Agri-tech and the Arts: From Barns to D-Space

Presented at 31C3 (2014), Dec. 29, 2014, 8:30 p.m. (30 minutes)

What do the arts and literature have to contribute to urgent debates about the technization of food production? What can a play from 1605 tell us about fairer distribution of natural resources today? Equally, how might a cyber thriller from 2011 help us debate contentious issues such as gene-based technologies and utopian visions of knowledge-led society? This talk considers agri-tech and food security across a wide sweep of social and political terrain, from the Arab Spring to the European horsemeat scandal, from Shakespeare to Daniel Suarez. It argues that the arts and sciences need to cooperate to deepen understanding about, and define actions on, the big challenges facing a needy world. Finally, it suggests ways in which the arts and technology can assist us in arriving at a model of society in which resources are distributed not only more efficiently, but also more equitably.

We are facing a crisis of food that threatens to overwhelm households, communities and even entire states. Inequality of access to sustenance has been exacerbated by soaring prices, corporate sharp practice and wide “food fraud” – including 2013’s UK horsemeat scandal, and Europol’s exposé of “fake” and “substandard” food in Europe in 2013-14. Riots and political unrest that appear to have little connection with food, on closer inspection turn out to have dimensions associated with sustenance. For example, the first shop to be looted in 2011’s London Uprising was not a branded trainers outlet or flat-screen TV centre, but the Clarence Convenience Store, raided for chocolate bars and bottled water. In its first moments, then, the unrest in Britain’s capital took the form of a traditional “food riot”. Similarly, the first wave of protest that gave rise to the Arab Spring was initiated by the self-immolation of a street vendor who made his living selling fruit and vegetables from a cart in Tunis. As a result of food-related political unrest, food security has risen on the agendas of governments and international agencies around the world.

Agri-tech has come to be regarded as the panacea to food constraint. MEP Julie Girling is not alone in arguing that “technological advancement will be the only way that we can meet the coming growth in demand”. Certainly, the technization of food production and distribution – advances in gene-based technologies, synthetic biology, agri-robots, remote sensing, agri-infomatics and just-in-time (JIT) algorithms – offers a compelling vision of knowledge-led development. However, as this talk argues, technology is only one part of the story. Until the quality of public engagement is improved around agri-tech, the nature of our food, where it comes from, and the conditions in which it is produced, programmes aimed at establishing a more equitable, ethical, sustainable future society worth living will be compromised. In this regard, the arts can open a shared spae of imagination.

This talk develops findings from my forthcoming interdisciplinary book, co-authored with literary scholar Dr Jayne Archer and plant scientist Professor Howard Thomas, Food and the Literary Imagination. Our argument is that vital, deep knowledge about food, technology and society is to be found in art and literature, both historical and contemporary. In this talk, I explore what art and literature, as heuristic media, can tell us about our relation to food technology, what they can contribute to global debates about the ethics and mechanics of food production, and their role in helping us to imagine a society in which resources are distributed not only more efficiently, but also more equitably.

Part 1 considers former systems consultant Daniel Suarez’s 2011 novel Freedom TM (German title, Darknet), popular among hacker communities for its kinetic scenes of “D-space” cyber combat. At the novel’s radical centre, however, is a vivid portrait of an utopian agricultural society founded on tech-led solutions to food supply. Suarez’s “darknet farms” of the future represent a serious intervention into the politics of C21 agri-tech and food security. In this respect, Freedom TM belongs to a long tradition of the arts exploring contemporary food politics, stretching back to include Shakespeare’s play King Lear (c. 1605), key sections of which are set – modern directors often forget – in a wheatfield, and John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821), widely misunderstood as a themepark fantasy of rural life and the origins of food, regularly voted Britain’s “best loved” painting.

Part 2 discusses three projects in which I am involved, each aimed at improving public dialogue around food and food politics at local and regional levels: (1) a creative commons project, “Edible Wales” (funded by CEWN/AHRC); (2) the Welsh Govt/EU-funded “Food Engagement Wales”; and (3) a project being developed with a major UK supermarket to examine practical ways in which literature can be used to promote public understanding of food as we search for a sustainable, resilient, more equitable future society.


  • Richard Marggraf Turley
    Professor Richard Marggraf Turley is author of several books of literary criticism and fiction. He works at Aberystwyth University, where he is Professor of English Literature and the university’s Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination. In addition to his interdisciplinary research on food security, Richard Marggraf Turley also works on the politics of surveillance. He regularly appears on radio to discuss his interdisciplinary arts and science work, and his research has featured in newspapers and journals worldwide, including The Guardian, Der Tagesspiegel, The Independent, Daily Mail, Neues Deutschland, LA Times, National Geographic, El Mundo, The Times Literary Supplement, Review of English Studies and Shakespeare Quarterly. His recent publications on food security include co-authored papers with Jayne Archer and Howard Thomas, and their forthcoming book, Food and the Literary Imagination (2014). His novel, The Cunning House, a crime novel set in the Romantic period, is forthcoming with Sandstone Press in early 2015.


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