Big Ag and Agribotics

I came across an invite for a webinar (see link below) organised by the Robotics Business Review in my social media stream. Although I share an interest in electronics and robotics, I find myself thoroughly disagreeing with the sentiment of this article (event invite).

agricultural robotics by striatic, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  striatic 

‘Barely 2 percent of the U.S. population is on the farm; growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley are hard-pressed to find field workers to hire, and in places like Japan the average age of farmers is 70 years old. The future outlook for more people to fill the gap by taking up farming is slim to none.’
This comment to me seems from a perspective of a robotics person with no knowledge of small scale farming and related food trends. There is a slowly growing “back to the land” movement and I personally know of many more people toying with the idea and some already doing it.

Technology (including robotics) has a potential of being an excellent help, but I do not share the technocratic “Big-Ag” vision. Countless examples have exposed the myth of “efficiency” in Big Ag. There is undoubtedly ‘efficiency’ when viewed the most narrow vision in labor input / production cost, but in a more holistic view there are plenty of Big Ag costs (as well as Small Ag benefits) not counted.

Event Registration: https://event.webcasts.com/starthere.jsp?ei=1034586

I am hoping there will be a recording of this webinar as due to timezones I am not going to attend myself. It appears previous webcasts are available (thank you RBR!).

Changing our “food image”

Similar to our media’s obsession with body image which is causing disorders in our population, there is also an obsession with ‘food image’ that has been build over the years largely by advertising.

This has contributed to a lot of waste of perfectly fine food in the traditional industrial supply chain. Some producers have no other options than compost or feed such ‘misfits’ to animals.

Ugly Vegetables

I recently came across a project in Germany called ‘Culinary Misfits’ (see link below) that has made a point of changing these perceptions and do something about this issue. These guys have created a shop for selling food that has been rejected by mainstream food distribution systems. Which helps both producers and some organisations helping to feed more disadvantaged sectors of the community. They are also running courses and there are some lovely images generated via Social Media.

Well Done !

Further reading

Artisan products a drag on productivity ?

According to Australian Productivity Commission bakers of ‘artisan products’ and ‘ international style  breads … with healthy additives like whole grains’ as well as small wine makers of organic & boutique wines are a ‘small but notable’ drag on Australia’s productivity.

How dare you people for wanting (by European standards) half decent bread ! Go back to the white chewing gum like substance with every preservative known to man coming out of factories manned by underpaid serfs [and I can attest to this when I moved down under in the early 90’s].

Wrong priority anyone ??? Takes ones breath away that these clowns, so far removed from reality, having an influence on government policy. But then again, their colleagues in energy policy are probably coming from the same school of thought.

Source: Australian Financial Review Tue 29th April 2014 (unfortunately blocked by pay-wall)

Edit (2014-04-30): Also published Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/business/national-business/artisan-products-a-drag-on-productivity-20140429-zr157.html

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery

Given my suspicion of ill-informed technophobia, it was salient to read Philip Lymbery’s Farmageddon. This catalogue of devastation will convince anyone who doubts that industrial farming is causing ecological meltdown. Whether it’s a question of the wellbeing of individual farm animals, the biodiversity in rainforests or the harm caused to peoples such as the Toba tribe – displaced to the grim suburbs of Lima by the onward march into their traditional forests of GM soy plantations that feed European livestock – fixing the food system has to be a priority.

With every meal we eat, we choose whether or not to contribute to these problems. The businesses we buy our food from are our servants; they want to keep us happy. It follows that they will change only if we show them we are unhappy with, or, even better, enraged by, the current system.

Original Article: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/29/farmageddon-cost-cheap-meat-lymbery-review

Food, Fuel, and the Global Land Grab

This article by Lester R. Brown in the World Future Society Blog is an excellent read on the effects of wealthy sovereign and corporate interests. These foreign interests are blocking valuable land in poorer countries to produce output largely exported, with little to no benefits for the local population.

Growing demand for food and fuel has put pressure on the world’s agricultural lands to produce more. Now, a trend in “land grabbing” has emerged, as wealthy countries lease or buy farms and agribusiness in poorer countries to ensure their own future supplies. The result may be further economic disparities and even “food wars.”

Original Article: http://www.wfs.org/futurist/january-february-2013-vol-47-no-1/food-fuel-and-global-land-grab

Forget Golf Courses: Subdivisions Draw Residents With Farms

Worth the listen – a NPR Radio program on ‘development-supported agriculture’, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

“Golf courses cost millions to build and maintain, and we’re kind of overbuilt on golf courses already,” he says. “If you put in a farm where we can grow things and make money from the farm, it becomes an even better deal.”

Listen here: Forget Golf Courses: Subdivisions Draw Residents With Farms : The Salt : NPR.

Industrial Agriculture Will Soon Be in Decline

Recommended reading (original article source): Industrial Agriculture Will Soon Be in Decline | TakePart by Steve Holt.

“But no matter how great life on the factory farm may be these days (for the owners, that is), the agricultural bubble of the last decade is headed for an irreversible dip over the coming years, experts say.

“You’d almost have to view that as ‘This is the best of times,’ ” Bob Young, the top economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told a group of Montana farmers in Billings recently. “I’d also tell you that whatever goes up like that, sooner or later, more than likely, one has to expect, one has to think about, getting ready for it to go the other way.””

Underground greenhouse

Whilst this particular example by the Benson Institute is situated in a Northern Hemisphere cold climate region, the same principle should apply in Australian conditions. Obviously the aim would be to provide relief from the heat rather than cold by tapping into the thermal mass of soil.

In it’s simplest form it is a rectangular hole in the ground 1.5 – 2 meters deep and covered by plastic or ideally plexi-glass greenhouse sheeting. A rammed earth wall (or dry-stone if you want to get fancy) at the back of the construction and a lower wall at the front provide the angle for the clear. The roof seals the underground greenhouse providing an insulating airspace and allowing the sun to warm the space providing a stable environment for plant growth.

Here is a follow-up video from the original author showing a subsequent year

Resources

Benson Institute Manuals: http://www.bensoninstitute.org/Publication/Manuals/
Pure Energy Services: http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Walipini_Underground_Greenhouses

After The Fish Are Gone

<iframe src=”//player.vimeo.com/video/61661665″ width=”500″ height=”281″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

The video above shows the horrenous statistic that 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been depleted to their limits or totally exploited.

3D food printing – RN First Bite

Another interesting ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) program discussing the current state and future possibilities in printing your own food. The main part is an interview with a researcher from Cornell University in New York about the usage of their fab@home project to print food.

3D printing of food by Brett L., on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Brett L. 

The program does raise some of the issues commonly associated with the printing of food, but largely focused on the aesthetics and taste. Unfortunately it missed one of the more insidious side-effects of this technology which would most likely lead to more industrialisation and corporatisation of the food eco-system. Personally (while I am a great believer in the potential of Open Source 3D printing and manufacturing) I do think that this would not be a track I would ever want to follow…

Links