Food, Futures & Ecological Restoration

From Barbara Heinzen, 29 January 2020

Recently, I received a link to a website promising a revolution in food production based on “advances in precision biology and an entirely new model of production we call Food-as-Software.” Not only would this new, plant-based industrial technology feed all future populations, it would make the cattle industry bankrupt and allow millions of acres to be reforested.

As a simple geographer, based on the Hudson River in the USA after decades in London, I read through this link with considerable skepticism.

Professionally, I have been doing futures work since the 1980s and this article struck me as a good example of extravagant thinking based on simple projections of some flashy new technology.  What it does not do is explore why this technology is likely to dominant or explore what might be needed (such as energy or regulations) to achieve that goal.  Nor does it look at the many social, economic & ecological factors that actually determine how we use land or raise the food we need.  Even if the premise were true — that we will all be eating engineered food in the near future —  what is to say that former agricultural land will return to forests, grasslands, wetlands or whatever is your favorite ecosystem?  It is just as likely to turn into suburban housing estates.  In short, this website reads more like technological propaganda than serious analysis.

For a long time, I have been preoccupied with how social-ecological systems change, first studying patterns in the developing world, and then looking at the challenge of shifting from an industrial model for society to an ecological model.  We are currently facing a massive systemic change where new technologies will be important, but they are not the only forces driving such change.  Values, crises, new necessities (like reducing greenhouse gases), experiments (like those in regenerative agriculture), formal and informal rules, as well as the accidents of history, have all been important in the past.  They are likely to be just as critical in the coming years.

I am now managing a smallholding of 20 acres on the Hudson River as an experimental environmental restoration project.  Our ‘livestock’ are the deer, the occasional bear and smaller animals like raccoons, various members of the weasel family, beaver (who refuse to accept any limits on their appetites), and two species of fox, red and gray.

We have made progress in the past eight years, but I am acutely aware that this work is currently a gift, employing whatever we can afford in finance and labour. What we need at places like this is not a new technology, but an economic system that rewards smallholders and others who are finding ways to support the natural world so that it will continue to support all of us.

These selected photographs of plants, animals, birds and butterflies found where the Hannacroix Creek enters the Hudson River, Coeymans & New Baltimore, New York were taken between January and December 2019


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