Disentangling the machinic architectures of planetary food production, architect Sarosh Anklesaria points to other ways of worldbuilding and introduces the Urban Symbiome—a proposed vision for a future based on an ethic of kinship, degrowth, and circular thinking.
Ecology is permanent economy.—Sunderlal Bahuguna
The way we eat food has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous ten thousand.—Michael Pollan, Food Inc.
Livestock are now sixty percent of mammal life on the planet, humans are thirty-six percent, and wild mammals are just four percent… Seventy percent of birds now on Earth are farmed poultry. Just thirty percent are wild birds.—Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, The biomass distribution on Earth.
We can fish on land, grow salad on the tenth floor, create single plants that grow potatoes underground and tomatoes above, we can measure each leaf…Why do our achievements happen in secret?—Rem Koolhaas, Where did the cows go?, Countryside, A Report.
The entanglements of planetary agriculture and its machinic architectures
The architectures in service of modern-day industrial agriculture are paradigmatic constructs of the Anthropocene. The literal and ontological interrelations between the two implicate ecology, technology, territory, the farm, the city, inequity, exploitation of labor, and food. If the Anthropocene accounts for a new geological era when human actions have a direct consequence on the natural and geological cycles of the planet, it also produces a certain leveling of the incredibly complex and asymmetrical nexus of human actions. It fails to account for the deep socio-geographical inequities and injustices that persist through the hegemonic structures of colonization and globalization. Climate justice counters this flatness of territory, by acknowledging global warming as a fundamentally political and ethical issue. Indeed, those who are least responsible for climate change—disadvantaged, vulnerable populations in the Global South and communities of color and low income in developed nations—suffer its gravest consequences. The abstraction of the human to the “anthropos” only exacerbates this flatness of territory and negates the deep structural inequities within “the anthropos.”
The global food production industry, or “Big Ag,” and the machinic architectures that support it offer a spectacular insight into the entanglements of the Anthropocene with questions of ecology and justice. Industrial agriculture remains an exceedingly unsustainable practice, from production and transport to consumption and waste. The abundance produced by it, the promise of endless food security, comes at a steep cost to the global climate, ecological cycles, biodiversity, and rural communities. Industrial agriculture uses 75 percent of farmland and 70 percent of freshwater use, to feed 30 percent of the world’s population (Mooney and Blassey, 2018). This generates more greenhouse gases than any other human activity on the planet. Yet most of the world is fed by small farms that use only 25 percent of its land (Maass Wolfenson, 2013; FAO, 2014). Large swaths of the planet’s surface are now devoted to growing food that does not end up in human stomachs, but instead for livestock.
Animal agriculture, in particular, is a leading cause of environmental degradation. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2 percent of the world’s calories (USUCA, 2012). The more food we produce industrially, the greater damage we cause our soils as a living system. Although it takes a thousand years to generate topsoils that are three centimeters deep, we lose thirty soccer fields of soil a minute to intensive farming (Thackara, 2015). Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and the land is further degraded. Almost everything we eat now is connected to this global web of industrial agricultural processes that operate on a planetary level. Food has moved around the world since the spice trades, but never at the speed or in the amounts it has over the past decades. Demand for food in one part of the world indirectly stimulates the creation of fields of monoculture thousands of miles away. Monocultures trigger conditions for the infestations of “pests” as natural symbiotic relationships are eliminated, which in turn generates the chemicalization of agriculture, with insecticides and pesticides further depleting the health of ecosystems. Unknown species of plants and animals are lost and billions of trees vaporized into as many tons of greenhouse gases to satisfy our hunger. This process is also upsetting the climate, hydrological cycle, and soil to such an extent that the United Nations now estimates that the world’s agricultural land may decline in productivity by up to 25 percent this century, which could undermine humanity’s ability to grow enough food for all.
The fossil fuel economy of today is inextricably linked to this planetary industrial-agricultural complex, from the petro-chemical fertilizers used for planting and harvesting, to the energy required to process food, the fuel used during the transport of food, and, in more recent years, the amount of food being used to actually generate fuel, largely in the form of corn and sugarcane-derived ethanol (Jones and Mayfield, 2016). The fossil fuel, industrial-agriculture nexus ensures that only a handful of major corporations supply the inputs and outputs for farms—Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Bayer, and BASF, with a few newer entrants from Eastern Europe and South America. At a planetary scale, when put together, the five major food companies (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra) are already responsible for more yearly emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell, or BP. A study in 2011 warned of the increasing monopolization of food production in the United States. Only four companies in the United States produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 50 percent of chickens, and 60 percent of hogs that Americans eat (Overcash, 2011). It should come as no surprise then that the industry has managed to influence lawmakers to pass “Ag-gag” laws in the US that criminalize whistleblowers who expose animal abuse, food safety, market transparency, workers’ rights, or environmental violations, making these architectures and their environments mired in a veil of secrecy—almost completely hidden from the public imagination. While the turn of the century, the industrial-agricultural complex was made, celebrated, and fetishized as the technological sublime inspiring modernist architectures, it is completely missing from contemporary accounts of architecture and visual culture.
