Farming has been the primary source of human food for centuries. But the cracks are starting to show in industrialised agriculture. Water shortages, soil erosion, and other effects of climate change, as well as the increased demands on food supply by the world’s huge population, mean that we need to rethink monocultures and GMO. Drawing on a range of documentary, speculative and solutions-orientated projects by artists and designers, DAMN° presents a non-exhaustive introduction to alternative farming perspectives that may or may not be good ideas.
THE FUTURE IS FEMALE
With technological advances like heavy-lifting machinery and digitally-monitored data-based methodologies, farming is becoming more about brains than brawn. This is the reason given for the number of women in farming in the United Kingdom tripling between 2001 and 2014. Of course, vast numbers of unacknowledged female farmers have been doing it tech-free in India and other developing countries for centuries. Redressing the lack of resources and support for women farmers could, according to the UN, significantly improve global agricultural yield and food production. Farming’s benefits are more than just food and economics though.
Photographer Ashley Stinson adds another dimension with her Fredonia series, which documents the female inmate farming programme at the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex. It had been a men’s prison until 2009 and the warden was unsure about whether women would be able to handle the physical labour, but was prepared to try. ‘I believe that the time the female inmates spend in the farming programme is crucial to their rehabilitation and can be used as a time for self-reflection and rebirth,’ says Stinson. ‘Farming is a meditative and rejuvenating experience, and it becomes a way for these women to re-evaluate their lives and to take the first steps in becoming stronger, healthier individuals with more promising futures.’
THINK LIKE A TREE
Growing trees or shrubs in and around pastures and fields prevents soil erosion, improves water retention, undoes ecological monocultures and captures more carbon. Promoting a ground-up approach to reforesting our vacant and degraded land in rural and urban areas, Seedballs Kenya is taking the guerrilla gardening movement to the next level. The brainchild of Teddy Kinyanjui and Elsen Karstad, a Seedball comprises a seed inside a ball of charcoal dust and nutritious binders. The charcoal dust is salvaged from urban vending sites in Nairobi and the seeds from the Kenya Forestry Seed Centre, that also provides information on provenance and which seeds to plant in which regions – planting indigenous trees appropriate to specific contexts is key. Warning: do not plant these Seedballs outside Kenya!
The little fluffy pollinators of our food sources are dying. The varroa destructor mite that originates in Asia and has been spreading to other continents since the 1980s, the destruction of habitat and biodiversity associated with climate change, and the pesticides of industrial farming are the main perpetrators. These factors scratch each other’s backs, a vicious cycle that is the product of one another.
The race to engineer artificial bees has begun. Walmart is patenting drone bees, Manchester University is engineering a microbot bee, and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is already using an autonomous penny-sized flying hovering RoboBee to monitor weather, climate, and environmental factors to support research that can halt the decline of real bee populations. The privacy and security issues raised by drones come into play, but as one episode of the science fiction series Black Mirror about the techno critters being hacked to kill people illustrated, it could get far messier.
Swedish artist Erik Sjödin has been drawing attention to the social and political relationship between bees and humans since 2015. The Political Beekeeper’s Library is a mobile collection of books with authors from Aristoteles to Thomas D Seeley, all expounding on the similarities between how bees and humans organise each other. Similar, but of completely different scale and perspective, as demonstrated by The Bee Shed sculpture installed in the Marabou park in Stockholm. The work intends to spark conversation and thought on how designing infrastructural systems from a bee-attuned perspective could have a huge impact on our survival. What if we designed with animal and plant needs, not just our own human needs in mind?
Another conversation starter is Synthetic Polleniser, a conceptual design project by Michael Candy, who believes that we can find solutions to the varroa mite, climate change and industrial farming, but we're lacking in will and a deep understanding of how grave the problem is. After years of designing and redesigning the Synthetic Polleniser’s robotic flowers, replete with pollen, nectar and stamens, they really do attract and are used by bees. Positioning them between real flowers, the project’s real intention, however, is to highlight the absurdity of these robotic flowers being easier and safer for bees to pollinate than the potentially toxic original flowers.
GENE EDITING REACHES CITIZEN SCIENCE
Less than seven years old, CRISPR is an incredibly powerful, accurate and fast way to edit genes that has already been used to reverse genetic deafness in mice, treat sickle cell anaemia, develop mushrooms that don’t go brown so fast, and treat a heart muscle disorder in human embryos. The potential for farming is huge: drought resistant crops, fungus resistant bananas, hornless dairy cows, allergen-free peanuts and… opening the proprietary stranglehold that Monsanto has on GMO seeds. Both parts scary and exciting, CRISPR is also available as a home-kit.
‘When the personal computer came out I imagine people purchased it because it was cool and maybe had a game they could play or a programme they could use,’ biohacker Josiah Zayner told Gizmodo on why he founded The Odin, a company that supplies all manner of DIY gene engineering kits for $199 a pop. ‘Now living organisms are the computer and DNA is the code that writes reality. We want to give people the ability to reach into their imagination and bring things into existence using genetic design.’
