Aquaponics, high-tech swill, GMOs and robots: context is all

thoughts from Colin Tudge

Scientists and technologists, especially those involved in controversial enterprises, are wont to claim that science and technology are politically and morally neutral. What makes them good or bad is the use to which they are put. The proper answer to this is the one given in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop by the editor of The Daily Beast to his boss, the magnate Lord Copper, who was apt to say daft things: “Up to a point, Lord Copper”.

For, beyond doubt, some forms of science and some technologies do push societies and economies in particular directions by the very fact that they exist at all – and thus they can hardly claim to be neutral. The sheer expense of genetic engineering for example, leading to GMOs, and the intellectual excitement that goes with them (the science and technology are awfully clever), and the promise they bring of near monopoly, with all the wealth and influence that that implies, encourages universities and governments like Britain’s to put their weight behind the commercial companies that seek to develop it. (The same kind of impulsion, it has often been pointed out, applies to nuclear weapons. Little Boy cost, well, a bomb. It seemed a shame after all that effort not to drop it on somebody).

Yet, up to a point, the claim of neutrality is usually justified. Most technologies can be used in ways that are good for humanity and/or the biosphere — or very much to the bad: not really improving our lives and the lot of our fellow creatures, but merely helping (up to a point) to compensate for the things we are doing wrong. This is abundantly true of most of the technologies and high technologies now coming on line in agriculture.

Take aquaponics: a portmanteau word compounded from “aquaculture” – the culture of fish or molluscs or crustaceans or perhaps algae in custom-built ponds or aquaria; and “hydroponics” – “soil-less culture”: plants rooted in nutrient solutions. The nutrients are commonly given in inorganic form; just a soup of simple compounds, a fair sampling of the periodic table, of the kinds that are considered to be most essential. The idea of aquaponics is to raise fish (usually fish) in tanks and use the mucky water that results to fertilize crops (usually high-value salads) grown hydroponically – a quasi-organic form of hydroponics. Is this good or bad?

Surely the system could be good. On the small scale it emulates (up to a point) the traditional, mixed farming of South-East Asia which perhaps is the most productive of all, and is often startlingly beautiful. Rice is grown in flooded paddy fields with billions of invertebrates between the stems and roots, preyed upon by carp and ducks, with horticulture on the islets that poke above the paddy, all contributing to a human diet which, at its best, is unimprovable, nutritionally and gastronomically; and is also very much under the control of the local people. Such farming is the prime example of agroecology in action, and to some extent of food sovereignty  – so why not seek to replicate it?

But it all depends. If, as is often the case, the aquaponics system is sold as a high-tech and high-capital package, then it is likely to require loads of extra energy – both heat and light. Warm-water fish are generally favoured – like Tilapia, from the Great Lakes of Africa.  The traditional Asian systems make use of what grows naturally and locally, all very vernacular and artisanal. The western version is very contrived, dependent on high tech, high energy, and imports. The Asian version is built around rice, the chief staple and indeed, for many people, the main food. The western high-tech copies on the whole provide luxury crops. Nobody actually needs lamb’s lettuce.

On the other hand – there is always another hand! – aquaponic systems needn’t take up much room and so can be integrated into otherwise intensive housing estates and thus re-introduce town-dwellers to the delights of home-grown food. In schools they could be a wonderful educational device, touching as they can do on all aspects of biology and husbandry (including issues of animal welfare. Do the fish enjoy being stuck in tanks?). New plastics now being developed pick up and store solar energy – with the promise of greenhouses and poly-tunnels that are self-heating. Here, surely, is eco-friendly high-tech – a “tool for conviviality” as demanded by Ivan Illich, and an “appropriate technology (even though high tech) of the kind advocated by Ernst (“Fritz”) Schumacher.

But is hydroponics really the best way to produce food plants even in cities? Wouldn’t it be far better just to do what is traditional – encourage gardening, in allotments and rooftops and on walls (which are marvellous storage-heaters)? Shouldn’t we design cities properly so that there is always room for urban growing and farming? As for livestock – we should indeed make more use of freshwater fish – but Tilapia? Surely we should be revisiting the great cold-water carp culture and cuisines still evident in Eastern Europe, and prominent in Jewish cooking? Isn’t aquaponics, in the end, just another, potentially highly profitable high technology designed not to expand the horizons of the human race but to rectify (up to a point) the mistakes of the past (including inappropriately designed cities and eco-unfriendly houses)? Is it really a serious attempt to solve humanity’s problems and keep the biosphere in good heart, or yet another example of short-term commercial opportunism, the perceived need to get rich quick in the neoliberal economy?

I would not presume to judge. I just think the issues should be discussed more than they are.

Or take the new technologies for processing food waste to make swill for pigs that is not only nutritious (as pigs seem to find it) but is also safe: all bugs and worms destroyed en route. FAO says that in rich countries like ours a third of all food is thrown away after it reaches the kitchen. If only half of what’s wasted was properly processed then millions of tonnes of soya could be replaced, and millions of hectares of forest that is now being sacrificed to grow it could be saved.

