Home » Agriculture: Following a Traditional Path, But In a Modern Way by Alexander Penzias (Transcript)

Agriculture: Following a Traditional Path, But In a Modern Way by Alexander Penzias (Transcript)

Full transcript of Alexander Penzias’ TEDx Talk: Agriculture: Following a Traditional Path, But In a Modern Way at TEDxEroilor 2016 Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: agriculture-following-a-traditional-path-but-in-a-modern-way-by-alexander-penzias-at-tedxeroilor


Hi, I’m Alex and I come from Austria, a little country to the west where cows make up around a fifth to a fourth of our population, but also, a country where some of the world’s most modern farming gear is being produced.

I am the co-founder of Ponix Systems, a small company based in Vienna, and I stand here today, because I get the chance to talk about my passion and the passion of our team. Our passion is simple: we want to grow vegetables indoors, and we want to enable others to do so as well.

Agriculture is the most fundamental thing that allowed us to come to where we are now. And our goal is to change the way that we think about agriculture. Because we believe that many problems can be solved if we bring back an old consciousness for the way that we think about our food. And that’s where our passion lies.

Now I’ve lived in a few parts around the world but no matter where we were back when I was young, it was most important to my parents to come back to Austria every summer, and together with the rest of our family take us all to a farm for a few weeks. This is one of the happiest times in my life — a time where I learned a lot about how our food grows and where meat comes from. Even the whole thing with cow poo and lighting that on fire was the most fun thing to do back then, of course. But at some point life starts and unfortunately as with many of us, we tend to forget these things. So I started studying and much to the relief of my parents got my university degree. And then I went on to work abroad.

But as interesting and as fun as work abroad was, and as much as I’d learned back then, it lacked something: to move back to Austria. In my free time, being the fish freak that I am, with all my many aquariums at home, I started wondering about the chemistry and the biology of these little ecosystems. And so I became aware of aquaponics and hydroponics.

In aquaponics, you grow vegetables in a symbiotic relationship with edible fish. In hydroponics, you simply grow vegetables in water without soil. And both of these things sounded so amazing to me that I just had to try them out. And together with the help of a few friends who are now the team of Ponix Systems, we built an aquaponic system and we built an hydroponic system. And this — this is what it all came back to me. This is where my passion for plants was rekindled.

This was the first basil seed that I planted. And for me, to see and know that food grows from this little seedling and will land on my own plate was and still is a truly satisfying feeling. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than seeing your own food grow. And there’s also nothing more relaxing to work with two.

Now I’m not living on the countryside, and I don’t plan on doing so either in the near future. So we wondered: how we can combine this, with this? And how to convince others to do the same?

By now we know we have problems we will have to deal with in this century: overpopulation, enormous population densities, global warming, food scarcity, and especially proper food distribution. According to the FAO, around a third of our global food production gets lost or wasted. And furthermore, an analysis conducted by the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security Research Program concluded that food production contributes around 29% to global greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s this two. This is the picture that I took when I looked at what a local food retailer in Vienna throws away. But this food retailer goes different, because this food retailer sells food at highly discounted prices so that people with low to no income at all can afford food. And still they throw food away every single day.

Now because of the huge geographical and psychological distance between production and consumption, we barely think of the consequences when we throw food away. And that’s what’s wrong in our world.

This is the coastline from Amaria as seen from space. This is Yves vegetable garden. This is where most of our daily vegetable intake is being produced. And here we can see that also up until now in agriculture we use a lot of land, we use a lot of water. What we can’t see but what we know is that we use a lot of pesticides and we use a lot of herbicides too. And all of these things happen out of our sight, out of our minds, far far away from our homes.

But I’m not here today to talk about all the problems that we’re going to face sooner rather than later. On the contrary, I’m here because these times are the most interesting times, because thanks to the Internet we’re getting more and more aware of what is happening around us. And it’s up to us. Our generation has been given the opportunity to change something for the better.

Finally, urban farming is becoming a trend again. We’re hearing talks about urban farming, about food farming, about ninja growing, about gorilla growing and whatnot. But to me honestly, as long as everybody grows their own food, I don’t care how everyone calls themselves. But somewhere in there we’re part of that movement. And we’re all working towards that same goal, because we believe that as soon as you see that first little seeds sprout, a change is already happening in the way that we think about food.

But to us, though, urban farming does not only mean that we have to bring a large-scale aquaponic and hydroponic farms to the cities, although that has to happen too, of course. But to us, we don’t want cities to only be green on the outside, we want them to be green on the inside, because we believe that change only happens if you come into direct contact with the matter at hand. And while the do-it-yourself community is out there doing a great job of greening up urban areas, we believe that we have to make things as simple and easy as possible, because only then can we reach as many people as we want to and as we need to.

So we put our heads together and we asked ourselves: how we can make farming in the city sexy? How we can contribute to the way we think about food production? And how we go about our daily meals? So we’ve built a lot of prototypes, and we tried out a lot. And while we conducted these many tests in our different setups, we suddenly opened up Pandora’s box. And I don’t mean that in a negative way but the more we found out, the more we saw how much is actually still not known and that in an area in agriculture which is the basis of the entirety of our existence.

So we slowly started learning about how different wavelengths of light can affect the plant as well? Be it height, width, thickness, taste, or even the feel and the size of the leaves. We are learning that we can actually influence these traits in a plant just by giving different wavelengths of light. And that’s where first takes freaks the fun really began.

Now many modern greenhouses nowadays — and this is what you can see here as well — use mainly red and blue wavelengths in different variations. And this is done so because chlorophyll A and chlorophyll B in a plant can absorb these wavelengths better than others. However giving a plant additional wavelengths of light — light that it does not directly use for its growth stresses it. And in this case all the stress is good, because what happens is a plant develops phytochemicals as a protective mechanism. And in some cases, this is similar to us when we sit in the sun, we put on sunscreen so we don’t get a sunburn.

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