That Canadian guy in England

In Defense of Localism, Sort Of

A little while ago, I expressed my ardent love for the concept of Vertical Farming, as well as my trouble finding proper criticism for it on a theoretical level. The implementation can be easily taken as the worst kind of pipe dream, but problems like air filtration and energy consumption can all be more or less filed under “Yeah, okay, so it’ll just have to be done really really well.” The foundation is well aware of these challenges, and lists efficiency as the very first priority of its undertaking.

Adam Stein over at green blog World Changing gave me my first taste of the other shoe dropping, with a smart rebuke to vertical farming innovator Professor Dickson Despommier’s ideas, focusing on the reality of the urban landscape and its purpose as an environment for people. In his own words:

Cities offer a lot of environmental benefits, at least compared to the alternatives. There are many reasons this is so, but they all spring from a fairly basic fact: cities are built for people. Lots of people, densely packed, sharing resources. Innovations that encourage or take advantage of that density are likely to make cities more sustainable. And innovations that undermine density have a lot of work to do to overcome their inherent environmental disadvantages.

Now, I agree with a lot of what Stein has to say, but not all of it. The article’s conclusion doesn’t make it clear how he stands on the concept as a whole, whether he’s prepared to accept vertical farming in any way at all, but it seems predominantly negative. He offers support for smaller scale localism like green roofs and community gardens, but rightly notes that these endeavours “don’t exist on a continuum with industrial agriculture in the same way that vertical farms aspire to.”

I get the feeling he views the Vertical Farming project with the same suspicion that I do: that its appeal is so strong because it offers a seductive means for fearful people to keep on with business as usual. The flash of “why don’t we do this already?” that people tend to experience upon having the concept explained to them is probably so strong and so universal because it seems to be, at least in part, the logical conclusion of the economic strategy of the post-Industrial Revolution world as a whole.  That is, using technology to master the elements and foster population and infrastructure growth, forever.

Vertical farming could easily be turned to the dark side, as it were, and used as a justification for the furthering of unsustainable practices. Worse, it could summon persuasive arguments to the continental talking heads for the destruction of more and more valuable agricultural land, with urban agriculture treated as a replacement instead of a supplement.

In spite of this, I’m still a believer in the project and its potential. Here’s why:

  • Vertical farms don’t necessarily mean urban farms: there are ecosystems making up enormous tracts of the Earth that cannot support horizontal agriculture but which still contain the necessary components for growing crops. Coastlines and mountains spring to mind. Canada and the United States alone have thousands of miles of each, with plenty of access to sunlight for energy and heat and water for sustenance. With the aid of increasingly cheap and efficient desalinization, these areas could be transformed by clusters of vertical farms into tremendous food producers, something traditional farms can’t touch. This would potentially damage the ecosystems in question, so the construction imprint and resulting waste would have to be tightly controlled, but the possibilities are enormous.
  • We can’t afford not to diversify our agriculture: a commentor on Stein’s page said it best, expounding the importance of “building meshworks and ecologies for the provision of basic needs, with significant overlaps and redundancies built in, instead of satisfying the basic demands of life with one system governed by a single logic.” I agree wholeheartedly. Being able to reduce the impact of droughts, floods, and the supply chain instability is of ever increasing importance,
  • Not all cities are alike: Stein’s article focuses on New York City and the problems that vertical farming could cause therein. His points are valid, but they don’t apply to every city on Earth. I can think of smaller cities that could benefit greatly from the project, without the attendant disruption a city of several million people could suffer. Many significant human settlements are more contiguous to rural areas than the NYC, including my own home town of Peterborough, Ontario, and the city of Kingston where I live now. Introducing vertical farming to these locations, and any similar suburban/small city area, would be far less likely to cause disruption and would likely offer the greatest benefits.
  • VF can be a powerful ideological stepping stone: in the same way that the anti-green and conservatively disinterested could feasibly use vertical farming as the biggest greenwashing tool ever, Environmentalists can and should view it as a compelling tool to push economies to smarter, greener, and more sustainable practices. It’s going to be a battle to get this technology in the right hands forwarding responsible principles, and environmentalists everywhere can’t afford to let it slip out of their control.
  • The technology is getting better and better all of the time: My oldest friend is working on solar thermal systems for heating and energy right here at Queen’s, and I hear all the time about how it’s getting cheaper and more efficient to power and warm structures using nothing but the power of the sun. Every day I read about new innovations in carbon neutral and carbon neutralizing tech, and the natural application for many of them is in vertical farms. Stein is absolutely correct in pointing to the enormous energy requirements posed by even relatively efficient farms as a serious drawback, but this limitation is being curbed all of the time, and can only be improved as projects go forward and we learn about what works best.

Thoughts? I highly recommend taking a look at the World Changing site if you’re even remotely interested in green ideas and technology, it’s extremely interesting and even handed.

As for me, I’m off to peg my fiftieth or so lotus upgrade. Only two hundred to go!

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4 responses

  1. willdanceforideas

    I’m sorry, but I think this is one of those too good to be true scenarios. There are thousands of ways the idea can fail. Even more terrifying is the idea of the first one succeeding with a right wing nut-job using it as his core example for further destroying the agricultural landscape of the world. Stein mentioned something along those lines and you never really really addressed it.

    I know you mentioned that diversity is important, but ultimately the political landscape here in North America is very much about the flavour of the week and any chance corporations have to make money on land currently being used by farms or for a right wing government to cut funding to local farmers will be an opportunity seized.

    August 12, 2008 at 9:16 am

  2. A less expensive way to “right-size” vegetable farming for an urbanized century is sub-acre SPIN-Farming which is now being practiced throughout the U.S. and Canada. SPIN is a franchise-ready farming system that makes it possible to earn $50,000+ from a half-acre . SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. So by offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital. By utilizing backyards and front lawns and neighborhood lots, SPIN farmers are recasting farming as a small business in cities and towns and integrating agriculture into the built environment in an ecomomically viable manner. You can see some SPIN farmers in action at http://www.spinfarming.com

    August 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm

  3. bitpart

    Dan: I responded to the points you mentioned repeatedly.

    Moreover, I don’t find the idea that because VF has risks and flaws attached to it, which it does, compelling reason to not put energy into it at all.

    The development and mastery of airplanes took decades, cost men their lives, and created hundreds if not thousands of failures. And then it was done right.

    I think VF is worth putting time and thought into, which is why I’m glad to see critics like Stein challenging the theory and making it improve itself. I don’t think it’s acceptable to give in to pessimism when the worst case scenario involves a new and abundant food source.

    August 12, 2008 at 1:41 pm

  4. bitpart

    Perhaps a fairer analogy: modern pharmaceutical r&d is infamous for almost invariably falling into the hands of profit-oriented, conservative elements. There are risks and failures involved, some of which have caused significant damage to people’s health.

    But no one would even consider halting the march of medicine, it’s too important. I think it is entirely reasonable to give food production a similar priority to medicine, and its potential for actually causing damage to human life is almost nil.

    Lastly, I should reiterate the fourth point I made above: environmentalists and human rights minded folks can’t afford to let this leave their control. I pointed out the risks of the wrong people taking control of the project, and I’m concerned that any resolution by interested parties along the lines of “The Old Guard will get a hold of this and ruin it so we should not bother” to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you understand me.

    August 12, 2008 at 2:31 pm

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