Categories Farming

Vertical Farming: Can it Help Us Survive Climate Change?

One of the facts of climate change that many don’t consider is the potential disruption of our food supply. I guess this is forgivable since most folks are ignorant of where food comes from and how much effort was put into getting it from seed to your plate. Still, this small blip on the radar right now, due to the ease of obtaining a can of peaches in winter, is getting closer and we’ll be dealing with it in our lifetimes. Obviously the best solution would be to eliminate the problem with zero carbon emissions and a stable global population. Since these aren’t going to seem like attractive options until the disaster is upon us, and it’s way too late, people are working on ways to mitigate some of the worst effects and increase our security.

If you are poor in America or anywhere else, you’ve thought about food security. The sterling effort underway is to increase the amount of food growing in U.S. cities through urban agriculture, which at once addresses the problems of malnutrition, climate change, failing local economies, and loss of community. Some models of sustainable cities seek to retrofit every residential block with an area that would recycle gray water, run-off, and organic waste, while turning these “waste” products into the resident’s next meal.

Most of the hands-on work is being done by poor people in the inner cities who have taken the initiative to transform vacant lots into income and food generators. And there’s a lot going on. Urban agriculture has taken hold in the rust belt cities, places of concentrated poverty. Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, and others are producing more of their food every season and with minimal help from city officials.

But this could still end badly. Climate change is going to do some rather unpredictable things to global weather patterns and local miniclimates. The successful urban farms of Detroit this year could next year be facing unforeseen drought, flooding, and frosts. Considering a systems analysis of climate change dynamics, where the more an ice sheet melts then the faster it melts versus the old ideas of a steady and predictably slow climate change based solely on greenhouse gas composition, we’ll be dealing with problems a lot earlier than at first predicted.

Professor Dickson Despommier, in the Columbia University department of Environmental Health Sciences, has a solution. Vertical farming takes the idea of indoor farming, control of environmental factors, to the Manhattan skyline. Vertical farming would increase the density of produce per acreage to new levels while also increasing the likelihood that crops will survive future weather disasters while also providing readily available food for desperate people, and we’re talking nuts and berries, fish, and larger animals. This is the sustainable idea of a block by block recycling and producing effort writ large, in multiple floors. Some of the advantages listed on the Vertical Farming website are: the elimination of agricultural run-off; uses methane from compost to generate electricity on site; no tractors, plows, shipping; all organic, no weather-related crop failures and reduction of infectious diseases. From this physical aspect of Vertical Farming everything looks great. The chance of success in growing food, and enough of it, is dramatically increased with this project.

With a city block and a few floors, we could have enough room to supply 35,000 people with a reliable and sustainable food source. This would create jobs for the community at the high end, microbiologists, botanists, biologists, veterinarians, engineers, and many other professional groups. The low end would not suffer for new jobs either. Unless robotics was employed, skilled and unskilled workers would be needed to clean the bathrooms, maintenance equipment, wash the windows, monitor irrigation, and provide security.

With any project this size however, there are a couple of problems. First is the problem of funding. What person(s) or government agencies will agree to buy the land and pay for construction? Obviously a person or organization with enough money to do so. With a private investor we have to ask where the profits will be going. If profits from food grown in such a project are going to individuals who live and spend their money outside the community, then we’ve just defeated one of the primary objectives of sustainability which is strengthening the local economy. If we remove the profit incentive for investing in vertical farming, then we’ll need state intervention (in which case profits will either be sucked out of the community to pay for war debt or reinvested in the community in similar projects) or an exercise in philanthropy. Such things as where the money will flow have to be considered in any project towards sustainability.

The second problem is even larger and has to do with control. Who will have access to the food produced? How much will it cost them to get it? Are we building vertical farms to feed gourmet food to elites, calorie crops to the hungry, or a mixture of these? How will the vertical farm orient itself to different external conditions? Say the weather is calm for a few years, the price of gas goes down, and prosperity generally increases. What if there is a major disaster? The underlying question is whether or not the vertical farm will be operated with the fundamental goal of protecting the public good or protecting the good of those who already have resources. Can you imagine a disaster where the vertical farm is utilized mainly to shelter and feed those who can afford price-gouging in a disaster?

I obviously have mixed feelings about the project. It looks to be utilizing a workforce of mostly skilled workers and scientists. The whole point of the movement towards local and organic food is about every man. The poor people need jobs that are both local and not exploitive, and urban agriculture is offering a way to do this, returning people to labor-intensive and culturally-generated enterprises on the land. A vertical farm seems to ignore this effort. It’s a techno-fix for a series of problems that are culturally based. I’ll keep my bets on the growing numbers of small-scale, urban farmers (the homeless, retired, students, mothers, etc), and the resources available locally, from vacant lots to city parks departments and, most important, people.

Sources: (urban agriculture in Detroit);=view&id;=18&Itemid;=54 (urbanag in Chicago)

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