is this single most important motivator in the improvement of infrastructure, both hard and soft. The city and its citizens work together as a system, each an essential component without which the other would not exist.

The densest and the most popular.

Faced with the challenge of constantly doing more with less, the agribusiness has consistently championed the tools, practices and seed varieties that churn out higher crop yields, year over year. While this does provide more total cereal crops to an ever expanding global population, recent studies have pointed to the fact that this ‘sustainable intensification’ has sacrificed the overall nutritional content of these crops in order to produce higher yielding varieties, most notably in India. In fact, eating additional grains of poor nutrient content, likely further exacerbates the double-sided health challenges of obesity and malnutrition in LDCs.

Lisa Curtis, the Founder of Kuli Kuli, experienced this effect first hand while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Niger a few years ago. There, although calorically intaking enough food, she felt exhausted and malnourished after only a few months in the field. In her local village, traditional healers told her about moringa leaves that can be added as a meal supplement, and were known to fight diseases, respiratory illnesses, as well as ear and dental infections. Now, back in California, her company Kuli Kuli works with business cooperatives in West Africa to import and sell this leafy vegetable in powder and cold-pressed bar form in the U.S.

What does it take to start a ‘superfood’ trend?
These days it seems like everyone is posting their green smoothies and kale salads on Instagram. A previous article appeared in Bon Appétit magazine listing the ‘trendiest vegetables over the past fifty years’:

  1. Avocado (1969)
  2. Beets (1982)
  3. Sundried Tomatoes (1985)
  4. Arugula (1990)
  5. Asparagus (1993)
  6. Portobello Mushrooms (1995)
  7. Heirloom Tomatoes (2006)
  8. Brussel Sprouts (2010)
  9. Heirloom Carrots (2011)
  10. Kale (2012)

It was interesting to go through this list and match up my own eating habits with when each of these food items came into fashion (I feel like I definitely was very into my tween vegetarian phase right when Portobello mushrooms became an acceptable steak replacement). By far the most successful has been the avocado, originally introduced to the U.S. market by Italian communities in the 1920s, only then known as an alligator pear. Initially, Joel Denker notes in his book, The World on a Plate, that marketing the avocado was an enormous challenge both because it couldn’t be canned (which was extremely popular after WWII), and it’s texture was so markedly different from all other fruits. With a name change and an advertising campaign pitching the avocado as the main ingredient in upscale salads, along with lobster and grapefruit – the avocado quickly moved up the ranks to become a ‘luxury’ food item.

Balancing Demand
Occasionally, when a food becomes extremely popular, it can be hard to strike the right balance for demand. For example, in Ethiopia, teff is a staple food crop with nutritional benefits over other grains, but the sale of the raw product is currently banned to control demand. Teff-based products, known as injera (risen bread, pasta, biscuits), have garnered increasing popularity in the U.S. because of their gluten-free status, making them an ideal quinoa substitute, and since teff seeds are smaller they require less fuel to cook. Teff is a good example of a crop with denser nutritional value and lower yields (1.4 tons per hectare in Ethiopia instead of 3.2 tons per hectare being the global average for wheat). Increasing global demand for injera products from companies like Mama Fresh, and eventually teff in raw form when approved by the government, will contribute to rising local prices in Ethiopia, where many people rely on the product for its nutritional value.

We asked Lisa Curtis at Kuli Kuli if moringa faced any similar challenges as more and more people learned of its benefits. She explained that moringa grows like a weed in tropical regions and is extremely drought resistant. Although it would not compete with grains, it could potentially offer a more localized, sustainable alternative to micronutrient powders currently used to treat malnutrition as well as offer a new source of microcredit for cooperatives and small businesses. Recent studies published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found a correlation to increased moringa consumption and a reduction of glucose levels in diabetic patients when taken with a calorie-controlled diet and even noted that it can potentially help stop the spreading of cancerous human lung cells.

