Food by VICE

How to Biohack Your Garden Plot for Better Vegetables

I’ve looked into hacking technology to figure out soil and air pollution, which could then be applied to improving farms and gardens.

by Thomas Pausz
Oct 4 2016, 11:00pm

Different places across the globe are facing different issues regarding food in the future, but in the UK, one of the main problems is food miles—the distance food has to travel to reach this country. It's essential that we try to reduce the travel of food products to the UK.

One place to start with this is the revival of allotments or community sheds. In London in 2009, I did a project called Revisiting The Community Shed. I was working with a particular group of gardeners and I did interviews with them about the various spaces they had and the stories linked to these space.

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After that, I continued working with them as they were given a new site to grow food. It was close to the Olympics site in East London, and the soil was contaminated as it was an industrial site and metals had been seeping into the soil. So, they put a membrane under the soil—like a big sheet of plastic. I became quite fascinated with the idea of the garden being almost like an island, separated to the rest of the environment.

How many gardens were built on membranes today? It was similar to The Martian, where Matt Damon creates an allotment from almost nothing on the face of Mars. Now, this garden on the membrane is thriving, but there are no insects or worms in the soil, they have to be brought in.

Biohacking is a word we're hearing a lot of in design circles and it's the idea of using biotechnologies in an accessible way. At the London Biohacking space, they are working on genetics and on using bacteria in a creative way, and I was interested in using this for the development of crops or soil.

The Politics of Food: Markets and Movement

The author's Delfina Foundation, which looked at contaminated soil.

At the Delfina Foundation in London this summer, I was interested in looking at soil—in particular, the contaminated. Then I started to look at how can you find out about these issues if you're a gardener or a small-scale farmer. I found out there's an association called the London Earth Project, which provides data—it's a super interesting database that has been sampling soil in the greater London area. So, I asked if I could get the data on the scale of one garden but it's too small, so the resolution of the data is too big.

I then looked into the possibility of making small devices with hacking technology, such as sensors, to find out different elements of pollution in the soil or in the air, which could then be applied to small gardens. It's using technology and "hacking" or making your own electronics that could work together.

When it comes to farm hacking, there's an open-source online list and archive of small-scale farmers who realized that most of the equipment and the machines that you could buy were made for huge, large-scale farming. There are a lot of people moving back to smaller-scale growing and they had to devise their own machines for food processing.

In some parts of the UK, there is a15 year waiting list for an allotment.

A very basic example is the size of machines to dig into the earth to plant the seeds—there's a certain spacing between them based on the assumption you're working on a huge field. If you want to grow crops closer together, like you do in food forests or biodynamic farms, you have to do it by hand. But if you look at Farm Hack, you can how they're creating this smaller-scale machinery. It's also open-sourced, so everyone can put their plans of how they did it and it's about sharing the knowledge. There's also the biohacking club in Hackney who are looking at the ideas of using technologies to effect different factors before you grow the food.

But a problem with allotments in the UK is basic access. The demand is really growing and the waiting lists are huge—I think there's a 15 years wait or something! There's also the problem of the landscape being used for hard landscaping or housing and it's threatening these green places.

There's also the issue of not being officially able to sell your produce from the allotments. I think there is a great culture of exchange in the gardens, but officially selling is not allowed in the law. I think this needs to be changed.

The issue of global food waste is also something that needs to be urgently tackled. When I moved to Iceland I became interested in the scarcity of resources there and how there is a massive movement to use 100-percent of the resources, so there's no waste.


Filtering dandelions to create Champagne as part of the author's Dandelion Full Use Project.

In 2015, I started the Dandelion Full Use Project. I chose the dandelions as they're normally a totally ignored resource that people want to get rid of. It's also quite symbolic, it's the first flower to come out in spring. But there is a reason for this: if you look at biodynamic [natural] farming, their theory is that when the dandelion disappears, it has content in its roots that prepares the soil for other plants.

So, I started to research all the possible uses for this plant, this idea of making a full use of it, and Champagne is one of many products in this project. It's a bit of a crazy idea but I keep getting more ideas and recipes from people all over the world. The project is becoming more about the endless imagination of people when it comes to food.

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Ultimately, urban farming has a definite function as people need to grow more food within the city. I think the experimental approach and new technology will take time for it to be integrated in a meaningful way. But this is why there's a lot of pioneering biohacking art and design around now, and a lot of the ideas are super-speculative but also a lot of fun. We can fantasize what to do with this technology a lot right now, and this is also important to take ownership of these emerging technologies.

As told to Laura Martin.

Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.

Thomas Pausz is a French-born, Icelandic-based artist and designer who works across experimental situations to foster social change. Since 2009, he's been interested in the future of food, and has experimented with biohacking and farm-hacking to find methods for more effective urban agriculture. He spent this summer working with London-based allotment collectives.