While genetic modification is not without its risks and ardent detractors, we’ve been doing it for centuries through cross-breeding animals and cross-pollinating plants. In Tomorrow’s Table, scientist Pamela Ronald and her organic farmer husband Raoul W Adamchak argue that genetic engineering and organic farming are not at odds with each other. The precision of the CRISPR technology, and its accessibility to citizen science, is about to open up a whole new world of opportunities and problems.
MINING, YES MINING
Baking powder is made of three different rocks mined in three different mines. When we think of food, we tend to think about the nutritious aspect, however additives are and have been an essential ingredient in the preservation and preparation process for centuries. On the other extreme is the whole-meal replacement and performance-enhancing supplement movements, with people consuming extreme concentrations of all manner of nutrients derived from both organic and inorganic sources.
Harvesting the Rare Earth is an art installation that speculates on a near-future in which mining companies use genetically modified micro-organisms to extract rare earth elements (REEs) from e-waste dumps. REEs are metals that are difficult to extract and essential to producing electronic devices, with many also used in the production of food additives. Danish artist Jacob Remin’s installation contrasts aerial footage of Agbogbloshie, the world’s largest e-waste dump in Ghana, with an installation of a future biotech company’s brochure showcase of larvae eating REEs from discarded electronics. These larvae would produce butterflies with a high degree of REE that are caught using alluring bright lights. It is a disquieting representation of the political and ecological implications of our mining mania.
ANIMALS WANNA HAVE FUN
An unlikely spat that emerged from the Brexit negotiations is that of whether animals are sentient or not. ‘A sentient animal is one for whom feelings matter,’ Professor John Webster wrote after The Lisbon Treaty passed in 2009, heralding it as an opportunity to make life for farm animals better. In the course of the UK wrapping its mind around redefining its relationship to EU legislation, the issue made sensationalist post-truth headlines again last year: neither voting for nor against, the issue is legally moot.
Not for artists Andrea Roe and Cath Keay however, whose Carnevale project set out to design fun interactive experiences for pigs. The result is eight sculptural toys that stimulate the pigs’ senses and curiosity, including a popcorn piñata, melon landmines, an apple barrel of aromatic objects like pine cones, and hanging sweeps that scratch their backs. It was inspired by research into what encourages positive behaviour among farm animals, and the idea was to develop objects that can be easily replicated by farmers.
More people, bigger cities, less arable land available for farming… let’s send it out to sea. Currently under construction in Rotterdam is the world’s first floating dairy farm, which on completion will be home to 40 cows that produce 800 litres per day. ‘Using an advanced circular system, cows on this multi-storey farm for a large part eat grass grown under LED lighting and produce milk, while nutrients are recovered from their urine and energy is generated from their manure,’ says engineer Peter van Wingerden, who had the idea in 2012 and has funded the initiative through commercial investment. It might not be scalable, but ‘…we are not aiming to substitute existing farmers or take over the big corporations, we simply want to prove that an alternative solution is possible,’ he told the Holland Herald.
USING THE WHOLE ANIMAL
If we’re going to kill animals to eat meat, the least we can do is make the most of their entire sacrifice. Here are four projects that shift the status quo on what we consider animal waste, either into functional products or provocations that initiate reflection on value.
Repurposing the waste produced in the pre-packaged and processed fish industry, fish leather is a traditional practice that is having a contemporary revival. The Icelandic fish leather enterprise, Atlantic Leather, tans sustainable, waterproof and washable leathers from by-products from the country’s mega seafood industry – the 19th biggest in the world. It is also the only tannery in the world that produces wolffish leather and managed to science their way around making a washable salmon leather.
Pledging respect to mother nature by embracing even the intestines of animals as beautiful, inside and out, literally and figuratively, are designers Billie van Katwijk and Tobias Trübenbacher. Telling stories through forms, Trübenbacher’s Inner Values highlights the inconsistency with which we value meat, food, and furniture. Preserved, processed and stuffed pig bladders become the upholstering of a chair. Preserved and inflated cattle intestine, woven to cover a hard metal frame, adds a slightly creepy yet calming aesthetic. And with the overwhelming amount of animal by-product, we need alternative proposals for its usage to be second nature.
Van Katwijk’s Ventri project takes a few twists around the abdomen with meticulous tanning and cleaning practices to turn heads and minds with cow stomach luxury leathers. These endeavours in transforming the seemingly grotesque are all done with one main goal – to create awareness that what we are being told is gross and should avoid, can become something sublime.
After all, everything is Blood Related. Basse Stittgen has dried and heat pressed the blood that is discarded during slaughtering to create a series of unassuming domestic objects. Egg holders, jewellery, and even a record that can be played on a turntable, question our negative associations with the stigmatised material. Can blood simply be considered a biomaterial? By pointing to the possibility of reimagining the taboo material of blood, the project not only highlights agricultural waste, but asks us to rethink our culture, imaginary, and, in the end, life and death.