Connections: Appropriate Technology

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle May 2014, Vol. 55, No. 5, p. 62

In the supermarket, my mother religiously avoids the self checkout lines and goes to the lines with the real people. Supermarket jobs are decent jobs she says and it isn’t fair to have a portion of them lost to machines. She’s right. In many ways new and improved technologies have taken jobs away from people who need them. In many other ways however, these technologies have taken away truly horrible jobs that people are grateful that they no longer have to do. And while technology has made some of us poorer or forced us to redefine ourselves professionally, it has also allowed for more leisure time and for the rebirth of artisans. Take a look at Etsy for example. Or at the growing number of small-scale beekeepers and microbrewers.

I’ve been struggling with this concept of technology for some time in some very different situations. Here are two examples. I’ll start with a farm tour I recently went on about two hours north of Seattle. On the tour I watched robots milk cows. Unbelievably cool. The computer system records the milk production of each cow and so milkings are timed to coincide with the level of milk being produced. The computer screen shows per teat expected and actual yield. The cows don’t seem to mind as they get special grain feed each time they are milked. The farm owner doesn’t mind either. While these machines are expensive and do replace people, they also have resulted in increased milk production and a decrease in mastitis.

On the same tour we visited a flower factory. I say factory here and not farm. The bulbs are grown in greenhouses on conveyer belts in plastic lugs. While they are harvested by hand, they are sorted and bunched by machine. I swore I would never buy another tulip after leaving the place. However, it does keep a fair number of people employed and it keeps a business going even as competition and lower labor costs make operating in Washington state more challenging.

I saw a different range of technologies at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Reinvent the Toilet fair in Delhi, India. High tech toilets that turned the feces into ash and the urine into crystals were on one side of the exhibit room. On the other side was a booth for an organization called Sanergy (http://saner.gy/ our-work/the-sanergy-model). They are low tech, hiring people to empty latrines in slums where labor is plentiful and jobs are scarce.

Assessing The Tradeoffs

So what is the appropriate role of technologies in residuals management? For me, a way to look at this is to consider what technologies offer and what they take away. You also have to consider where you are talking about applying these technologies. One way that residuals management is different from many other fields is that it is difficult to outsource. Typically for organics, they are processed close to where they are generated.

For this discussion, lets start here at home. After the robot milking machines we went to a manure digester. The digestate gets used on farms where our guide told us it improves the soils — not news to me. The soil improvements are significant enough that potato growers vie for soils with a history of manure application. Why? Potatoes are a high value crop that has a low tolerance for poor soil tilth, as compacted soils result in misshapen potatoes that bring in lower prices.

In other words, the robot replaces people but it doesn’t take away products (or in this case by-products) that themselves add value to the system. In the case of the cows, the added value products are the energy from the digestion and the improved soils from the manure. In addition, the manure also provides employment to the people operating the digester and higher value potatoes that keep the farmers solvent. And if I were the dairy farm owner, I would relish the opportunity to sleep through the morning milking.

A 2013 report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance found that in addition to creating compost, composting facilities also create jobs. For every 10,000 tons of feedstocks sent to a composting facility, 4.1 people were employed. In comparison, only 1.2 people are required to burn the same amount of material and 2.1 people are required to landfill it. If you take into consideration that many of the feedstocks can be digested prior to composting, that 4.1 number would likely come in at over 5.

Having been to digestion facilities and composting sites, I can personally attest to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, these are not bad places to work. While this assessment might be modified if I found out that composters are required to show up at hours equivalent to morning milking, the basic conclusion would still hold. This is true because in addition to creating jobs you also create energy and compost — both value added products. The compost can be used to grow the flowers to attract the bees for the local beekeepers. It can also be used for the hops for the microbrews. Everyone is happy.

If you have the same discussion but use the slums of Nairobi, the answer is even clearer. The dairy farmer talked a lot about the tech support that he had gotten to get his milking robots up and running. He said that easy access to this support was critical to his success. The high tech toilets that make ash and crystals require high tech maintenance and replacement parts that are not so easy to come by in the slums of Nairobi or elsewhere in the developing world. But labor and the need for jobs are. The farmland in these countries also is in dire need of organic amendments to sustain the population. We may not be talking about artisanal microbrews, but a good solid meal.

Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.

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