Anyone who’s ever been to Florida has probably visited Walt Disney World, and if you have – you’ve hopefully visited EPCOT center, which is by far the most interesting part of the behemoth theme park that covers Orlando, FL. EPCOT stands for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” and was originally intended to be a futuristic model community based on utopian modernist ideas of communal living, no cars and no private ownership. Much of the design of the park is lifted straight from Buckminster Fuller’s ideas and drawings, including the massive geodesic sphere which now houses theme park rides. Sounds like it would be right up Inhabitat’s alley, right?

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Today EPCOT is just a shadow of its original ambitions – more theme-park than experimental community with lots of roller-coaster rides, creepily antiquated “visions of the future” exhibits with talking animatronic robots, and a global village tourist trap. However, there is still one area of EPCOT where actual experimentation is still taking place — in agricultural technology. EPCOT has several large greenhouses (2.5 million square feet!) which not only produce much of the food for EPCOT inhabitants (including Mickey Mouse shaped vegetables), but has been at the forefront of experiments with high-tech and high-yield indoor plant growing techniques such as hydroponics for years. Mickey-shaped vegetables are just the beginning of the madness I encountered on a recent visit to check out the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow…

I spent the majority of my time at EPCOT hovering around the LAND exhibit and going on behind-the-scenes tours of EPCOT’s greenhouses. The entire agri-tech research center area has been re-branded under the rubric of “sustainability” and now includes a public exhibition on agricultural technology and global ecology called ‘Living With Land’ – a rousing exhibit on farming and agricultural innovation which takes the very 1950’s-esque position that humanity can solve its food shortages and environmental problems by improving agricultural technology. I’m not really sure that I buy this, but the exhibit was certainly a fascinating romp through the history of “the future”.

First stop on the “Behind the Seeds Tour” was a look at what you can do with vine plants (like tomatoes) when you remove the constraints of gravity. This amazingly huge “Tomato-tree” below, with thousands of ripening tomatoes all on one plant, was achieved simply by providing a matrix of structural support for the entire plant, enabling it to grow much bigger than it ever could under ordinary circumstances where gravity would be weighing it down. I’m guessing that some crazy fertilizer or genetic engineering might have had something to do with the prodigiousness of the plant as well – our intern guide wasn’t very clear on the exact nature of the giant tomato plant.

Giant Gravity-Free Tomato TreeThe amazing giant tomato tree

Endless TomatoesEndless tomatoes

Hydroponic technology was also used copiously throughout the EPCOT greenhouses – growing lettuce, herbs, and a variety of other plants simply out of water and nutrients. You might be thinking to yourself, “So what? What is the benefit of growing vegetables without soil?” Actually there are a lot of benefits to this high-tech growing method. First of all, soil-less hydroponic systems often give plants more nutrition – allowing them to grow faster – while at the same time consuming less energy and space. They use less water than crops grown the natural way, and also allow growers to stack plants closer together and on top of one another, so they are a more efficient way to produce food. Finally, hydroponic crops like lettuce can often be shipped alive in their water solution to their destination, allowing a higher degree of freshness in produce for consumers.

Next stop on the “Living With the Land” tour took us up close and personal with stacked gardens. While we love the idea of maximizing space and efficiency by vertically stacking plants, we can’t figure out why on earth a greenhouse preaching sustainability uses STYROFOAM pots for all their plants! A precocious 6-year-old boy on my tour apparently noticed the same thing and asked our intern-guide why there was so much styrofoam, since the foam plastic is not biodegradable and not really a “sustainable” choice for an exhibit on sustainability. Our guide, apparently not understanding the implications of the question, explained glibly that EPCOT uses styrofoam because it is cheap, lightweight and easy to toss out in order to get fresh new pots daily. Huh?

Styrofoam in Epcott Sustainable Agriculture Exhibit

The 6-year-old then asked our guide about genetic experimentation, and pretty quickly we all learn that most of the crops within the “Living With The Land” greenhouses are genetically modified. At this point in the tour I’m starting to think that perhaps EPCOT needs to give media training to their interns – because lots of talk about genetically modified crops and copious use of styrofoam “because its cheap and disposable” doesn’t exactly paint the rosiest of pictures for an exhibit supposedly about “Living With The Land”

Apparently Nestle Corporation is the main sponsor of this exhibit at EPCOT, which explains some of the questionable claims and dubious greenwashing on display at “Living with the Land.” Nestle is, after all, one of those food companies with an infamous track record – second only to big tobacco in the amount of deaths and illness it has caused through aggressively marketing dangerous practices to the public. (As documented in this great article in the Guardian, Nestle is widely known to have caused the deaths of many babies around the world through aggressively pushing their unsafe and unhealthy baby formula as a “better” alternative than breastfeeding to impoverished mothers in the third world.)

Despite all this, however, one thing that EPCOT’s greenhouses seem to do pretty well is to grow Mickey-shaped vegetables. Pumpkins growing in plastic Mickey-head-shaped molds were prominently displayed throughout the greenhouses, churning out pumpkins with visible “ears” on either side of their head. We were also fortunate enough to get a look at Mickey cucumbers as well. (The Mickey shape is extruded throughout the length of the cucumber, so that when you slice the lumpy and odd-looking cucumber, each flat slice resembles Mickey Mouse’s head). Yowza!

At the end of the day, these Mickey-head franken-vegetables seemed to be the sole remaining raison d’etre of EPCOT’s The Land exhibit. While EPCOT’s agricultural experiments with hydroponics and IPM were at one time groundbreaking, today the research has been overtaken by the fiscal need to entertain the public. And, in terms of entertainment, EPCOT succeeds on all levels. Walking through greenhouses tasting cucumbers and playing with ladybugs sure beats “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” In my opinion, however, the best part of EPCOT is the history it evokes: the 1950’s obsession with the future and the ability to see the world through the idealistic eyes of a more optimistic era – an era that believed technological innovation could solve social ills. All that remains of that world now is a giant Bucky Ball (with a giant detached Mickey arm) and a lot of genetically modified Mickey-shaped vegetables in styrofoam containers.

+ Living With The Land at EPCOT

+ History of “The Land” at EPCOT