Yet this dystopia of the planetary industrial agriculture complex can be traced to the techno-utopia of modernity. Both modern architecture and industrial agriculture were sold to the public as technological and social miracles. Reyner Banham points to the obsession of early European modernist architects with industrial factories and grain silos of North America, symbols of rationalism, utilitarianism, of “the brave new world of science and technology” (Banham, 1986). “The buildings of Le Corbusier… physically resemble the steamships and the grain elevators but not the Parthenon or the furniture in Santa Maria in Cosmedian… The Industrial prototypes became literal models for Modern architecture while the historical–architectural prototypes were merely analogs…. To put it another way, the industrial buildings were the right style; the historical buildings were not” (Venturi, Izenour, Scott Brown, 1988). Beyond the formal analogies, modernism was also obsessed with the question of health and hygiene. Beatrice Colomina’s recent book X-Ray Architecture offers insights into the deep influence of tuberculosis in determining the staging of modernism and health, its emphasis on performances and control of the interior environment. The machinic references to architecture and industrial agriculture thus extend beyond formal aesthetic analogies, to exert control over human and non-human biologies.
Mechanization invented, transformed, or obliterated an entire typology of architectures related to the farm. The ancient granary became the grain elevator. The barn became the factory shed and the dairy plant. The slaughterhouse became the livestock factory, the meat processing plant, and the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOS) as it is known in the USA. These megafarms of death are perhaps surpassed in their monstrous efficiencies only by the Nazi gas chambers. The Holocaust was, after all, made possible through the technological conditions of modern industrial culture. In postwar decades, the green revolution, globalization, and containerization forever changed the very structure of agriculture, setting the stage for territorial and later planetary forms of hegemony. Refrigeration and packaging meant that food could be transported and consumed across continents. This liberated food from its temporal or geographical underpinnings in season, culture, or place; rather, food and its markets have now become planetary in their scope. The idea of mechanization extends beyond the physical structures of industrial agriculture to encompass all of its processes—germination, cultivation, irrigation, growth, harvest, processing, packaging, storing, transportation, and distribution. Insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, and antibiotics have not irrevocably transformed the food we eat, but can be traced across the surface of our planet and into our intestinal microbiomes, affecting everything from our brain chemistry to sexual function.
Chickenomics: From Chicken Coop to Broiler Factory
Consider the mind-boggling transformation from the chicken coop into the modern broiler factory. In the 1920s, chicken in the United States was pound-for-pound as expensive as lobster. Chickens were raised for their eggs in chicken coops—typically small wooden sheds raised above ground with ample ventilation and free access for the birds. Chicken meat was a delicacy reserved for festive occasions or for the wealthy. By the 1960s, chicken was so cheap that it was quickly becoming America’s most popular meat. This bewildering transformation was engineered by The Chicken of Tomorrow, a 1948 farmers contest to produce the most efficient chicken using genetic techniques. The brief asked for an efficient chicken with very heavy breasts and very light-colored feathers, so that when it was plucked it would look good under cellophane and then later plastic packaging. The birds had to be relatively disease-resistant, so that they could be put in intensive rearing operations without dying too quickly. Today 90 percent of the 23 billion chicken eaten worldwide can be traced to two broiler chicken breeds that have their origin in the Chicken of Tomorrow contest (Scaturro, 2020).
Compared to the small, ventilated chicken coop, the architecture of the industrial broiler factory is colossal and strange. The entire lifecycle of the broiler is regulated by these machinic architectures, devoid of any windows, with computer-controlled temperature and humidity. The combination of Vitamin D and artificial light allows birds to feed and grow incessantly with little time to sleep. The modern broiler puts on weight nearly five times faster than its ancestor from the 1950s. For a bird whose natural life span is eight years, the industrial chicken is slaughter-ready in five or six weeks. The birds cannot be rescued from the broiler factories because the strain on their enormous bodies will cause heart or respiratory failure if they continue to grow. High doses of antibiotics allow for occupancies of 100,000 birds on a single factory farm. The broiler factory then is an immensely efficient machine for the automated killing and processing of thousands of chickens in an hour. Its efficiencies are measured in “birds per minute” (The USDA currently approves line speeds of up to 140 bpm).
