“Crop Constructs” is a speculative design project exploring the scientific and social possibilities of genetically modified food, by designer, researcher and trend forecaster Mariah Wright.
In the not too distant future a majority of the foods we eat will be genetically modified. In many countries, crop plants including wheat, corn, and soy have long been grown from genetically modified (GM) seeds. The growth in these patented organisms has ignited a global debate over the impact of GM technology on food safety and on social justice, public health, and environmental sustainability.
Many scientists point to the urgency of developing plants and animals that can feed the surging human population and survive the effects of climate change. Now they are asking, when, not if, genetically modified (GM) foods will become normalized.
Wright positions herself as a “trend forecaster” who works with a “future-focused design strategy,” and as such supports her work with the persona of an insider, sharing her vision of the future with the world with confident certainty. This page is on her own website, so the self-promotion motivational leaves no room for doubts or nuances- which may of course appear in the project’s original form.
In the spirit of this, Wright’s presentation of technologically advanced food production is unambiguously positive, giving a nod to debate but presenting the rise of GM food as the inevitable forward march of progress. By describing the growing process from seeds and as a long-held practice, she aligns the food with traditional agriculture and de-emphasizes the lab aspects that skeptics focus on.
The debate remains open and its complexity apparent, but Wright’s position is definite and closed. Genetic modification becomes an excitingly urgent utopian construct akin to the optimism of 1960s science fiction- even under the threat of enmeshed issues like climate change and public health- with endless possibilities and the chance for renewal.
Crop Constructs explores the role rapidly evolving GM food crops may play in our future societies. By constructing future scenarios of ten of the world’s most important plants such as coffee, soy, wheat and rice, I examine genetic modification as technology set to redefine our engagement with the natural world.
Tellingly, natural and technological are not opposed but rather in negotiation with one another, dispelling the presumed argument of genetic modification as ‘unnatural.’
(Breadfruit) Fruited Rubber
The pursuit to replace crude oil has incited one of the most aggressive agricultural expansions in history. From soya to palm oil, sugarcane to corn, the global appetite for fossil fuel alternatives appears insatiable.
In this scenario, breadfruit, traditionally cultivated south of the equator for its starchy flesh, is modified by European biologists to become the first domestic plant capable of industrial scale latex production with the potential to end the continent’s dependence on South American rubber trees.
Why European? Perhaps the Colonial myth of the Western society bringing enlightenment to colonized territories endures, positioning the industrialized food industry as an immutably First-World, Western product. The phrasing of the WGSN article on the project underlines the national economic drives behind this hypothetical innovation.
Creating a national industry for rubber production, the plant will be designed to end the country’s dependence on South American imports.
Such a nationalistic, pragmatic goal defies the world-saving design stereotype and adds believability, but in doing so perhaps rehashes regressive ideologies.
In this scenario, food, biological modification and industrial materials intermix comfortably, embracing their increasing convergence. The accompanying photograph of a synthetic, plastic plant underlines this lack of separation between edible item and industrial product. Rosy pink and black leave the tone ambiguous, much like the pop art it represents- the viewer must decide how they feel given space for both acceptance and revulsion.
(Rice) Toxic Territories
The recent surge in CO2 levels have not only enabled plants to grow faster but have caused some to produce excess levels of natural insecticides such as cyanide.
This scenario envisions a new level of food system transparency aimed to reassure potential food buyers of a product’s safety.
This is an interesting, slightly defensive reversal of current consumer concerns over the safety of genetic modification, perhaps a deliberate entry point into the common debate.
Rice, which is prone to high levels of cadmium, arsenic and lead absorption is altered with color expressing genes to visualize its toxicity levels.
leaves will gradate from lime green to hot red and pink when toxicity is present.
Genetic modification is often criticized as unnatural, as a meddling in what should be left alone. In this narrative, natural evolution is the enemy and biotech intervention is the hero. It evokes climate change, raising an interrogation of the concept of food’s pure ‘natural state’ in an inevitably unnatural world- the alarming red colour does not appear if the planet’s toxicity levels are normal, resituating the invasive science element from plant to Earth. There is no possibility of going back to the idealized, pre-technology past, so how does one decide whether autonomous nature can reasonably maintain its idealized status?
(Coffee) Private Stock
Coffee is only second to oil as the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world. As climate change increasingly restricts the crop’s yield, genetic modification could afford companies the reassurance of a biologically branded product.
In this scenario, the coffee plant has undergone a renaissance, becoming an entirely designed biological commodity trademarked at every level, from the thickness of its flesh, to its distinctive taste profile.
The coffee plant will be developed to grow spherical pods that can only be harvested by its owner’s patented machines.
This presents an unusual economic angle that addresses the luxury aspect of the food industry, expanding the discussion beyond the food-as-sustenance model and grounding discussion in a capitalist climate. Trademarking is presented as good for companies, but how would others be affected by this development? While these kinds of questions are excellent for opening dialogue and thinking, I would argue the project itself does not especially invite them through its closed scenarios and pre-packaged solutions.
Carnivorous wheat (emerging in North Dakota in 2040) will be developed, according to Wright’s design fiction, as an alternative to conventional pest control. The wheat will be able to detect insects on its surface, exude a sticky substance to trap the pest, and then absorb its nutrients.
California in 2050, meanwhile, will modify strawberry plants to grow their own protective packaging – cutting down on the chance of damage during transit.
These scenarios do not appear on Wright’s website. Both envision a streamlining of the production process, maximizing agricultural yield or the number of viable fruits. As speculative design work, these concepts broaden GM food capabilities, but do not really engage with the conditions of the future that prompted or unlocked these scientific developments.
The wheat is perhaps more interesting for its engagement with the issue of pesticides, which are often lumped into the same category of GMOs for being unnatural chemicals that incite health scares. For this scenario, the modernization of the food industry offers the promise of increasing improvement, as newer techniques deal with the issues of the old until fears of food technology no longer have obvious risks to latch onto.
This tidy set of scenarios follows a pattern: a speculative future possibility extrapolated from present conditions, for which a hypothetical genetically modified plant presents a neat solution. In isolation, each scenario reduces the complexities of the food industry to a small, linear cause and effect model, focused on the production, consumption or distribution of food. In context however, the project as a whole suggests new ways of envisioning genetic modification as driven by social conditions and sensitive to consumer demands, an infinite resource of technology to be used in innumerable possible ways. One strength of the project is the range of possible social effects explored, from altruistically positive to dubiously corporate-driven. The scenarios don’t ask you to imagine a better world, but to imagine another world, and prompt the GMO debate beyond the present moment:
Although Wright’s project is speculative and set far enough in the future to encourage open discussion, the ideas within it explore very present-day hopes and fears. Some of them are appealing, some of them are quite terrifying, but none of them is impossible.
This project does explore an in-world, socially affected model of experimentation, but falls short of the epistemic due to its freeze-frame confines. Time is compressed into discrete events, with no imagination of technologies developing while shaped by environment factors. The breadfruit is modified by a single group of biologists, the rice is altered in response to a single CO2 surge, and the coffee “has undergone” rather than undergoes changes. Further, future conditions are all extrapolated from the present rather than imagined suggestions of unknown unknowns, giving a false sense that the future is predictable and the food industry can work with that. Innovation takes on a magical, button-pressing simple quality with no consequences, compromises or unforeseen side effects- even when the designed aims of the plant’s capabilities are questionable- that ultimately weakens the discussion’s ability to provoke ideas relevant to food innovation taking place in the real, imperfect world.