Currently, the term superfood has no legal or medicinal definition. A simple Google search defines superfoods as “nutrient powerhouses that pack large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals. Eating them may reduce the risk of chronic disease, and prolong life, and people who eat more of them are healthier and thinner than those who don’t.” In a recent article, Metrics for land-scarce agriculture, the authors suggest that rather than simply looking at yield gap analyses, and year over year yield increases when considering land use management, it would be more meaningful to develop a “nutritional yield” measuring the number of adults who would be able to obtain 100% of their recommended dietary reference intake (DRI) of different nutrients for one year from a food item produced annually on one hectare. Only then would it be possible to take a closer look at the desired crop mix and proper land use management to maintain the food system.

reposted from:

Backing up the world’s seed collection

reposted from

When we think of food security, we think of farming intensification and greater resource management. In Aleppo, the capital city in Syria, as rebels began looting and razing ancient artifacts this past spring, a new definition emerged. There, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) began developing its own emergency operation to safeguard their collection of 150,000 different seed populations (known as accessions) for wheat, barley, lentil and faba beans.

Why are genebanks important?
Rice, wheat and maize (corn) provide more than 50 percent of the world’s plant derived calories. Maintaining and understanding genetic materials and their corresponding phenotypes is essential to food security on our planet. Through cross-breeding various wild species of seeds, scientists can develop new, more resilient seed accessions, better able to withstand environmental and pest stresses. As an example, in the 1970s, grassy stunt virus disease threatened almost all tropical rice varieties in Asia, and caused significant crop loss. Scientists were able to successfully cross-breed a resilient rice seed, oryza nivara – but only after testing 6,000 different accessions. Dr. Susan McCouch, Director of the McCouch Rice Lab at Cornell University explains in her article, Agriculture, Feeding the Future, that, “high-yielding seeds will be the cornerstone for sustainable, intensified food production”.

Management of agricultural biodiversity is not a new field. In fact, it was often undertaken at the household level to ensure survival. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist during the early 1900s, is often credited as the grandfather in conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources. Crop germplasm collection began during the 1970s, around that time there were 54 facilities dedicated to seed storage and maintenance. Currently, CGIAR oversees 11 regional collections, and researchers are working to “back up” seed traits to Svalbard, deemed a “doomsday vault” enclosed in a temperature controlled mountain in Norway.

The ICARDA headquarters have been in Syria since 1977, when the location was chosen because of ongoing civil wars at the time in Lebanon, the original location. Past civil wars have caused gene banks to disappear from Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Solomon Islands, and they can also be at risk to natural disasters like floods, or simply power outages. These organizations believe that a complete collection of seeds is necessary to support forward-looking agricultural programs, such as, Seeds for Needs, an effort to crowdsource information from 8,000 farmers to understand which varieties respond best in certain geographies.

At DivSeek Genesys, researchers are working to amass an online catalog of crop traits in an effort to improve crop diversity and resilience, globally. They believe that shared knowledge can improve crop performance and allow for faster response to disease and pest outbreaks – and in turn, reduce food insecurity and malnutrition.

Before the conflict escalated in Syria, the staff at the center duplicated 26,000 seed accessions and transported them to alternative storage facilities in Turkey and Lebanon. To date, the rebels involved in the takeover have continued to maintain the center to preserve the biodiversity within the region. While this could be a partial solution to more resilient agriculture, it poses even larger questions for the field of agricultural engineering.

Vanishing Into Our Common Home

Facebook HQ's new roof: a place to see and be seen. Photomontage by JB Hardy.

Facebook HQ’s new roof: a place to see and be seen. Photomontage by JB Hardy.

Facebook has made waves by building a 9-acre green roof on its new headquarters in Menlo Park, CA. The building was designed by Frank Gehry with CMG Landscape Architecture in charge of the roof, and opened this spring. An insider compared the green roof to the High Line, and while it does incorporate native plantings, provides meandering pathways, and is “entirely inspired by the regional landscape,” there are some glaring differences. For one, it is built atop new construction carved out of marshy salt flats, rather than on reclaimed-abandoned urban infrastructure. As much lip service as the referential new landscape pays to its surroundings, the building’s construction likely had some deleterious effect on the underlying saltwater marsh ecosystem it supplanted.

