A container—anonymous, light-grey, satin gloss—stands firm on the Dutch polder. It took groups of international scientists, engineers and philosophers more than four centuries to build. The container is an alchemy of steel, climate control, artificial lighting and a highly regulated system for the distribution of water and nutrients. Tomato plants grow inside.
The container creates the perfect environment for equality. Through permanent surveillance and delicate sensing, every single plant is recognised, monitored and treated precisely for its personal needs. No plant is left behind. The interior landscape is safe; all potential harm is locked out. It is rectangular, except for the plants that lushly find their way upwards. The tomato plants can grow up to fourteen metres in height. They look bright and fresh.
Proud spokespeople explain that God’s creation was a total mess. The earth was uneven, too heavy, and dirty. The sun acted like a teenager in school; constantly ignoring its duty of being consistently and evenly present. Most of the time, the sun’s light was so bright that its rays would hurt the plants. For the tomato plants, the only good sun was a February sun. The ways we have been watering them were found to be equally erratic and clumsy.
The motto of the proprietor is “The Art of Being in Control". The light in the container is a pinkish purple that contains only the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum useful for photosynthesis. Growth is perfectly controlled. If barbeque weather is expected, the manager can accelerate production, and with frost, decrease it. Soon there will be no need for pest control, because there are no pests to control. The container eliminates viruses or fungi through splendid isolation.
Inside, green and blue robots pass by, cutting the bottom leaves of the plants along its path to further reduce any risk of fungi. This “dirty” work used to be done by low-wage migrant laborers, but sales of the robot spiked with Trump’s election. It only stops to recharge its batteries. Like in animal husbandry, an AI unit alerts the operator of inconsistencies and consults on picking strategies. Highly complicated tomato-picking robots are in testing stages at different universities. The variations in tomato geometry and their irregular positions require advanced 3D scanning and rotor control, yet to be completed. Economically the break-even point between human and machine employment still largely demands a human. Small, square carboard boxes and plastic sachets provide organisms for natural pollination and further pest security. The temperature is nice and even. The name of the tomatoes grown in the container is DRK936: a plum tomato with a sweet taste, a slightly bitter undertone and a crisp skin. Fully complaint with the latest legislative standards, a complete record of each tomato’s heritage and time on earth is available. They are bright red and very tasty.
Stepping out of the container, the world appears with a yellow, nostalgic, Instagram-like haze. Life outside seems barbaric after having been inside the container. The surrounding landscape is buzzing, not with bees, but the regular, soothing sounds of the ventilators; the only acknowledgement of life within. For the moment, the container has an umbilical cord connected to a power station fuelled by geothermal sources. Otherwise it is autonomous. If ever there was an architecture that could say “fuck context", this is it.
In our Promethean attempt to seek vengeance on God, this is the first building block for our new Garden of Eden. Like Eden, the container is placeless. Its next iteration might be suitable for animals, and maybe eventually for an exhausted mankind. Paradise regained. The landscape outside this paradisiacal container is rendered useless, or perhaps subject only to sublime human delight. In the event of an apocalypse, we will at least have great tomatoes, thanks to the polder.
Shoughuang is the vegetable production capitol of China. An area roughly the size of Luxembourg, it’s located in Shandong province, between Beijing and Shanghai. On the 300km/h bullet-train, it takes almost half an hour to blaze through its overwhelming, continuous patchwork of greenhouses.
We arrive at the Eighteenth China (Shouguang) International Vegetable Sci-tech Expo. At the large fair promoting recent innovations in vegetable production, more than 300 new vegetable varieties and 100 new inventions will be introduced. The Netherlands has a special Dutch pavilion at the fair. In the midst of impressive growth management systems, precision-milled aluminum structural elements and new sensor arrays, a small screen shows a Chinese and Dutch flag rendered together.
Our Chinese collaborators are not really convinced by the advanced technology devotedly presented by the Dutch, mostly Westland-based entrepreneurs. “Why are you so eager to remove human hands from food production? It’s boring!” Chinese greenhouses prop a circular shell up with a long, heavy eight-metre-high rammed earth wall, which also provides protection from prevailing cold winds from the north and a collector of solar energy. The wall releases solar heat gained during the day at night, providing enough warmth without any artificial heating.
A Dutch spokesperson tells us that they calculated a potential for increased productivity if the Chinese were to start using Dutch systems. They would be able to turn one kilogram of tomatoes per plant into ten. With support from the Chinese government, older settlements in Shouguang have been replaced by more compact modern towers so that space for additional greenhouses could be freed up. So far, densifying the human footprint has managed to keep growth rates high and the Dutch influence at bay. But far away from their polder, the Dutch are preparing the world for their radical future.