Growing a plant seems like a fairly straightforward affair, right? Stick a seed in the ground, apply regular water and sunshine, and a few months later, voila. Sure, that may cut it for the budding agriculturalists of 10,000 BP who had a small tribe to feed. But what about modern society and its globally interconnected community, 7 billion strong? Supplying these vast numbers with a variety of nutritious and tasty crops over and over again, with failsafe protection from drought, disease, and pests…well, now things get a little more complex. Luckily, the grey matter of homo sapiens gives them a penchant for solving complex problems, and so humans have attacked the problem with an effective mix of hardware, chemicals and biotechnology, boosting crop yields and improving harvest reliability to support a global appetite.
Among our cadre of techno-ape innovations are combine harvesters, hand-crafted genomes, and bubbling brews of bug-killer which have all helped agricultural output keep pace with the insatiable demands of population growth. The approach we’ve taken thus far has put our full confidence behind monocultures at the forefront, which, sturdied by a chemical crutch, have led to an under-recognized dark side of farming—runoff. The term sounds innocuous, as if we’re talking about a bit of muddy water spilling off the farm into our waterways. In fact, agricultural runoff is the number one cause of pollution planet-wide, contributing to the destruction of estuaries, coral reefs, acidification of the water table, loss of topsoil, nutrient leeching, biodiversity loss, and disease.
Step Aside Human, Your Work Here is Done
As if the environmental challenges weren’t reason enough to fix farming, there’s another item that I personally find the most interesting of the whole equation—the fact that people are actually still doing this stuff. I would have hoped that by now, 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and our species armed to the hilt with mind-blowing technology and computing power, us humans would have rendered ourselves irrelevant when it comes to attaining our calories.
Nourishment. It’s one of those annoying biological needs that we’ve had to deal with for too damn long. Don’t you think it’s about time we solved this whole labor-for-food thing once and for all? Plus, attaining food through labor has that nasty side effect of making it cost money. Sure, we’ve eliminated most jobs in farming with the increased use of machinery, but there’s still plenty more work to do. I want to see us get humans out of the picture altogether, up and down the entire chain of production, processing, and distribution of the global food supply.
At each step in the process of getting food from the seed to your dinner plate, opportunity for automation abounds, and automation is becoming more a part of our farming reality every day. Robotic seed sorters and planters, computer-controlled indoor environments free of pathogens and pests, waste recycling, pruning, harvesting, packing, shipping…all of these fit in with the idea of Autoponics.
In its highest form, Autoponics is the total cybernation of the complete seed-to-harvest, packaging and distribution processes of food production.
The end game of Autoponics is worldwide food security through low- or zero-cost, zero-waste, abundant and sustainable computerized food production, marking the end of human labor in the agricultural sector altogether. I want to see people value food like they value water—vitally important, but you think I’m gonna pay for that? The stuff falls out of the sky. It ought to be free.
So, you could say I want to make food fall from the sky. However, its more about taking food to the sky, in skyscrapers. Combine autoponics with vertical farming, an idea championed by Dickson Despommier in his new book, The Vertical Farm, and you have the future of food. Stack cybernated greenhouses 40 stories high and you have 50,000 fed on an acre of ground. With the shift of food production from the heartland to the heart of the city, we’ll have eliminated unspeakable inefficiencies in the food industry. Existing farmland could then be left alone to return to its natural state as grassland prarie and hardwood forest, bringing back biodiversity, eliminating runoff, and revitalizing ecosystems around the world.
What Kind of Future Do You Want? Are You Building It?
Good questions to ask. The more I ask myself those question, the less I enjoy my day job. 🙂 Well, more correctly, asking that question makes me less satisfied with the status quo and itching to be a part of building the future that I want to see. It also has a lot to do with why I joined Hackerspace.
I could go on for hours espousing the virtues of cybernated vertical farming over traditional methods, but let’s get down to practical matters. We’ve got a Hackerspace, some really smart people, and an idea. So let’s get to hacking and figure out how Autoponics really works.
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