Another difference is that it is a private corporate environment, not a public space owned by a municipality and accessible to all, even if the space will be made available for community events on occasion. As much as Facebook seems like a public utility these days, it’s not. But the fanfare around the roof comes on the heels of France’s recent proclamation that all new commercial roofs have a green roof or solar panel component, and can work to enhance the profile of existing municipal experiments in North America, such as Chicago’s Green Rooftops program, D.C.’s, and that of the city of Toronto.

Green roofs can serve as another layer of hidden architectural infrastructure that serves to reduce heat island effects and runoff, or as experiential micro-parks, or both. They contribute to LEED certification, and also to WELL certification, “an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and wellbeing.” Notably, green roofs only qualify under the outdoor biophilia category for WELL certification if the garden is accessible to building occupants.

The accessibility of Facebook’s roof by its workers is integral to its existence. The roof is an extension of the interior office space, a blurring of the line between work and relaxation: an on-site setting for company-provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner; naps; conversations; and walks that ultimately encourages employees to experience fleeting moments of escape without ever having to leave the building. The Facebook campus is conceived as an all-inclusive milieu for the dedicated employee, an enclosed habitat that is a sort of urban microcosm—complete with a tram, bike paths, restaurants, and a park—set in corporate suburbia. Seeing and being seen on the roof can allow the Facebook flâneur the appearance of simultaneously working and playing—perhaps playfully working, as is the norm in startup culture today—without skipping a beat. In this way, it serves the company as well as it aims to serve the employees. Make no mistake, beyond recreating migratory bird habitat along the Pacific Flyway, this is why it was included so prominently in the design.

Facebook has lifted a replicated environment seventy feet into the air and swept its new campus underneath in an effort to disappear into its surroundings much in the same way that the company pursues a seamless integration of work-life by providing all the extracurricular amenities an employee could want; and, on a larger scale, in parallel with its ambition to seamlessly integrate itself into every aspect of the media industry.

Coincidentally, last week saw the release of the Pope’s historic climate-themed encyclical, which takes aim at first-world consumption as a catalyst of climate change and is subtitled, “On Care For Our Common Home.” This common home is, of course, the planet—as literal as that is, it can seem so abstract when trying to comprehend our interconnectedness through time and space, on a global scale. However, the virtual ‘common home’ we have built on the internet is perhaps much more tangible to people, and certainly more accessible. Facebook, without a paywall and available to anyone on the web, is as much of a common home as Earth. Yet in the virtual world as in the analog one, consumption is what defines our experiences—of products, information, resources. Since the terra firma of the virtual world is not without its own, largely hidden, carbon footprint, the symbolism of its de facto headquarters’ eco-sensibility is ripe for interpretation.

In the meantime, I’ll just check out this topic now trending on Facebook about the 6th extinction that is upon us. Or, it was trending, last week. It now seems to have disappeared from my sidebar without a trace.



ICT + Ag extension

Last week I attended a conference on information and communications technology (ICT) and the opportunity it presents to improve smallholder agriculture in the development context. Gathered vendors offered a variety of ideas surrounding mobile credit service access and educational ag extension programs, intended to increase overall crop yields, market productivity and profitability. By far the most interesting discussion centered around an afternoon panel on the future of ag extension and the value of human interaction and the element of trust in decision models.

Agricultural extension, or ag extension, consists of a chain of workers sharing and disseminating new scientific research and best practices on crop management, in an effort to bring about the best yields relative to annual forecasts. Ag extension workers regularly help smallholder farmers make important decisions on fertilizer application, seed selection, soil management, timing of planting, as well as post-harvest production issues, such as grain storage and price procurement. Advances in ICT connectivity, and access to data and stronger climate models, greatly expands the amount of knowledge ag extension workers and farmers have available through their mobile phones, allowing them to potentially better manage their network of farms. With the abundance of data and information available, it is important to understand the value that humans add in distilling relevant data sources and applications to provide sound agronomic advice.

