Farming value beyond the economic: cases of social innovation through Controlled Environment Agriculture in New York

Presented by Wythe Marschall, Ph.D. candidate, Harvard University / Research associate, Cornell University

This talk examines the production of different social values by a network of agricultural technology entrepreneurs in greater New York City. I document how farmer–entrepreneurs relate agricultural practices such as hydroponics to claims about what makes a food “good,” and what makes a vision for the future of urban dwelling sustainable or just. I argue that, since few Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technologies are of recent invention, the novelty that my interlocutors produce is primarily social in nature—such as business models, imaginaries regarding urban future, and relations with consumers, including how consumers understand the category of “local,” plant nutrition, and the vocation of the farmer.

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What drives you?
At heart, I’m a writer obsessed with two things: the future, especially in giant cities, and the environment. I’ve spent my life studying different methods of researching these topics, and the one that’s most comfortable for me is anthropology. I love learning from other people by asking them, straightforwardly, why they do what they do. I’ve found that people who work in food and agriculture tend to be especially passionate, and that passion is infectious. I love my research!

Why should the delegate attend your presentation?
Too often, we assume we know what “innovation” means and looks like. But in a new sector, it’s important to question these assumptions. The insights produced by cultural and social scholars pair nicely with those of qualitative social scientists and the business community: behind numbers are cultural trends and social structures. Attend my talk if you’re interested in multiple, perhaps surprising ways of thinking about the recent growth of indoor farming in the U.S.

What emerging technologies/trends do you see as having the greatest potential in the short and long run?
While I’m very curious to see how gene editing techniques such as CRISPR/CAS will affect agriculture, my hopes are pinned on social, not technical transformations. To combat rapid climate disruption and persistent economic inequality in much of the world, we need to support regenerative farming, new forms of farming cooperatives—including in cities—and more plant-based diets.

What kind of impact do you expect them to have?
If urban consumers increasingly connect with farmers directly, supporting agroecological practices and maybe growing themselves, then perhaps we can shift ourselves away from a culture of linear, wasteful production and toward a more general circular economy. I think the cultural power of eating and the basic political-economic importance of farming make these topics key levers for shifting global culture into a more sustainable mode, in all senses of that word.

What are the barriers that might stand in the way?
There are so many! Both political and cultural inertia are major stumbling blocks: in the U.S., regenerative methods of growing aren’t supported by government and industry in the same way that chemical-industrial ones are. And most people like to eat cheap crap; they haven’t thought much about alternatives, or the links between food and environment, food and health. So for urban culture to become sustainable, how people are educated about food and the environment must evolve. But the largest barrier is certainly economic. The current global market system doesn’t reward environmental sustainability or deliciousness; in fact, it prices out most environmental costs. So for people to grow their own healthy food or buy it from farmers in a sustainable way, we need to become even more creative when it comes to business models, funding streams, and the organization of industry, especially of farmworkers.

Special Quote
In the age of monoculture “factory farming,” vertical farming, space agriculture, and innumerable small-scale re-inventions of gardening as “residential farming,” what does professional food production look like? From some technology-driven urban farmers, CEA (indoor farming) is more than a challenge to a familiar concept of farm as not-city; it is an attempt to “green” the city, to help urban dwellers reimagine their environment. These farmers propose a fragmentation of the very concept of the farm, promising to generate value for future growers who will include apartment-dwellers and restaurateurs—inhabitants of post-natural spaces, who will employ farming-as-a-service. I seek to understand this vision and relate it to other, sometimes-competing, sometimes-compatible visions for the future of agriculture (the culture of the earth) and urban culture.

About Wythe Marschall
Wythe Marschall is a Ph.D. candidate in the anthropology of technology within Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science. He researches how urban agricultural technology startups produce different kinds of value, and his dissertation examines the rise of vertical farming in New York City. Wythe is also a research associate for Cornell University, focusing on the future workforce in controlled environment agriculture. In addition, he was the writer of the YouTube show Crash Course: History of Science. Previously, Wythe co-founded the Biodesign Challenge; lectured in the English Department of Brooklyn College, CUNY; taught science fiction and the history of biotechnology at Harvard; and curated art-and-science exhibitions.

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