It comprises various smaller sophisticated machines for electrical stunning, slaughter, evisceration, cleaning, and chilling. These machinic architectures are the true enablers of the Anthropocene, for the total mass of farmed chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus, Linnaeus, 1758) exceeds the biomass of all other birds on the planet combined. Furthermore, the biomass of humans and their domesticated animals (including livestock) now outweighs that of all wild terrestrial vertebrates. Chicken consumption is growing faster than any other meat. With 23 billion alive at any one time, humans have made engineered chicken the most numerous vertebrae (not just bird) on the planet. Its distinctive bones will undoubtedly become fossilized markers of the time when humans reigned the planet (Bennett et al. 2018).
“Any intelligent species which arises in the far future—hyper-evolved rats or octopuses, perhaps?—will have a puzzle on their hands (or tentacles) in trying to figure out how and why millions of these rapidly-evolved bones lie mixed with the techno-fossil debris of the huge petrified dumpsites we will leave behind. As these future explorers reconstruct this bird—a creature far more helpless than the dodo—they may well rumble it too as a technological construct” (Bennett et al. 2018).
Planetary Fishing: Supertrawlers and Cattleships
There is a long history of architects enchanted with the machine aesthetics of the ocean liner and the shipping vessel. Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Gio Ponti, Reyner Banham, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, Greg Lynn, Frank Gehry, and John Pawson were not only enamored by ship design; many of them designed boats, ships, barges, sailing vessels, and ocean liner interiors. Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted description of architecture as “the masterly correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light” or “a house is a machine for living in,” both appear in his chapter on (Ocean) “Liners” in Towards An Architecture, with numerous images of the steamships from the time—in particular The Cunarder “Aquitania.” The steamship was “the first stage in the realization of a world organized according to the new spirit” (Le Corbusier, 1927). How does the shipping vessel then relate to today’s landscape of planetary agriculture?
Supertrawlers are the behemoths of planetary fishing. These massive, deep ocean fishing vessels embody the pinnacle of design proficiency for planetary fishing, with their origins in commercial whaling. Supertrawlers plow deep oceans across the globe, often in unregulated waters, through marine reserves, or to the edge of Antarctica, vacuuming entire shoals of fish, with no patch of the planet considered too removed for fishing. Fishing at planetary scales is accomplished through GPS tracking of fish migrations, integrated fish-finders, or sounders that locate fish underwater by detecting reflected pulses of sound energy that emanate from fish shoals. These trawlers have nets often big enough to enclose a dozen jumbo jets—indiscriminately hauling any life forms stuck in their nets. Fully automated facilities for the processing, freezing, and packaging of fish ensure that the supertrawlers can stay at sea for months on end. Yet the technologies onboard do not translate to safe conditions for workers on these ships. The ships are often themselves old, converted oil tankers, which often fly under flags of convenience—flying flags of a country other than the country of ownership—often translating to poor onboard conditions, low wages, minimal regulations, low or no taxes, and the freedom to employ cheap labor across the global market force.
Although supertrawlers comprise less than 2 percent of the global fishing fleet, they have decimated fish stocks worldwide, ruined livelihoods of coastal fishing communities, and mined the ocean for ever deeper and ever more exotic forms of fish. A lack of robust regulations on fishing in international waters allows for these vessels to navigate grey zones in fishing regulations. Vladivostok 2000, the world’s largest commercial fishing vessel, can process up to 547,000 metric tonnes of fish each year. The ship, currently flagged to Moldova, has a history of changing names and reflagging to different countries, and repeat offenses for illegal fishing. It is currently listed by the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation—a commission of 14 members—as an illegal, unreported, and unregulated vessel (essentially a pirate ship). Yet GPS systems on supertrawlers that track fish migrations also can help monitor their locations. Alarmed by the unfettered rise of commercial fishing, Global Fishing Watch was launched through a collaborative effort between the conservation group Oceana, the non-profit SkyTruth, and Google Earth. Global Fishing Watch allows for almost real-time tracking of 35,000 of the world’s largest fishing vessels with data going back to 2012, allowing citizens to “see for themselves how their fisheries are being effectively managed and hold leaders accountable for long-term sustainabilities. Seafood suppliers can monitor the vessels they buy fish from. Journalists and the public can act as watchdogs to improve the sustainable management of global fisheries. Responsible fishermen can show they are adhering to the law.”
