Farming needs to grow up
// Michaela Davies

Spending time in the local urban farms of my East Vancouver neighborhood inspired me to grow my very own vegetable garden. Unfortunately, a raccoon urinated on my artisan lettuce and my herb crop was teeming with baby spiders. This marked the end of my urban farming career, as my ancestral prairie knowledge told me that pee and spiders render a crop useless and that I should throw my little garden into the yard trimmings bin.

It makes perfect sense to grow the food you eat close to where you live, as it eliminates both travel and environmental costs. Seeing as we live in a world with a shrinking supply of land suitable for agriculture coupled with a booming population, we’re running out of land to feed us. The concept made so evident by the KFC Double-Down is that humans haven’t demonstrated the capacity to consume less, so we’re going to have to learn to produce more in ways that don’t harm the planet that we rely on.

How do you create new large areas of agriculture close to, or inside, large cities? By creating growing space out of thin air. Vertical farming is the idea that growing food in enclosed structures, whether it’s a skyscraper or a rotating rack of plants, allows the year-round production of food, minimizes pesticides and herbicide use, creates more farmable land, and eliminates both the fossil fuel use and spoilage factor of transporting food long distances.

Years ago, when wandering around the Internet first became a paying job, I worked as a blogger for a company that pioneered a system where over 50 varieties of leafy green vegetables are grown in vertically stacked trays and continuously rotated within a climate controlled area, ensuring an even exposure to light and nutrients while creating a constant airflow. The vertical method they used produced as much as 20 times greater yields than conventional growing methods, while using only eight per cent of the water usage typical in soil farming.

The problems with the current industrial agriculture system are becoming evident.

We have the ability to produce a lot of food, enough food that supermarkets can stock only the most unblemished and perfect looking produce, but this comes at a cost. Looking down your supermarket aisles you’ll see foods that are grown in ways that consume massive volumes of water, degrade topsoil through monoculture (single-crop) production techniques, and are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for both synthetic fertilizer and for transportation.

What would we do if the industrial farms closed today? Our society has become dependent on a huge, centralized agriculture operations and long distance transport – I certainly don’t think the Mr. Noodles I have stashed away in the emergency cupboard could take me very far into the week in terms of nutrition. Relying on food deliveries from thousands of miles away offers poor food security and leaves us vulnerable to food shortages caused by volatile market prices and unpredictable growing conditions.

Vertical farms could eventually be able to supply much of the produce for urban centers on demand and at a reasonable cost. Building a skyscraper full of crops sounds expensive, and it is, but so is the way we’re currently growing as a global population. When comparing costs, it’s important to remember that currently, industrial agriculture is subsidized, and gets help from policies that encourage the current destructive industrial practices. The hidden costs of production, such as the environmental mess that’s continuously building, isn’t included in the price of the industrial foods in the supermarket, but we’ll be paying for it later as a society.

Vertical farms aren’t the perfect solution for every city and every situation. The advantages of controlling the growing environment in an indoor landscape also comes with what could be a troubling level of energy consumption to keep ideal growing temperatures, both for heating and for the lights acting as stand-ins for the sun.

According to agriculture researcher Stan Cox, if you wanted to replace all of the wheat cultivation in America for a year using vertical farming, you would need eight times the amount of electricity generated by all the power plants in the US. If a vertical farm is plugged into an energy system that uses coal power plants, or other carbon intensive energy forms, it negates some of vertical farming’s positive effects.

In B.C., we’re lucky to have a fairly strong renewable energy portfolio with hydropower feeding the majority of the electricity into our grid. So with a goal of only using renewable types of energy to feed the vertical farms, they become a sustainable option.

There are already vertical farm projects around the world that are showing promise, so it’s looking like vertical farming won’t become the Segway of agriculture. In Suwon, South Korea they have a vertical farm working and producing vegetables in a three-story demonstration built to the specifications of vertical farming guru Dick Despommier. Vancouver will have their own example soon, as local company Valcent will be installing a vertical farm on the roof level of an EasyPark lot in downtown Vancouver.

As someone who depends on a calculator for equations that can’t be counted on fingers, let me show some simple numbers to illustrate the logic of vertical farms: we don’t have much land left because we used it all to build malls and grow whatever is in the middle of a McDonald’s burger. The world’s population is growing by 1.10 per cent every year, and we’re depleting groundwater, especially in places like California, where half the fruits and vegetables in the United States are grown, the water table is being over-drafted at a rate of 1.6 billion cubic meters per year.

It makes sense to look at different options to the existing model, because as strange as it sounds, the current industrial farming model makes far less sense than creating skyscrapers full of vegetables.

Michaela Davies is a Communications Director for a local corporation based in Vancouver. Her long list of accomplishments is only matched by her love of all things Netflix and pizza. She currently holds the record for "afternoon napping." Michaelas father is also an esteemed professor at Capilano University.

//Michaela Davis, guest columnist
//Graphics by Katie So

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