Kentaro Toyama, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, highlighted the role of trust in this decision process, especially with the explosion of technological solutions on today’s market. He offered the example of both travel and insurance agents, and how their role had greatly diminished over the last decade as people have relied more heavily on data aggregating websites to make cost-effective purchasing decisions. Does the incremental value add of trust through human interaction reduce to marginal significance in smallholder agricultural development? A participant reminded us that a decade ago, most consumers were hesitant to store credit card information online.

Today, a large percentage of the population uses internet payments and savings mechanisms in good confidence that their money is well safeguarded. In Africa, and other developing regions, mobile money is one of the most important forms of currency.

Agriculture has been around for millennia, but still the notion of “precision agriculture” remains fraught with risks and uncertainties for a variety of reasons. While applications and big data can offer both farmers and ag extension workers patterns and algorithms to better contextualize past issues and inform decision making – humans remain an irreplaceable factor in the overall decision making process because of the importance of non-data elements in agricultural performance – the same way an entrusted doctor can offer more value than WebMD.  As time continues to build our confidence and trust in data driven decision modeling, when evaluating forecasting and crop growth, the best applications on improving ag extension services will continue to account for the human factor rather than try to prove it obsolete.

While it remains unknown what eventually causes developing, agrarian societies to make the leap to developed, post-industrial economies; it would be myopic to believe that ICT applications can single-handedly solve this problem through ag extension services. In an interesting conversation between Tyler Cowen and Jeff Sachs, where Professor Sachs highlights the importance of geographical contextualization in agricultural development, stating, “you cannot simply take, most of the time, something that worked here and plant it here”. Sachs points to the double miracle of the Green Revolution, where Mexican seeds worked in Indian growing conditions to significantly improve crop yields, but this success was largely contingent upon a year of experimentation by Norman Borlaug.

Consider the cricket

Cricket pizza at Tulsa State Fair – reposted from

Over the past few years, there has been a growing appetite for edible insects, with a greater number of restaurants serving chili-spiced grasshoppers and cricket-covered pizza. Much of the attention follows the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2013 report highlighting the importance of insect protein in the future of food security and reducing malnutrition. Nicolas Pena Parra even dreamed up the Locust Farm, as a means of providing nutrition to refugee families living in Dadaab, Kenya lacking access to protein-rich plants or livestock.

There are a multitude of environmental benefits supporting entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs. Bitwater Farms, located in Sacramento, California, champions the protein power found in crickets as an alternative to livestock and fish feed. Sean McDonald and his team developed Bitwater Farms in response to the environmental stresses caused by a rapidly expanding population. Current estimates project that protein production must double by 2050 to satisfy growing needs and adjust to changing tastes and wealth levels. The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that upgrades in refrigeration and cold chain technologies combined with rising urbanization makes safe meat a popular menu item. While this increased demand can be achieved through livestock production, this stands to drive up greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 39 percent. Even today, livestock production consumes 30% of crops, 8% of freshwater resources and 18% of GHG emissions. Globally, this adds up to an enormous amount of resources.

Crickets are rich in protein, making them a possible livestock food alternative, as well as being a less water-intensive solution to our own diets, and recently referred to as the “gateway bug” in edible insects. Bitwater compares the amino acid profile of a cricket to that of soy, describing their bugs as being high in omega fatty acids, iron, zinc and other micronutrients. Cricket metabolism relies on ambient energy and they consume considerably less water than other livestock. The main challenge is in producing crickets at a commercially viable level without losing any of these benefits.

A recent study by Michael Lundy detailed the inefficiencies in scaling the operation. In his research, Lundy found that in order to grow crickets to a harvestable size, they needed to be fed processed food waste at an industrial scale. When fed minimally processed municipal food waste, comprised mostly of straw, the crickets did not survive.  Therefore, to be commercially viable, crickets would need to consume the same grain-based diet that they had originally intended to supplant.