Livestock carrier vessels are another example of the absurd co-relationships between capital, culture, and food on a thoroughly globalized planet. These are giant ocean-faring vessels, built or converted for carrying livestock across far ends of the planet. These floating feedlots connect places of abundant foraging—Australia and countries in South America—with nations that have huge appetites for meat, including but not limited to Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the EU. The ships are often converted vessels from old container ships, and also sail under flags of convenience. Accidents and breakdowns result in the estranged tragedies of thousands of cows or sheep drowning at sea. These surreal, unseen events are emblematic of the Anthropocene and its distortions of planetary food.
The Pandemic in an Age of Planetary Food
The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus the fragility of planetary food supply and distribution systems. Even before coronavirus swept the globe, 135 million people in fifty-five countries faced acute hunger caused by conflict, poor food distribution, and climate change. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that with surpluses in farms, scarcities in cities, labor shortages, and trade disruptions brought upon by the current pandemic, hunger caused by conflict has now been compounded. This has caused the WFP to embark upon the biggest scale-up of emergency food operations in its history, efforts that were acknowledged by 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, recently asserted that “global hunger is rising again... and famine is again threatening several countries” and furthermore that robust food systems would be “essential in bringing us to net zero.”
In May 2020, the coronavirus outbreak in the US precipitated a crisis in the distribution of poultry and meat. The consolidation of slaughterhouses in the US, with an emphasis on extreme efficiencies and profit, also makes them the weakest link in the food distribution system. As these facilities were forced to close (or operate at reduced speeds) after becoming pandemic hotspots, farmers across the country had to reckon with an overabundance of poultry and cattle on their farms. The natural lifespan of the pig is 15-20 years. But mass-produced pigs grow to 300 pounds in six months and must be slaughtered when they are essentially babies. Continued growth makes them less profitable, and unsafe to be hoisted on the slaughter line. Hundreds of thousands of pigs grew too big to be slaughtered commercially, forcing farmers to cull them. According to an article in The New York Times, “one Minnesota hog farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped carbon dioxide through the ventilation system. Another farmer has considered gassing his animals after loading them into a truck. And a third shot his pigs in the head with a gun. It took him all day.” Similar tragedies were observed with other food distribution systems, during the peak of the crisis. In the midwest, farmers dumped thousands of gallons of fresh milk into lagoons and manure pits. Tens of millions of tons of fresh food were destroyed at the very time that people were growing anxious about the shortages of food in grocery stores across the nation. The pandemic then offers us not only a glimpse into the fragile infrastructures of the Anthropocene, but also exposes its brutal aesthetics and ethics.
Other Ways of Worldbuilding
We are both in the midst of a pandemic but also in the midst of a food revolution long in the making—a renewed public interest in the agency of food has sparked the rise of slow food movements across the world, local food co-ops, biodynamic farming, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, freeganism, the low-carbon, and 100-mile diets. What are the architectural manifestations of this new food revolution? And what forms of architecture do they inspire? Will we invent more ways to reconnect people to their sources of food and livelihood?
Recent developments across various disciplines, from the sciences to philosophy, now consider the human as inextricably intertwined with various other-than-human, natural organisms, and systems. The singularity of the human body as a discrete, physiological being stands seriously challenged. The human body—like most other living systems—is, in fact, a holobiont; a complex assemblage of organisms consisting of diverse microbial genomes. Any definition of the human must encompass the trillions of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that inhabit our skin, genital areas, mouth, and especially intestines, and without which we would cease function. By some accounts, most cells in the human body are not human at all. Moreover, this mixed community of microbial cells and the genes they contain, collectively known as the microbiome, does not threaten us but offers vital help with various physiological processes—from digestion to growth, self-defense, and mental health. So much for human autonomy! The human then is a symbiotic construct immersed in a continual process of sympoiesis, which as Donna Haraway puts it, “is a simple word; it means ‘making-with.’ Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing” (Haraway, 2016). As evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis theorized, the eukaryotic cell itself is a symbiotic construct; that complex life did not arise out of gradual Darwinian evolution, but by a symbiotic acquisition of creatures from outside. Hence, mitochondria and chloroplasts have differing DNA compared to the cell nucleus. This is a view that has now been widely accepted by biologists. Before the work of Margulis, symbiosis was considered to be a rare exception in a world dominated by unmitigated Darwinian competition—“the survival of the fittest.” Margulis showed instead that symbiosis was the norm—and a core form of relationality across living systems.
Cooking New Worlds in an Urban Symbiome
There is a growing interest in the larger context of food, its cultures, and ethics. What are the architectural manifestations of these new food movements that combine decolonization and ecological remediation? The Urban Symbiome is a proposed vision for a future based on an ethic of kinship, degrowth, and circular thinking.
