For many, factory farming practices are considered as evil as Big Tobacco or child labor. In 2002, “The Meatrix” was released online to the horror of many. The short-form video spoofed the popular sci-fi movie and critiqued the façade put up by the factory farming industry, unapologetically revealing the animal cruelty and mass pollution happening behind closed doors. The video has since been translated into over 30 different languages and watched by 30 million people around the world.
Since then, internet culture has continued the wide-ranging discussion around the politics of food. Though our society may be increasingly alienated from the production of the food it consumes, we’ve become ever more obsessed with the ethics of its creation. As a result, “responsible” eating emerged as a dominant trend of the first decade of the 21st century, with words like vegan, local, free-range and organic becoming proxies for sustainable, healthy food.
Fifteen years later, the food production industry has come up with a potential solution: new technologies that enable environmentally-friendly, highly-regulated, and cruelty-free practices. Enter the factory farm, reborn with sustainability at the core of its development.
Human labor in the food industry is becoming increasingly obsolete, with AI-empowered machines taking over processes both in the kitchen and in the field.
“Flippy,”created by Miso Robotics, is a robotic kitchen aid that assists with grilling, prepping, and plating meals through the use of cameras, sensors, and mechanical arms. The precision of these robotics is unprecedented: the University’s Lincoln Institute of Agri-food Technology modeled a fully autonomous broccoli-picking robot after the Mars lander, which uses AI connected to a 3D camera to guide the machinery with a, “soft, gentle touch to pluck each stem with minimal damage” (Raconteur 2017).
Last year, Harper Adams University teamed up with agricultural equipment company Precision Decisions to create the Hands Free Hectare project. This bold initiative enabled the harvesting of an entire barley crop without a single human hand. With a high turnover rate of service workers in restaurants and the increasing difficulty of finding farm laborers at all, it’s easy to see why food distributors and producers are turning to robots to fill these positions. Accenture estimates that AI will raise productivity in the agricultural sphere 53 per cent by 2035.
That said, autonomous technologies are not only replacing human labor, these machines are also surpassing humans in their ability to monitor the processes of food production.
Autonomous farming start-up Iron Ox is developing machine-learning algorithms to detect underdeveloped or sick plants, which can then be removed by robotic arms that constantly monitor the crops. The increased efficiency of these developments has the potential to make significant contributions to the creation of environmentally sustainable farming and agricultural processes.
Last year, Hahn Family Wines joined forces with Verizon to implement a new set of sensors that continuously measure the moisture levels of the soil in their fields. Andy Mitchell, their Director of Viticulture, noted that this technology allows their team to closely monitor water usage, “Then we know we’ve put on too much water so we can cut back. It really helps us fine-tune our application methods” (Wired 2017).
Vertical farming reaches new heights
By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.7 billion, with 2/3 living in urban areas. The food production industry must adjust accordingly. China in particular has struggled to feed its rising population, mostly due to growing urban centers encroaching on arable land sources; soil pollution resulting in toxic crops further complicates the issue. Their solution is to invest heavily in vertical farming. Beijing startup Alesca Life creates mobile farming units — hydroponic plants stacked in portable shipping containers or smaller, cabinet sized formats that can be bought by food retailers, processors, and even restaurants. The units are designed to fit easily within any urban center.
Another example is Singapore, one of the most densely populated cities in the world — in its entirety, it has only 250 acres of farmable land. In order to feed an ever-growing population, the city has begun partnering with companies like Jack Ng’s Sky Greens. The firm has set up one of the first commercial vertical farms in Singapore to help feed the population and prove the concept. Surging investments in the development of these vertical and rotational farming applications has helped the technology advance and spread out into neighboring countries.
The vertical farming movement is not just limited to Asia, in fact it’s gaining traction all across the globe. In France, startup Agricool raised $9.1 million in funding to grow food in mobile containers that will be placed in cities globally. U.S. based vertical farming start-up Plenty is opening a 100,000 square foot indoor farm in Seattle, with the aim to, “deliver industry-leading yields of local, backyard-quality produce that’s completely GMO and pesticide-free” (Plenty 2017).
Vertical farms boast the capability of producing 100x the standard yield of crops on a fraction of the land and using considerably less water than a conventional agricultural site. The science backs these claims up: recent studies of hydroponics have proven higher yields with more water efficiency, not to mention reduced emissions from drastically cutting back transported food. Other benefits include planting that does not rely on weather or seasons, zero-use of pesticides, and fresher produce delivered the day it is procured.
Food production is not only changing its footprint – it’s also changing its very molecular structure. Since the first lab-grown burger patty was unveiled in 2013, funding to synthetic biology startups has more than tripled. Memphis Meats, backed by investors Bill Gates and Richard Branson, is developing a way to produce real meat from animal cells, “without the need to feed, breed and slaughter actual animals” (Memphis Meats 2017). But Memphis Meats is just one among many in the growing sector of synthetic food.
Finless Foods aims to use cellular culture technology to mass manufacture marine food products that will resemble fish in look, taste and texture – the only difference being the way it’s produced. Clara foods even makes egg whites from genetically modified yeast. New Harvest is a non-profit organization that aims to “reinvent the way we make animal products – without animals.” The company’s CEO, Isha Datar, predicts that the field of biogenetics will impact mainstream audiences in a matter of years: “It will be like open-source software… The cells are the code” (New Scientist 2017).
The desired end game for these projects is clear: cruelty-free harvesting processes with a lessened environmental impact. “We expect our products to be better for the environment (requiring up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally-produced meat), the animals and public health” (WorldWatch 2017). Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and has increased 20 percent in the last ten years alone — this demand will only increase as the world’s population rises.
The next wave of sustainability is less about individual choices. It’s more about how companies adopt and implement new technologies to make the practices of food production more sustainable. The next wave of food production will make people rethink the labels on their packages – and what words like organic, local, and vegan mean when they are divorced from nostalgic concepts of today’s conventional farms.
Photo Credits: Sean Gumm and Jatuphon Buraphon