continued from previous
The lights had begun to dim for the evening inside the 25-storey vertical farm. A former office building for banking and insurance firms before the pandemics and the hurricanes, upon its conversion to a farm it had been hailed as one of the city’s rare economic revival stories. As humans sheltered inside from the climate change inferno, their food had to follow suit. The planet was no place for a delicate arugula or parsley to grow anymore. Open-air farming continued its decline as investors rushed towards the stability and return of investment that vertical farms promised. The arugula was brought indoors and would never see real sunlight again. It would never get to flower. It would never feel the kiss of a bee as it pollinated its white cross-shaped blossoms. As humans quarantined themselves from pandemics and the ferocity of the planet’s new weather, they forced their food to join them.
The building had no windows, for obvious reasons. It was meant to be a self-containing world all on its own, where even the length of day and night could be managed and adjusted, independently of outside conditions. Busy robotic arms constantly travelled up and down the former escalator shaft of the building, managing smaller rovers that checked every floor, every planted row, every single seedling for infections, weeds or anything else unusual, applying the occasional fertilizer and changing a light bulb here and there as they saw fit.
The new arugula was the happiest arugula that ever existed: growing in captivity under ideal conditions that optimized its growth rate, taste, appearance. If a silent, recessive gene was ever expressed that altered the arugula’s color or appearance beyond the main product specifications, the robots’ visual algorithm would immediately detect it and sound the alarm. The dissident plant would be immediately terminated and removed forever from the farm’s genetic pool. This was only a place for happy plants, and plants that looked identical to each other. A bad day for a plant would usually be its last day, as cameras analyzed the plants around the clock, hour by hour, minute by minute, literally as they grew.
This was an approach that biologists had warned would spell disaster in the end, as plant populations were gradually stripped off their “back-up” genes. Their genetic diversity would eventually suffer a Hitler-type eugenics deterioration that would ultimately weaken them and all the other species undergoing this type of cultivation. Becoming clones of each other, it was only a matter of time before a virus or pest would wipe them out, effectively making them extinct.
Like a bird that has been bred in captivity, eventually the domesticated version of the arugula would never be able to live outside, even if the planet’s climate, by some miracle, returned to normal. As it became genetically selected for color, taste, and appearance, it would eventually lose many of its functional and regulatory genes. It would be unable to synchronize itself with the sunshine, the bees, the rest of nature. Its internal compass linking it to the EoT would have been permanently disabled, similarly to what had happened to modern humans.
The top five floors of the building were reserved for experimental cultures. Here, there were difficult plants like certain olive trees and slow-growing bushes that had consistently resisted hydroponic culture in an enclosed environment. There was something missing in their growth conditions that no one had managed to figure out. Whoever would eventually manage to grow them commercially in captivity would have a monopoly overnight. There was a race between vertical farming companies to move all edible parts of the plant kingdom indoors, just as it had happened with farmed animals over the past century.
The next seventeen floors down were the main farm: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines and yes, arugula, grown all year round. Time from seed to harvest was closely controlled and yields were optimized and maximized to match the demand.
The bottom three floors were for admin and packaging. The company only had fourteen employees in total, of which only about eight needed to be on the premises: two data scientists constantly working on improving the algorithm, two plant biologists, one robot engineer and two to three temporary workers supervising the robots and overseeing packaging and distribution, also done mostly by robots and drones.
The happy, compliant vegetables were either sold wholesale or packaged into salads for the happy, compliant citizens of the city who could afford them. Marketed as organic, locally grown nutrient-rich superfoods, the vertical farm’s salads ensured that some people could still eat vegetables.
from the upcoming novel A New Earth
to read from the beginning, go here
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books