Technology is helping us to continually tweak nature, animals and ourselves in search of improvement and increased efficiency. How favourable the results will be, however, is open to question.
It’s not just tomatoes that we’re looking at through the window. In the pink light of the container, we can see a representation of our society in miniature. Long rows of tomato plants are rooted in small containers into which just enough nutrients and water droplets are pipetted. Everything is hermetically sealed, to prevent fungi or germs from disturbing things. Important numbers and values are displayed on a screen in the control room. The engine room is not accessible; the Chinese would give anything to take pictures of it.
This indoor farming container goes beyond the traditional greenhouse. Not only are the plants no longer rooted in the ground (which is increasingly common), but they are no longer exposed to daylight either. Not a single ray of sunlight enters. Instead, a smart system of LED lighting emits a fairytale-like light, less intense than sunlight. This is convenient, since plants can be exposed to light for much longer, without exhausting them. That means they grow faster, every day. An additional benefit is that the leaves remain smaller, so the plant grows taller, preventing the shiny tomatoes at the bottom from being plunged into shade. Down with the suboptimal sunset!
The container is an invention of Priva, a large automation company in De Lier, which supplies software and hardware systems for greenhouses. Sustainability is a leading concern for this Westland company. “We can achieve similar levels of food production with far less inputs,” according to Jan Westra, Priva’s strategic business developer. “By supplying everything in precisely defined quantities, we use far less water and fertilizer. That’s of great importance in today’s world, in which we will soon have nine billion mouths to feed, and in the most sustainable way possible.”
An educational package from Priva promises to teach children, “how robotization can help solve the global food problem.” When asked how, Westra admits the reality is more nuanced, since a container like this is expensive and requires a lot of energy, and therefore is not directly a solution for poor countries.
“But it is an outcome for metropolises such as Dubai, where they intend to decrease their significant dependence on imports. They can start producing fresh food themselves. Or for example one of our customers in the north of Canada, a supermarket, which imports its lettuce from 6000 km away. That requires a lot more energy and comes at the expense of half the vitamins. Now they have a container next to their store, allowing them to deliver fresh, healthy vegetables all year round.”
Common greenhouses can also become more automated, Priva believes. “Our systems enable a horticulturist to operate more remotely,” says Jan Westra. “When a problem occurs, he’ll get an alarm in the app. Even when he’s in church on Sunday morning, he hears a bleep, and all he has to do is reset a sensor.” With the help of the computer, nature can continue working, even on Sundays.
According to the Priva website, the company is the absolute market leader in “developing algorithms for plant-based control strategies. Combined with our hardware and software, these strategies provide the best solution for indoor growing.” What Priva markets is mainly control. “Your productivity depends on an optimal balance between all the processes in your business: from cultivation to harvest, and from water and energy management to creating the perfect climate. In this way, you can grow crops perfectly, just like your business.” Priva’s control technology is so accurate, that it is also used in office buildings.
The implications of automation are not limited to life within the greenhouse, but far beyond. “We are constantly on in the automated world,” says Marten Kuijpers, a researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut. Together with TU Delft, he leads research into automated landscapes such as those of Priva. These spaces are no longer designed for people—since their role in these processes is increasingly inferior — but for machines and other entities. Above all, Kuijpers is interested in the social and spatial implications. He visited greenhouses, but also container terminals in the Port of Rotterdam where the only people left work in a control room, data centres in closed boxes, and dairy farms where cows are automatically scanned, milked and monitored by robots resulting in the fact that farming increasingly takes place in an office environment, behind a desk and on a smartphone.
“A Lely milking robot gives a lot of freedom to the farmer. You could say he can go on holiday while managing his business remotely. This is all made possible by the use a huge number of different robots and a multitude of sensors. All of this is monitored and controlled 24/7.” This way of working is also entering other working fields. “Even postmen are increasingly used as a kind of robot, as they are continuously tracked and traced via GPS by the headquarters.”
Nature in these farms has to adapt to the 24-hour economy in order to squeeze everything out of it. A cow is traditionally a herd animal; she prefers to graze with others. But technology wants her to act as an individual. She wears a collar around her neck, equipped not with a bell, but full of sensors so that robots recognize her. She can, or rather, she has to choose herself when to be milked. This is in order to distribute the entire population of a barn efficiently throughout the day.
All of this is possible due to an enormous amount of collected data, says Kuijpers. Lely has been saving this data for years. The temperature of cows, the number of steps they take, how they ruminate, their diseases and pregnancies are all analyzed by the supplier. The farmer no longer focuses on the herd in general, but on the problems that appear. Preferably he processes and bottles the milk himself, with a mini milk factory from Lely, so that FrieslandCampina, the large Dutch milk corporation, is no longer needed. Perhaps, in the future drones can be used for logistics. Cows, seasonal workers and postmen turn into data, monitored by the minute as cogs in a larger wheel, accessible everywhere via the cloud.
The effect on the labour market is significant. Robots and sensors are rapidly taking over the work that low-skilled workers used to do. A lot of studies indicate this. Westra believes it’s actually the other way around. “Our technology does the labour no one else wants to do. People living in the city find the work too heavy. They don't share the Westland mentality.” There they are used to work hard if they have to, without complaining.
That’s probably true. But heavy labour also pays very little. This is because producers work with very small margins, due to low food prices and therefore cannot afford to pay much. Automation and upscaling together form a dynamic which reinforce each other. This can be regarded as a silent economic revolution. As long as entire factories don’t close in one go, it isn’t very noticable, but according to MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, there is a “major dislocation” appearing in the economy between productivity and employment. Substantially more is invested in capital than in labour. More profit flows to engineers, owners and the developers of capital, instead of to the workers.
