Story first published at Pure Advantage
We live in the era of the open, networked and democratised economy. We all are witnessing how nearly every business and industry in the world has been, or is in the process of being transformed through through networked, social, open (and in many cases, free) networks operating on a global and local scale . From healthcare (Doctor on Demand), mobility (Uber) and real estate (Zillow), to music (Spotify), banking and retail (Amazon and TradeMe), the bulk of the world’s industries are progressing forward in leaps and bounds with the democratisation of knowledge, information and open data. Linux’s free and open source software development, operating system and distribution network; Android’s open-sourced software stack for mobile devices, and Wikipedia, the world’s largest free online encyclopedia, allowing anyone in the world to access and edit articles, have also all revolutionised the way we seek, produce and share information.
Food and Agriculture however, perhaps two of the most fundamental industries essential for human and planetary health, have remained dismally unchanged for decades. Our global food system has become dangerously dependent on just a few companies to meet a high percentage of the world’s growing agricultural needs. Constrained by industrial-era economics, perverse big business monopolies and cost-crippling intellectual property laws. Until now, that is. Transitioning from being notably absent from the mix, food and ag are at long last joining the race. Transforming one of the most staid, socially closed and environmentally taxing industrial systems in the world.
Thankfully, after decades of the Big Ag and Food mafia calling the shots, some of the world’s progressive technologists, entrepreneurs and startups are starting to push back and transform a system ripe for disruption. Ag 2.0 renegades, paving the way forward towards a democratized, open and imminently more sustainable food system by bringing the networked economy, digital ag and distributed farming methods to the world of food and agriculture. In my humble opinion, not a moment too soon. But first a primer on the ag mafia to understand why the democratisation and digitalisation of food and ag is so important....
The Agricultural Mafia
According to Greenpeace, four corporations – ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus – control more than 75 percent of the global grain trade. Factory farms now account for 72, 43 and 55 percent of global poultry, egg and pork production, respectively. And five corporations – Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF and the almost approved Dow/DuPont merger control in excess of 75 percent of the world pesticides/ agrochemical market.
The increasing consolidation of our global seed supply is equally as frightening. Seed behemoth Monsanto, which is amidst highly controversial and contested mergernegotiations with chemical giant Bayer to the value of 62 billion dollars, has long dominated America’s (and much of the rest of the world’s) food chain with its genetically modified seeds and gamut of toxic pesticides. Monsanto now controls over 30% of seeds globally according to ETC Group, an estimated 93 percent of the U.S. soybean seed market and over 70 percent of US cottonseed sales, Bloomberg’s Jack Kaskey says. If the merger gets approval from regulatory bodies these figures are only set to rise.
That’s a tiny amount of profit-before-people led corporations controlling what the planet eats, and how it is produced. This near total corporate takeover of the global food supply threatens innovation, biodiversity and ultimately food security.
Environmentally, global monocultures and conventional agriculture guzzle perverse amounts of natural resources and fossil fuels. From the incredible quantities of water, chemical fertilizer and toxic pesticide use, to the fuel needed to ship crops around the world, it’s a flawed system.
The perils don’t end there. Even where perverse monopolies in the food system don’t reign supreme, almost all of the vital technological and science led agricultural advancements required for a sustainable and healthy food systems, such as sustainable seed, crop and pesticide production, are threatened by a never-ending loop of proprietary practices, restricted information and a competitive, capitalistic mindset preventing much needed progress in the industry. The last time I looked, innovative biotech companies like Indigo Ag, Caribou BioSciences, and NZ’s own Bioconsortia and Biolumic weren’t giving away their novel plant microbiome, CRISPR and UV crop enhancement technologies for free.
With so few existing players, the increasing consolidation of the agriculture supply industry and prohibitively expensive proprietary systems dominating the entire Big Food and Ag value chain, it is little wonder that incentives to promote an open, sustainable and democratized food system have been slim to none. That is, a system where any member of the community can openly participate in, and add value to food production that both reduces costs and promotes human and planetary sustainability.
Food Computers – Opening up the Future of Farming
The launch of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative, in late 2015 is one such example. OpenAg’s goal is to create the first open-source agricultural technology research lab and ecosystem of food technologies, that enables and promotes transparency, networked experimentation, education, and local production of food. Part of the MIT Media Lab CityFARM project, OpenAg’s first cab off the rank is the “Personal Food Computer” (PFC). Ranging in scale from personal to industrial,PFCs use sensor-actuated, controlled-environment and soilless agricultural technologies and systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside specialized growing chambers. Almost every imaginable arable crop is grown under the same roof.
Principal Investigator and Director, Caleb Harper, believes our best hope for sustainable farming in the future lies with advances in technology – especially sensors, big data and open networks. So an important distinction about OpenAg and its Food Computers is not its highly efficient, localized indoor farming methods (although these technologies are also complementary to a sustainable and distributed food system), but its open source plant recipe software system that it uses to locally produce sustainable food of all origins and share this info with the world. With only 3 percent of the global population involved in the production of their own food, Harper says his mission is to enable every global citizen to become a farmer and equip him or her with a food computer. “I want to revolutionize agriculture — to move out of the industrial age and into a modern era of networked and computationally driven food production.”
Specific conditions inside the Food Computers are able to be set or adjusted manually, and are designed to mimic natural environments, or generate ideal synthetic ones. “Why import food from thousands of kilometers away when one can import the climate itself in which the food was grown?” says Harper.