Lundy’s study is hopeful that crickets could still increase overall portions of protein delivered through their higher feed conversion. Additionally, he points out that crickets can be raised on organic side streams [wasted food], which we have in abundance (1.3 billion tons per year). His study highlights that in California alone, humans throw out about 2.2 million tons of dry food that crickets could convert to approximately 210,000 tons of dietary protein in the food supply. To put this number in perspective, dietary guidelines encourage women intake 46 grams of protein per day, or about 36 pounds of protein in a year. The conversion of California dry food waste could cover the protein supply of 11 million people for a year. Lundy also suggests the eating black solider flies, which offer similar protein content as crickets, but can sustain off lower quality organic side streams.

Historically speaking, eating bugs is not new. Pliny spoke of the Roman aristocrats feasting on beetle larvae reared on flour and wine. St. John the Baptist is thought to have survived on locusts and honey while living in the desert. In the US, shrimp and lobster are considered delicacies often demanding high market price at upscale restaurants. Although these crustaceans stem from the same arthropod family, in western culture they are perceived as cleaner and safer.

Virginia Emery compares the growth of the commercial insect industry to that of the commercial mushroom sector, which can also garner the negative perception of being unsanitary. These insects are grown in clean rooms with mostly organic feed, which makes sense since bugs are the primary target of pesticide design. While the FDA, CDC and USDA continue to strengthen policies to safely bring bugs to market, it is important note that there is already an acceptable level of bug fragments permitted in your food. These regulating bodies are particularly interested in understanding the potential allergen effects posed by edible insects, especially considering their relation to shellfish. Agencies speculate that the crickets could be safer than their livestock counterparts, which are susceptible to swine flu and other forms of infections that can cause human ailments, but also come with their own unique set of diseases.

Eating forces us to re-evaluate what we are consuming, as it becomes a part of us through the digestion process. If the cricket industry grows, will we find ourselves seeking module-free crickets, similar to the premium paid for cage-free chicken? Will insect-support groups demand fair treatment? The complete cycle of consuming a black soldier fly that lives off our own low quality waste, could potentially lead to more widespread thinking and greater awareness regarding the nature, quantity and rationale of low quality waste produced.

Dunne & Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms



Dunne & Raby’s: Digitarians visiting one of Bioland’s more extreme attractions

I first learned of Dunne & Raby in 2011, during their MoMA exhibition, Between Reality and the Impossible, exploring urban foraging and the concept of synthetic digestive systems to accommodate rising food insecurity. I instantly became fascinated by their futuristic and evolving examination of heterotopias and the dystopian earth. Two years ago their team created a “design fiction”, or fictional scenario fabricated to frame questions surrounding our current social values and decisions. Their project, entitled, United Micro Kingdoms, depicts four “super shires” within the United Kingdom, each extrapolating today’s buzzworthy topics and innovations to a fantastical degree, with a special emphasis on the relevance of transportation to social and economic development. Initially, each theme excites the viewer by presenting imaginative possibilities – but then the dark undertones of opportunistic exploitation, repetition and misery set in.


United Micro Kingdom: Compass (Dunne & Raby)

Within the UK, four micro kingdoms exist; Digitarians, Communo-Nuclearists, Bioliberals, and Anarcho-Evolutionists. The Digitarians, which Dunne & Raby cite as “the most dystopian, yet familiar of all the micro kingdoms”, pursue technology and big data to ensure transparency and an efficient economy governed only by algorithms. Their digicars heavily hint at combinations of Google’s self-driving cars with Uber’s seamless GPS connectivity to swiftly move goods and services, described as having the minimal level of comfort and pleasure found when packed into an overcrowded elevator. The concept reminds me of Ideo’s Automobility project, offering portable workstations through their Work on Wheels (WOW) design.

The Communo-Nuclearists embody a no-growth society with limitless nuclear power while living in constant fear of [I think, nuclear] attack or accident. For this reason, their communistic and centralized society is supported upon a moving train where they are “voluntary prisoners of pleasure, free from the pressures of daily survival”. The Anarcho-Evolutionists believe “humans should modify themselves to exist within the limits of the planet rather than modifying the planet to meet their ever growing needs”. This concept seemed to have the most crossover with the 2010 MoMa presentation, with an emphasis on DIY biohacking and added elements of self-government and social Darwinism.