Located in the urban-periurban context of London, it can also serve as a template for “cooking new worlds” across various geographies. It promotes acts of symbiosis toward steady-state economies. Instead of extractive constructions, the Urban Symbiome reuses building materials through acts of urban mining. The modernism of steel and concrete is further replaced by mycelium, hemp, timber, and compressed earth, which allow for architectures of growth and decay.
The Urban Symbiome connects places of growing, preparation, and selling of food through a novel alliance of citizen farmers, builders, scientists, ecologists, consumers, immigrants, birds, bees, bats, butterflies, fish, bacteria, viruses, and plants. It is at once a hybrid building and a networked landscape—a synthetic construct of the human and the natural world. Unused and volunteered parcels of land—urban, periurban, and suburban; building terraces and facades, defunct parking lots, lawns, golf courses, and sites of the old industrial age are fused, de-paved, and activated across territories, through myriad acts of commoning. In doing so, it eschews human and architectural autonomy in favor of what Haraway refers to as “sym” and “chthonic” partnerships.
The Urban Symbiome is a biome—an eco-restorative network of pollinator corridors, foraging landscapes, and bioswales; a trove of biodiversity that generates its own microclimates. Anaerobic digesters convert food scraps and feces into energy for buildings and compost for plants. This forms a literal and ontological link between the scales of microbiota and those of geographical biomes. Far from a nostalgia for nature, the Urban Symbiome is tactical in its appropriation of the city. Decommissioned tunnels and air-raid bunkers perpetuate a landscape of vertical farms using aqua, aero, and hydroponics, where food is grown under a surreal pink LED light.
The Urban Symbiome is a market; it includes the quotidian places of the city—its covered street markets, temporary and pop-up markets, food kiosks, community kitchens, cooperative farms, places of nightlife and leisure—collectively owned and administered by the once marginalized subjects of coloniality. These are spaces of empowerment, quintessential institutions of public space, the original incubators of small businesses in an otherwise rapidly gentrifying global city. The Urban Symbiome is an archetypal antidote to the global twentieth-century networks of planetary agriculture. It is an antithesis to sanitized tabula-rasa modernism, its machinic efficiencies; it remains dirty, inefficient, partly feral, and of the ground.
It has been argued that as human civilization progressed through three paradigm shifts from tribal to agrarian and industrialized societies, it was marked by a corresponding shift in the means of production and built form—from the primitive hut to medieval towns and global cities powered by the carbon-intensive economy of today. Each of these shifts was also marked by a radical transformation of human consciousness, of our relationship to the idea of “nature.” It has become increasingly obvious that we are at the precipice of a fourth paradigm shift that considers ecology and justice as the central preoccupation of our time.
A transformation of human consciousness would decenter narrow definitions of development located in forms of extractive growth and corporate dominance; dislocate capitalism as the prevalent structure of our time; and decolonize the global order of a singular Euro-American-based universal modernity. This calls for new forms of solidarity across diverse territories of the south and the north.
Transition is emerging as a broad and diverse field of studies that replaces the universalizing tendencies of modernity with relational worlds that foreground long-term social, political, and environmental change. Transition Design then calls for a radical reconsideration of both tangible and intangible modes of existence, in the making and the imagining of new worlds. It is based on intensely local and participatory forms of governance, “a cosmopolitan localism” (Manzini 2009) that brings production and consumption geographically closer together, promotes participatory governance, and rejects globalization’s homogenizing tendencies. Yet, this is a global network of mutually supportive communities that shuns parochial notions of isolationism and nationalism. Instead, it celebrates the radical interdependence of all things. Globality as a pluriverse (Blaser, 2010) is a process of planeterization that articulates a vision of the Earth as a living whole emerging from the manifold, diverse, multivalent biophysical, human, and spiritual elements—from the biosphere to the noosphere (Escobar 2018). Or, as Haraway reminds us, “We are all the children of compost”.
Cooking New Worlds in an Urban Symbiome is one such attempt at Transition Design. Food connects the gut to the global, forms of life to planetary landscapes. Disentangling the architectures and territories of food then opens up possibilities for new entanglements, that imagine a more just, plural, and transformative future.
All images for The Urban Symbiome were prepared by the author in collaboration with Priyanka Sheth. Additional images, unless specified otherwise, were prepared by the author in collaboration with Shariq Shah, Leah Kendrick, and Lana Kozlovskaya. The author would like to thank Ryan Ludwig for his help with the text.