I previously wrote in De Groene Amsterdammer about my visit to one of the largest poultry farms in the Netherlands. It comprises 22 permanent incubators with 57,600 eggs in each machine, from which almost 57,600 chicks hatch in exactly 21 days. They arrive via conveyor belts at the counting machine, where they are injected into crates of exactly one hundred chickens. Only the females, because the males are not useful and so go to their final destination. The females, as many as 1.6 million a week, go to the ‘fattening farms’. There they grow by 60 grams a day, until after 42 days they reach the perfect weight to be cut into chicken fillets.
Everything in this company is geared towards efficiency. For this reason, the Ross 308 chicken breed, proven to be able to grow as efficiently as possible, has been chosen. All hatcheries these days opt for this “efficient converting machine” from soy to chicken fillet. Today, 95 per cent of all Dutch chickens are of this type.
We associate the words “poultry farm” with chickens and farmers, dust and grain and chicken manure, but these are all in the past at this hatchery. There is no farmyard; instead there is a large shed made of concrete and steel with fluorescent tubes and LED lighting. The only greenery on the entire site is a ficus plant in the boardroom. Nature is optimized here, and a hermetic seal applies to every kind of outside world. This applies to a hatchery just as much as to a greenhouse; to a data centre just as much as to a container terminal. Automation leads to closed boxes, factory halls, private spaces that you are not allowed to enter, and can no longer look into.
This is exactly what strikes me when driving through the Westland. It’s a region we can be proud of, with wonderful companies, hard-working people and world-conquering inventions. But how is it possible that all these enthusiastic professionals together have made the spatial environment so ugly?
“Ugly” may not be a very scientific term. “But the fact is that there is not much open and green space left,” says Victor Muñoz Sanz, from Delft University of Technology and connected to Het Nieuwe Instituut’s automated landscapes research initiative. He wanted to know what automation means for the public space in the Westland. The answer is, it’s under pressure.
"The growth comes at the expense of nature and recreational space. The roads are being used by more and more trucks. Public transportation is lagging behind, in a municipality where more people live than in Delft. The question is how liveable it will remain for them.”
Automation leads to scaling up. “Once you have started replacing people with computers, you can repeat it relatively easily. And it is just as necessary to cut costs. This results in large-scale land consolidation. A few major companies acquire all the land in Westland. This changes the traditional structure of fields and waterways. An ever-smaller group of companies owns an increasingly large area.”
There is still low-skilled labour, especially seasonal work, says Muñoz Sanz. “But this will disappear forever. In the end, the Westland will become one big black box, and no one will be able to see exactly what is happening inside. Literally, too, because new greenhouses can no longer be transparent due to light pollution. The Westland will become one large technological district with few people.”
We can be critical about poultry farms, data centres, indoor farms and mega fattening farms, but in fact they constitute the evident consequences of our modern project to reshape and optimize the world around us. In my book De geluksmachine from 2015, I describes this “hyper-reality,” an artificial reality, a technological layer imposed on nature, since we are not satisfied with its imperfections. This can be recognized not only in Westland and in farms, but throughout our entire lives. Muñoz Sanz identifies this clearly. “We are outsourcing increasingly large parts of our lives to enormous non-transparent technology platforms. We do not care who manages our data and where it is stored, nor where our tomatoes come from or who grows them.”
This leads to profound changes in our relationship with the space surrounding us. As I write this, the world outside turns into a landscape painting. Light snowflakes swirl down. Everything seems to stand still for a moment, and the dark trees stand out extra mysteriously against the light background. The painting is impressive – at least, as far as I can tell through the double-glazed windows of my office area, illuminated by its large fluorescent tubes. It is warm here: the office is well insulated and is kept at room temperature day and night by underfloor heating – not so different from the Priva modular container.
I can imagine my life is different, because I will cycle home in the snow, through cold nature. But that piece of reality can also be eliminated, if you like. Across from my desk an intern is working, a twenty-year-old girl with artificial eyelashes. “Cycle? Are you joking?” she laughs. “Far too cold! I hate the cold.” She never cycles, she says. Although she lives nearby, she always travels by bus, her ears plugged into her own protective cocoon so that that she doesn’t feel the wind. Or notice other people, she says honestly. She wants to be independent and to need no one else. She wants to become a manager. And rich. Then she can go to Dubai, to shop in large shopping malls with a sea view. The hyper-reality in optima forma, where the kebabs will soon be decorated with healthy lettuce leaves that have been freshly picked in Priva containers.
It might sound silly to quote her here. But her dream is a life of “lightness”, in the sense of freedom from people and from nature. She may be a precursor, but we are all disconnecting ourselves from nature in a way that is unprecedented in history. That is the real disconnection. We are building a world that is becoming increasingly remote from the soil and the local environment, with all its limitations and imperfections.
According to Umberto Eco, hyper-reality is an attempt to improve reality. Nature does not provide enough; we want to improve it and eliminate undesired elements. We do not want a night with silence and rest, we want an optimized outcome. Just as tomatoes and cows need to be protected against fungi, we should be protected against misery and pain.
The engineers at Priva deliver the same things we all do. They are at most precursors. The confusing thing is that the people working in these places seem so pleasant. At Priva as well, a family business concerned with sustainability and smart solutions. They examine nature, work on projects with greenhouses in developing countries, and donate vegetables to the lunchroom where people work with disabilities. They intend to use less fertilizer, be increasingly circular and improve sales opportunities for horticulturists.
But something seems not right to me. Mainly concerning the final destination of this development. Could it be that our technological progressions, although very smart and convenient individually, are together leading to an irrational outcome? This is the paradox of rationalization. We can improve nature and make it more efficient – until it disappears. Leaving us with no land to stand on.
Text: Frank Mulder