An interview with Douglas Mallette of Cybernated Farm Systems (CFS).
As population grows and traditional methods of farming become increasingly unfit for purpose (global yields have been declining for years); around the world, visionaries and have-a-go heroes are working on the solutions that should (fingers crossed) be mankind’s salvation. Douglas Mallette is setting himself up to become the epitome of this, nurturing his foetal business that will enable communities to feed themselves- and inspiring a new generation of science-loving forward-thinkers.
“Cybernated Farm Systems have designed an off-grid sustainable aquaponic greenhouse that is highly automated. Managed by computers for the most part; it allows the user to learn how to farm without having to know how to do it to start with. The brain of the building is like an interactive tutorial operational system so the building will tell you what needs to be done, how to do it and why- you do that enough times and you’ll end up learning about fish tank operation, solar panel operation, computer systems, sensors. So it’s designed to educate and provide at the same time.
“My big focus to help people is food and water together which is why we also partnered with the Water Body Restoration Group [WBRG] who uses biological systems to clean polluted water from rivers, streams, lakes. We’re putting their systems into our buildings, so the CFS building not just grows food, not just provides fish, not just provides excess clean energy power that you can plug into the building (it’s not a big power station but you can charge cell phones, laptops, things like that, that the village could use for communication) but we’re able to plug a building into a polluted stream or something, a waterbody the people can’t drink from currently, eventually over a couple of years we can clean that water out and now they can have a cleaner water system around them.”
Douglas is passionate about solutions to problems that have “a lot of little plusses”. Sustainability is about not causing our planet harm, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s just not enough. With the WBRG technology and the clean power production integrated into his design (which in isolated communities in the developing world can replace diesel generators that pollute terribly), not to mention the opportunities for users to educate themselves, CFS greenhouses will improve the condition of the planet. He calls this philosophy ‘Sus+’ and hopes that in time it will become the industry standard. The genesis of his current vocation was in adversity:
“I’m a former space shuttle systems engineer. I used to work in space shuttle operations out of Houston. We all knew that the space programme was going to end and we had to figure out what we were going to be when we grew up- because we no longer got to play with spaceships anymore- with human space flight dwindling down, given that all the new space companies aren’t really big enough yet, there’s kind of a vacuum between industries. I tried to figure out how I could use my engineering background for something productive- and then the Haitian earthquake happened. I was looking at the disaster and how they handled it and I realised: we’re very rapid to drop food and help right away when the problem occurs, you see millions of dollars raised in very short spaces of time to put in a whole bunch of food and all that- but that doesn’t help the long term recovery process. Years later there’s parts of Haiti that are still messed up. There’s fraud, waste and abuse built into this unsustainable way of doing things.
“Starting out originally as disaster relief and humanitarian aid- and factoring in climate change and how the world is changing in not so good ways because of what we’re doing to it- that’s where the automated off-grid aquaponic greenhouse system came from. It’s a greenhouse that doesn’t depend on soil (it runs on fishtanks), collects it’s own energy to run itself (solar and wind powered), it’s more efficient- and if you can get the weather out of the picture by putting agriculture in a climate controlled box, in a sustainable way, that’s clean and healthy- why not?
“We’ve got nearly a billion people on this planet that are starving or undernourished or malnourished in some way, not getting the proteins and nutrients that they need to survive adequately, and I think we can put a serious dent in that by helping them grow local and more sustainable. I have had the pleasure of attending the Caux ‘Initiatives of Change Conference’ in Switzerland and I’ve made some amazing connections with people coming together to try to tackle problems and figure out ways to handle certain things. The first time I went to the conference I ended up sitting down and having lunch and tea with a gentleman. I was discussing CFS- and he kind of raised his eyebrows. He turned out to be the former councillor to the king of Cambodia and said “That would be amazing for Cambodia. When you’re a little bit further on let me know and come visit”. Earlier this year I went and met him and some other people. They want to get CFS in the orphanages around Phnom Penh so that the orphanages can feed themselves- and also grow more food than they need so they can sell, there’s that aspect of it.
“It’s not just a developing world thing though- even the developed world could benefit from doing things better. Our buildings can be used in a lot of different ways- we are also talking about putting buildings in grocery stores, or on top of grocery stores on the roofs, so they’re growing their own local produce, so that the cost drastically drops, food gets a lot cheaper for everyone- even in the developed world. I’m not saving their lives- but I am making their lives better. It’s important to be as locally dependent as possible. Globalisation of knowledge and information is awesome. But globalisation of agriculture has been a pain in the butt- growing something on one side of the planet and then spraying it with god knows what so that it doesn’t go rotten when you ship it to the other side of the planet (which has a huge carbon footprint) to sell it somewhere else. The export market in food is atrocious for the planet and you’re not really getting that great of a food either so local production and local distribution of food- and textiles as far as I’m concerned- is the direction that we’re heading.”
Douglas’ message is encouraging in bewildering times and invokes excitement instead of the usual fear instilled into us about famine in the developing world and food prices and quality in our own. One of my favourite aspects is the prospect of self sufficiency CFS greenhouses will bring to host communities. The big guys (governments, non-governmental organisations, corporations) have really dropped the ball on these issues meanwhile people have been suffering to greater and lesser degrees, powerless to help ourselves. Not for much longer. Not with pioneers like Douglas Mallette throwing the light onto our capabilities. Godspeed to humanity.