20 Artificial Ecologies

The most advanced field in agricultural robotics is that which concerns itself with livestock. It’s a depressing observation: that the conversion of sentient life into the jellies, patties, nuggets and pastes which we recognize as food is a process so brutalizing that we cannot stomach being near it, even as it fills our stomachs. Yet the larger truth of this situation is more harrowing still. Agricultural investment is pathetically low given the industry’s size. The results of more visible agricultural practices, including deforestation, expanding ocean dead zones produced by fertilizer run-offs, desertification and poor soil management, may prove even harder to tolerate than the screams of animals humans are currently so desperate to inflict on machines.

The power of the 2013 European “horse meat scandal,” in which “beef lasagnes” sold in supermarkets turned out to be a composite of horse skin, sawdust, and other scrapings assembled at a series of factories thousands of miles apart, revealed an ontological breach between consumers and the food they eat, but also the remarkable, if misaligned, potential of industrial supply chains. Similarly, in 2020, nation states began impelling citizens to take home surfeits of wagyu beef, Belgian fries, and French cheese – like wartime rationing in reverse – in a gesture of “solidarity” with farmers after sales fell in the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak.

There’s another world where “cooks,” “kitchens,” “chefs” and “ingredients” unite a planetary-scale network of insiders committed to the molecular, metabolic, and dynamic transformations of matter packaged and marketed to be appealing, addictive, and profitable. It was no accident that the storyline of TV series Breaking Bad contained a fried chicken franchise whose parent company, Madrigal Electromotive GmbH, provided the means of international supply to Walter White’s rival Gustavo Fring. The global food system is subject to far greater obfuscation – from producers and consumers – than the market for illegal drugs, where production and distribution methods are regularly “exposed” in unembellished form in both documentary and fiction.

While many rage instinctively against the “inhumanity” of trans- and intercontinental supply, this indignation offers little in the way of concrete alternatives beyond vague homilies to localism, or mandatory subsistence farming for every other household (which would be necessary if we were to abolish industrial food production while avoiding mass starvation). Instead, wholesale rejection of industrial production should be exchanged for a greater curiosity and engagement with the ecologies of automation able to produce food at the speed and scale required. It is not sufficient to merely signal one’s opposition to the deception and inherent barbarism of much of the current food system while simply waiting for reality to slip back behind the veil.