Sunday, 11 February 2018

Rise of high-tech farming - a worrying trend

This is a follow-up post I wrote in response to some feedback on my previous post Indoor High-Tech Farming Vs Natural Farming.

Certainly, high-tech farming is perceived by many as the future of agriculture for food security, feeding the world's 9 billion people by 2050. High-tech farmers are cropping up in many places around the world.

An Internet search on high-tech farming would give you results like these:
  • The High Tech Farms Where Our Future Food Will Grow in Nothing But Air
  • Vertical Farming - An Urban Agriculture Solution
  • The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century
  • This Farm of the Future Uses No Soil and 95% Less Water
  • Future food-production systems: vertical farming and controlled-environment agriculture
  • A rosy future for vertical farming
  • Urban farming in Singapore has moved into a new, high-tech phase

It is worrying to see this global wave because I see many problems with high-tech farming.

The main issue is that high-tech farming does not pay attention to how nature works.

In recent years soil biologists are discovering the essential role of soil food web in the healthy growth of plants. Plants need to interact with communities of soil microbes around their root zone (rhizosphere). One group of bacteria, called the Plant Growth Promotion Bacteria (PGPB), supplies nutrients and hormones to the plants. These bacteria also protect the plants against diseases. Examples of PGPB include Pseudomonas, Enterobacter, and Arthrobacter. In fact, the soil creatures in the different trophic levels such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, arthropods, all work together to benefit the growth of plants. Soil is a very complex biological system, which science today is only beginning to understand. Healthy and diverse soil life is the key to healthy soil, which in turn produces healthy and nutritious crops.

High-tech farming ignores the biology and the role of healthy soil. They focus on the chemistry and dictate a cocktail of macro- and micro-nutrients in their nutrient solution for their plants. They grow crops using industrial processes, just like manufacturing iPhones in a factory.

Inside a high-tech farm

Food, whether plant or animal, is part of nature and needs nature's elements (sun, rain, soil, day and night, other plants and animals) to grow healthily. They should not be grown using industrial processes. The two following videos show a high-tech vegetable farm and a high-tech chicken farm. Their technologies are certainly impressive, but the food they produce are not healthy, not to mention the ordeals those chickens have to go through from the day they hatch to the day they are slaughtered.

Growing vegetables using industrial processes

Rearing chicken using industrial processes

There are many other issues with high-tech vegetable farming - high on capital, materials, machines and energy, etc. And much of the materials used are not recycled or not recyclable, such as sponge cubes, net pots, phenolic foam, etc., and are simply discarded as general waste.

Apparently, their yield per acre may be high, but their nutrients per acre is certainly low.

Ecological model of agriculture such as natural farming not only produces better quality food in terms of flavours and nutrition, but it also has a mutually benefiting relationship with nature. While we are growing food for ourselves, we are also returning ecological services to nature - creating habitats for wildlife, sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change, restoring soil fertility, etc.

2015 was UN's International Year of Soils to raise full awareness among civil society and decision makers about the profound importance of soil for human life. It is encouraging to see more such global efforts in recent years, such as:

Soil Solutions: https://soilsolution.org/watch-the-film/chefs-for-soil/
Kiss the Ground: https://kisstheground.com/
4 Per 1000 Initiative: https://www.4p1000.org/
Regeneration International: http://regenerationinternational.org/

In "land-scarce" Singapore, how can we contribute to these efforts? Please read my 2016 post: We need more small farms

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