Indeed. But the same kind of caveats apply as to aquaponics. First, should be really be trying to produce so much pork? Shouldn’t we be seeking instead to encourage, not vegan diets necessarily, but low-meat cuisines (including those of SE Asia)?  Assuming, though, that we do opt to keep some animals (which on various grounds is usually desirable) it surely it would be good to feed them on safe swill rather than on soya. But the caveat applies nonetheless. Safe swill may be a good or even the ideal pig-feed in a crowded world but it is not the priority. The priority is to ask whether we really need so much pork in the first place. We should also ask whether in practice, it is better for kitchen waste to be turned by elaborate tech into safe swill or simply to compost it or turn it into biogas (or both), which is far simpler. In short, as with aquaponics, safe swill might be seen more as attempt to patch up an enterprise that is misguided, than to solve the real problem which is, many might say, that we produce far too much meat of all kinds, and that we attempt to do so by industrial means which in the short term is more profitable and which governments and their selected intellectual advisers feel is more “modern” and hence “progressive”.

Indeed, the out-and-out cynic might suggest that in practice, in the present economy, processed swill will turn out to be yet another scam. It will not serve primarily to reduce the strain that the world’s pigs impose on the world’s ecosystems. It will be used instead to justify the idea that it is OK to eat as much pork as we like because it is all being produced in ecologically sound ways. Safe swill will not necessarily, or probably, curb the spread and spread of soya. A great deal of soya (most?) is grown not for pigs but for cattle, which have in effect at times been fed a form of swill (hence BSE) but on the whole aren’t. Besides, the meat industry is ingenious – and, like all industries in the global neoliberal economy, it feels impelled to produce as much as possible, so as to maximize profit, which it must do to “compete” in the world market, which the world’s most powerful governments and international agencies see as the prime desideratum. So however, pork is produced, the meat industry (backed by governments like ours) will find new ways to encourage us, or our pets, or some new as yet unthought-of technology, to consume more of it. In any case, if the soya market is cut back, those who grow it can always switch to maize – which can be burnt, and called “biofuel”, and again, with the right rhetoric, can be made to seem virtuous.

Indeed, the same kind of arguments apply to all technologies. All but a very few (atomic weapons are an obvious exception) could be used for the general good if applied in the right ecological, economic and political context and with the right intent. It is hard to find a bona fide case to defend commercially-marketed GMOs, and it is very easy to find a long list of reasons for banning them — but the underlying science of GMOs has all kinds of highly, almost unequivocally beneficial applications, in medicine, in animal conservation (rapid analysis of DNA enables us to see what’s really out there) and indeed for conventional plant breeding (helping to track down potentially useful genes in forgotten varieties and wild relatives).  Or then again — all farmers, including small, organic farmers of the kind the world really needs, could make some use of robots, to help take the grunt out of some of the more tedious tasks (like weeding). But the current ambition, in the current neoliberal economy, is to use them not as an aide to good practice but to replace traditional farms and skilled workers with vast-scale, industrial monocultures with minimum-to-zero labour which, now and for the next few decades, are maximally profitable. As David Jason’s Del-boy used to say in Only Fools and Horses, “Luvly jubbly!” – and what else matters?

The bottom line as accountants used to say is that after a million years or so of technological development, tricked out by several centuries of bona fide science, humanity as a whole still has not worked out how to uses science and technology truly for our benefit, and for the benefit of the biosphere as a whole. The problems for most people didn’t become really pressing until the 18th century when manufacture came truly to the fore – though there were complaints long before that that water-mills for example were ruining the fishing and the scenery, as the naturally meandering streams were being straightened out to make them faster and turn the wheels. But as factories appeared in Swiss valleys (I think it was Switzerland) Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to point out in prose that refused to be ignored that big tech had a serious downside. He was soon joined by the Luddites (who weren’t just wreckers, but had a serious political and philosophical point to make) and then by intellectuals and artists including John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, Ghandi, and on to Schumacher and Illich.

Nothing is more important to the human race, or to the biosphere, than the way we deploy science and technology. We need to ask ever more urgently, as some of the world’s greatest thinkers and moralists have been asking for some centuries, why some ways are better than others, and, perhaps, why some lines of inquiry some technologies should not be pursued or developed at all.

Such conversations are taking place but not, as is usually the case with issues that matter most, in high places. For governments like ours and the corporates in general all that counts is how much profit can be made in the shortest time, with sufficient backing and PR. It won’t do.

Colin Tudge November 5 2017


The Social Contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

Tools for Conviviality. Ivan Illich (1973)

Small is Beautiful. E F Schumacher (1973)

One thought on “Aquaponics, high-tech swill, GMOs and robots: context is all

  1. Thanks for a thought provoking article – particularly as we have just created an urban indoor hydroponic vertical farm in Leeds!
    I can accept that this type of tech solution can be usefully viewed as a response to the current limitations of how as a society we manage food production. I doubt that anyone (apart from gullible VCs) believes that it can replace traditional agriculture or even that such an outcome would be desirable. It is up to us as citizens to ensure that tech is harnessed for good (on the input and output sides) – and that’s what we are attempting to do. As a last note, your point about lamb’s lettuce made me smile: this tech is still (relatively) new and like lots of new tech it sharpens it teeth on the wealthy first – I’m not unhappy that they are prepared to pay for the development of a tech that can benefit many over time.

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