Ecosystem Services Estimation Experiment

This post has been converted into a Low-tech Magazine article.


“The Farm” experiment consists of one square meter of wheat cultivated completely artificially in a closed environment where all inputs are controlled and measured (water, light, nutrients…). This protocol allows to estimate the orders of magnitude of material and energy flows otherwise provided by ecosystems on arable land. The aim is thus to hyper-visibilize the immense scale of ecosystem contributions, an implicit affluence, fundamental to all human and non-human processes, which is invisibilized by convention in neo-classical economics.

The experiment seeks to demonstrate a fundamental and paradoxical challenge to the proposal from agro-industries to provide for the nutritional needs of large urban populations, through grow houses and other artificially controlled environments. This 1 square meter experiment makes manifest the vast technical infrastructure and energy flows required to grow a staple food such as wheat in an artificial environment. In today’s economy it is profitable to artificially produce agricultural products with high water content such as leafy greens and tomatoes.

However, from a systemic understanding, this apparent profitability and efficiency of the current system relies on the availability of cheap fossil energy, unaccounted-for resource extraction and pollution all over the globe, incurred in subordinate processes from mining and electronics manufacture, to international freight. The present experiment seeks to reveal the numerous layers of invisibilized interdependencies, and to provide a speculative reference reckoning of the incalculable ecosystem services at play in conventional agriculture.

The life support for 1 m2 of wheat cultivated completely artificially in a closed environment is 2,577 kWh of electricity and 394 litres of water per year — excluding the embodied resources of the infrastructure. The harvest is 1 small bread for a cost of 345 euro, four times per year.

See & read more: The Farm.