Agrofuturism

A word came to me last year and I haven’t understood what it meant until last week.

I am the type of person who can listen to a song for years and not fully know its lyrics, who can think for years that Satisfaction (“can’t you see I’m on a losing streak?”) is a song of joy, who can be pulled into a karaoke of Yesterday and start humming on bar two.

I listened for Sun Ra for several decades (Rocket #9, Astro Black, the Comet Kahoutek, Space Is The Place) and never really put together what he was saying, until an amazing radio segment wrapped my head around Afrofuturism. And the idea is not that black people in the future have super powers and command space ships. It is that the future has black people in it. And if you dive into The 1619 Project you’ll realize that this is such a profoundly optimistic vision of the future, the very notion of afrofuturism means that things are going to turn out okay. And to take it even a step further, it’s not simply that black people are in the future, like Lt. Uhura or Lando Calrissian, but that the future is actually about black people, perhaps led by Sun Ra in his majestic Ark, June Tyson as our Mary.

And it’s with that backdrop that I have been wrestling with Agrofuturism. I am a scientist at a tech company in the food and agriculture space. We are architecting the future: thinking it up, making it happen. It would be easy to imagine that the future of agriculture is sci-fi: robots, lasers, holo-vision helmets, drones. But in some ways the more radical vision is that the future has agriculture in it.

Why Adam, you might say, would we imagine the future wouldn’t have agriculture? If you don’t see it, the signs are here: lab-cultured meat, herbs that never saw the sun, synthetic wine, products intended to meet our caloric and nutritional needs as though the body was simply an engine that needed fuel.

When I was first studying agriculture 20 years back, my heroes were the likes of Charley Rick (the “Indiana Jones” of tomatoes) and Wes Jackson of the Land Institute — people who saw erosion of soils and genetic diversity and who worked to conserve the past while unlocking new doors into the future. (Check out Kernza - it tastes good cold!)

I think what makes me uncomfortable about synthetic human fuel is that it at some level it gives up on civilization on Earth. I sat down next to a woman at a dinner a couple years ago who was running a non-profit devoted to cellular meat. I had assumed that this movement was driven largely by animal welfare concerns, but she said, no, most donors were interested in space flight. And they were interested in space flight, because we might need to abandon Earth for . . . well, certainly not for greener pastures. For nothing, for the void. I was reminded of Freeman Dyson’s plans to use nuclear propulsion to power a rocket ship that would send us to Alpha Centauri but in the process destroy the home planet. Will there be a dining room for feasting on the cultured meat?

Freeman Dyson’s nuclear spaceship to evacuate Earth

This uncomfortable feeling surfaced recently again for me when I read the piece on Impossible Burgers in the New Yorker. I couldn’t put it down and then I couldn’t sleep. I wrote a letter to the editor:

Dear Editor,

What a fascinating but maddening article (Re Impossible Foods). Reading this article, you’d think that Dr Brown was doing something other than turning petroleum into edible ingredients using plants (at an energy conversion ratio of approximately 1 to 1 fossil inputs to edible outputs), then processing those raw materials in a concrete factory, powered by coal, into something approximating food. Twinkies are another such masterpiece.

Down the road from me in New Jersey is a small farm where lambs eat grass and clover that is otherwise human-inedible, an energy conversion ratio infinitely greater than 1, because the petroleum used to grow the pasture is essentially zero. I buy those lambs at the farmer’s market; the intermediate processing includes ice for the Igloo. We’re eating sunshine from vintage 2019 not the Carboniferous.

I’m all for reducing meat consumption — it’s sensible for so many reasons. Meat is precious and I wish it were priced that way. But the accounting here doesn’t balance. Cultivating plants to feed a factory is little different from cultivating plants to feed cows: the net energy generation is negative. Raise a cow on rangeland, and the net energy generation is positive. Revert that rangeland to wildlife, and the same grasses still get eaten, but humans don’t capture a caloric benefit. Impossible may be a piece of solving the climate challenge, but Dr Brown could stand to make a few friends in animal agriculture to learn some of the other branches of biology.

Adam Wolf, Princeton, NJ

Why was I so triggered? Why did I immediately go back to look at another (unsent) letter to the editor inflamed about See Jane Farm? (Not a farm, run by men, inside a concrete box so you can’t see it). I generally don’t write letters to the editor but there is something about anti-agricultural technologies that awaken my passions. I am an agronomist by training and by profession, and I continue to come back to basic questions around how we use the resources available to us to meet our basic human needs for food, fiber and shelter. When we replace a system that uses the light and heat from the sun with a system that burns boxcars of coal to power LEDs in cement factories I get a knot in the pit of my stomach. When we replace soils with plastic gutters the hair on my neck stands up. When farming is no longer a profession where one acquires a sunburn or a strong handshake I feel total alienation.

Cornell Wheat Lab at the Culinary Breeding Network 2018

I want to wake up knowing that hazelnuts are going into dormancy in some parts of the world, just as coffee bushes are coming out of a dry season to bear fruit. I want to know that wheat, einkorn, emmer, spelt, rye, barley, oats, durum, rice, millet, sorghum, maize and every other distant but unforgotten cousin of the grass family will continue to be planted, harvested, and replanted next year. I want to know that deep mollisols hold more water than thin entisols, and don’t pose the same challenges to tractors as vertisols. I want to know that some valleys in Hungary grow Mangalitsa pigs, and they will give their life to us as pork bellies. I want to know the manure from those same pigs is decomposed to nourish the fine Tokaj grapes grown nowhere else. Real organisms grown by real people in real places.

So: Agrofuturism.

Agriculture is not simply in the future, the future is about agriculture.

The Expected and The Observed

Written by

Adam Wolf, Chief Scientist @ArableLabs

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