"If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud." ~ Emile Zola

15 October 2009

Blog Action Day 2009- Vertical Urban Farms: The "Ups" and the Downs

I've been reading quite a bit lately about urban agriculture and the concept of vertical farms, tall, sustainable buildings within cities that would house massive agricultural production of crops and animals raised for food. The vertical farm is being explored as a feasible alternative to current food production as modern farming practices, climate change, environmental degradation, and an ever-expanding world population form a dangerous cycle that is reducing the availability and productivity of land and promising devastating food shortages. It's extraordinary and space-age really (I picture The Jetsons), the idea that farms as we now conceive of them that spread across vast, fertile lands may someday be replaced by skyscrapers of orchards, towers of livestock, fields of corn caged cinder block. It's both compelling and terrifying.

"High rise farms" in cities could be a truly viable solution to worldwide concern about the dire consequences of what many see as inevitable and devastating climate change. These consequences include potential devastation of crops by new disease, pests, and vulnerability that may result from a rise in temperature and rain pattern changes. Add to this the continual reduction in amount of fertile land available for raising food due to the ravages of modern farming practices and soil depleted after trying to keep up with supplying nourishment to the world's ever-expanding population. Considering that traditional soil farming may thus become
unsustainable, the vertical farm holds much promise.

Growing crops in specially-engineered fortresses of agriculture that disappear into the clouds would address serious problems like massive food shortages and lack of fertile soil. Although hugely expensive to build, a 30-story farm tower could feed
50,000 people in a teeny,tiny fraction of the land it would take to do the same with modern farming, according to Dickson Despommier, the "father" of the vertical farm concept. Crops would be grown without soil using hydroponics and aeroponics, eliminating the need for dangerous pesticides and increasing food output, accessibility, and quality. Crops grown in climate-controlled spaces could be protected from pests, drought, and similar events related to the natural environment.

Urban farm structures could better meet the demands of the local food movement, while drastically reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions from farm machinery, vehicles used in transport, and production. Farm lands would be free to recover from damage and to replenish. These urban skyscrapers would be llargely self-sustaining, recycling water over and over and using its waste for energy, heat, or fertilizer . Vertical farms could produce year round, and the influx of plants into cities could help cleanse the air of pollution and improve quality of life in cities. All of this while boosting agriculture and the economy mega-fold as production capacity soars. Sounds idyllic, yes? I find the concept is terrifying...

Of course we want to find solutions to ensure our viability and secure our future in the face of climate change's potentially disastrous effects. It's intelligent, wise, necessary, and hope-instilling. We'd be stupid not to invest in doing so. Then why have issue with technology that could resolve so many critical issues? The reasons span from the cultural significance of the traditional farmer and the importance of connection to Earth to the potential negative impact on the victims of factory farming- animals and people. The feeling at the forefront for me as I learn more about vertical farms is overwhelming, deep sadness that we've let it get to this point of do or die. Conceiving that Earth could become depleted and sick to the point that food must be grown in human-made constructs is impossible. But research into expansion of urban agriculture makes it very real. And I worry...

I worry about what food become without nourishment from the earth? Would the 'farmer' as we now know her become a mythical superhero in tall tales about working in tune with the planet to 'magically' create sustenance? Would the 'farm' become a cultural relic devoid of the rich history and meaning it currently has? Food grown in buildings reaching into the sky sounds void of meaning, empty of energy and life. The magic of growing food in the earth is feeling the soil in the hands, the feet grounding solidly on the land, and the connection to the cycle of life as we watch the sun, skies, and Earth make something from nothing to feed us. The magic of farming the land is the larger understanding of life that happens when we eat food grown from the ground, the joy that comes eating food fresh from its source of life. It's not... "natural."

Humans have become so disconnected from that life source, arrogantly taking it for granted as we plunder it at whim. Vertical farms will only exacerbate the shallow relationship between being and Earth, pulling us further and further "up" and away from understanding the environmental destruction we have caused and implementing action to stop and even reverse it. I fear that this growing disconnect will lead to more complacency about resolving climate change and make stronger the self-righteous idea that humans can manipulate the world and conquer nature- the planet and all of its beings.

I worry about the well-being of many of these beings, as the raising of animals for food is also being explored within the vertical farm concept, perpetuating their victimization by human arrogance and the factory farm. Some fans of the vertical farm dream of "a high-rise 'Pig City' 40-stories high where the pigs would spend their entire lives from conception to slaughter. A structure called an "Agropark" would house 100, 000 pigs on one floor! Movement toward a sustainable future should include a push toward more compassionate interaction with animals as well as the planet.

The modern factory farm inflicts terrible suffering from abuse and neglect on animals raised for food. Housing livestock in high-rises would bring a food source closer to urban residents and dramatically decrease the factory farm's enormous environmental footprint. However, it will multiply a thousand-fold the number of animals imprisoned in food production, sentenced to lives of pain and suffering without opportunity for healthy relationships, fresh air and movement, freedom, and peace.

I worry because I have yet to find an article on vertical farming that specifically mentions the strong connection between climate change and factory farming of animals along with increasing meat and dairy demand . Animals being raised for meat and dairy and the crops needed to feed them lead to widespread and undeniable destruction of land, water, and air while using available, fertile land to grow feed for animals robs billions of starving people of nourishing food . It would seem, then, that any modern discussion about a sustainable future in terms of food production should include talk of animal agriculture as one of the biggest contributors to climate change and of the positive impact wide-scale reduction in meat and dairy consumption would have.

It would seem that serious efforts and monies should be invested in an obvious, less costly, and more accessible tool in diverting climate change like implementing practices and legislation to decrease human reliance on animals for food. The successful marketing of and transition to a more meat-free diet seems quite preferable to the urban farm high-rises and the loss of the farm and farmer as a cultural icon and our connection to the land. The information I have read about vertical farms seem to accept current farming methods as fixed and focus on how to adapt the earth to meet our needs, rather than investigate changing the food industry to adapt to the needs of the planet.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Wow... what a post... thought-provoking, reflective, and so well written! I have not heard of vertical farms until this morning on your blog. It truly scares me - for all the reasons you mention. It's so frustrating to me the way humans think... about controlling their environment, controlling the natural world and all its beings... all the new and latest technology and industry to make our lives "easier" while wreaking havoc on others and not giving that a second thought. Sigh. I think you need to send your post for printing... it is a must-read editorial!