My personal favorite, the Bioliberals, relish biotechnology and the opportunities it has created. Driving around in organic loaves of bread, this society “enhances nature to meet growing human needs – but people also adjust their needs to match available resources”. The population is categorically farmers, cooks and gardeners, of food – as well as products. After considering the other social microcosms presented, either the slower pace or the possibility of enjoyment within the Bioliberal world really resonates. Either that or this description of their cars, “the resulting cars are bulky, messy, smelly and made out of artificial lab-grown skin, bone and muscles, not literally, but in abstracted forms”…


Dunne & Raby’s Bioliberal Car

While I highly enjoyed entertaining the ideas presented within the United Micro Kingdoms, each kingdom was ultimately bereft of any art, culture or religion. I wonder if the negative undertones that come through in each representation are heightened because of the emphasis on the mechanical, robotic and essentially, non-human, nature of these societies. Perhaps in Dunne & Raby’s exploration of societal extremes, they are actually saying more about the value of concepts omitted.

A Synthetic Approach to the Industrial Food System


Cultured Meat. From

Cultured meat, or in vitro meat (IVM), has been science fiction for a long time; after a decade of research & development, in 2013 it became reality. IVM is actual meat created by harvesting muscle cells from a living animal, grown in a nutrient-dense medium for a number of weeks. It is not genetically modified; it is 100% muscle meat. One tissue sample can produce up to 20,000 tons of meat, and uses 50% of the energy and 2% of the land needed to raise cattle. It has the potential to someday be made in anyone’s kitchen, without using land for livestock, crops for feed, or fossil fuels for transportation. The first burger was eaten by a panel of chefs and food critics, and was declared to have a mouthfeel more or less like meat (Note here that IVM currently replicates hamburgers, an industry byproduct that renders desirable the cheaper cuts of meat that may have otherwise been wasted. We are still years from replicating anything near a juicy steak).

Yet despite all these statistics, people’s initial reactions are often ones of shock, confusion, and disgust. Can cultured meat ever overcome the ‘yuck factor,’ and if it does, can it expand to such a scale as to replace the industrial food system? The “core ideological justifications for in vitro meat” include lower energy and land uses, scalability to be both mass-produced and individually-produced, and the ethical argument that no animals were killed in its production.

Still, revulsion at IVM is an important factor in gauging its potential success. Calling it ‘cultured meat’ is smart marketing, evoking more than the cultured medium of a petri dish; it is the idea of a new cultural tradition aligned with the organic, locavore movement, ironically branding literally generic flesh. Artists and designers excited, yet conflicted, about IVM are exploring the concept with a cookbook called The In Vitro Meat Cookbook and a concept restaurant, Bistro In Vitro.

The project raises social and ethical questions, such as, “What will holiday dinners look like if in vitro meat replaces turkey? Would you eat meat grown from your own stem cells? Is lab-grown meat kosher? Or vegetarian?”

This last question is worth exploring. It may seem incongruous that PETA’s founder Ingrid Newkirk is a proponent of IVM, but viewed in the mechanical/technological context we encounter above, it makes sense. Her argument is that IVM is meat without suffering, therefore the only ethical meat to eat.

Yet Newkirk’s idea that IVM is free of suffering is debatable; the medium in which IVM is cultured is fetal bovine serum, another industry byproduct. The Tissue Culture and Art Project examines the idea of suffering and victimhood further with their Victimless Leather, presenting “an ambiguous and somewhat ironic take into the technological price our society will need to pay for achieving ‘a victimless utopia’.”

In other words, removing oneself from a life cycle does not eliminate the victimhood periodically suffered by participants in the cycle.

Though IVM was conceived as an antidote to the rising toll of the industrial food system, it was developed within the synthetic worldview that will only serve to perpetuate fragmented, consumptive, capital-intensive, labor-displacing synthetic solutions, rather than produce regenerative, low-cost, livelihood-generating solutions that can be sustained in our postindustrial world.