Wizards, prophets and the future of our food system

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Eveline van Zeeland, Derek Jan Fikkers, Eugène Franken, JP Kroeger, Katleen Gabriels, Bernd Maier-Lepla, Willemijn Brouwer and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins is trying to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes supplemented by guest bloggers like Maarten van Andel , are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. Here are all previous episodes.

In my ‘LinkedIn bubble’ I have come across them again and again in recent months, the Federation of Fruit Vegetable Organizations (FVO) videos entitled ‘Get out of the greenhouse’. In six episodes, the ecomodernist biologist Hidde Boersma talks about a number of aspects of greenhouse gardening. Because of my work at the intersection of horticulture and technology such as robotics, artificial intelligence and data, my favorite episode is ‘Get Out of the Greenhouse – Technology That Astonishes’. It concerns innovations in greenhouse horticulture in automation, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Sell ​​knowledge and technology

In this and the other videos in the series, it is assumed that greenhouse horticulture makes a very important contribution to feeding the rapidly growing world population. This message is connected with the message about ‘Feeding and greening the megacities’.

In short, this means that we, as the Netherlands, no longer send food all over the world, but ensure that we sell our knowledge and technology. This means we can produce worldwide, close to where the food is needed, using our high-tech cultivation methods.
Nice story I would say.

More and more healthy and safe foods are produced on a small surface using our knowledge in breeding, (biological) plant protection, high-tech greenhouses and scientific knowledge from the best universities.

The right way

The question that is increasingly being asked, however, is whether all this high technology is the right way forward. Should we use breeding to develop more and more varieties that are less susceptible to disease and yield more? Wouldn’t it be better to start producing much more together with and in nature? No assimilation lights and fertilizers to grow strawberries in winter in the Netherlands, but only seasonal vegetables and produce less per square meter?

In addition to the conviction that production in high-tech greenhouses is the solution for the future food system, there is also the conviction that we should actually grow far less technologically and more in harmony with nature. Mix food production with extensification, nature and organic farming.

Wizards and prophets

Author Charles C. Mann came up with names for both camps. In his book ‘The Wizard and the Prophet’ he used the term ‘wizards’ for the people who point to human ingenuity. The technologists who see solutions in automation, robots and breeding. The ‘Prophets’ point to the natural limits of the earth, the finitude of raw materials and the need to cooperate with nature.

The question is, who is right? Are they the wizards or the prophets?
In my high-tech greenhouse gardening bubble, I would say that organic farming is very good, but we never have enough land to realize it, and it becomes far too expensive. And what if we no longer grow strawberries in the winter, don’t they just come from far away from abroad because there will still be a demand for them? And what about plant protection and energy consumption there?

The food system of the future

It gets interesting when you bring the two ‘opponents’ together. A joint discussion often leads to the realization that there is quite a lot to be gained in compromises, but also that there is room for both points of view. This discussion is beautifully depicted in the documentary ‘The Future of food’, where Hidde Boersma and political scientist Joris Lohman discuss the future food system.

Another good reminder for me to look beyond your own bubble, but above all to learn more from ‘opponents’ with a different view of things. So it is high time for a conversation between the Wizards and the Prophets!

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