What would the permaculture approach to vertical farming look like?
Most permaculturalist agree that we must grow more food with in our cities, but does that mean inside the buildings of the city itself? Vertical farming has been making some big headlines lately and so I’ve decided to approach some of the latest ideas and innovations and examine them through the lens of permaculture principals. This idea has been around for a while (think terraces in Asia) and has some very strong merits. Bill Mollison remarked that “95 of the cost of food in a city like New York comes from it’s transportation, storage, and packaging.” Growing in a high density fashion has the potential to save ample land and resources if done correctly. But, as a permaculturalist I have some serious reservations about vertical farms. Most of the skyscraper type designs would grow food hydroponically This requires considerable energy and maintenance the trade off being a year long growing season; that is if your not dealing with constant “technical difficulties”. Dickson Despommier the leading proponent of the vertical farming idea had this say, “You can control nothing outdoors, and you can control everything indoors. That means no floods, wildfires, hailstorms, tornadoes, or droughts. Plant diseases and pests are more easily controlled, too, meaning less need for herbicides and pesticides.”
“And indoor agriculture is more efficient. One indoor acre of strawberries can produce as much as 30 outdoor acres can. In general, indoor acreage is four to six times more productive, in part because of the year-round growing season. Outdoors, you might get one crop [per year]; indoors, you might get four or five crops per year,”
Now, I might disagree about his use of the word “efficient” because it may not account for the imbued impute energy of a large hydroponic system not to mention large steel and concrete building. His emphasis on control is also a little unsettling too, simply because it was a disproportionate emphasis on control, instead of more flexible whole systems design based on relationships, that got us into the current food crisis mess in the first place. Now I wouldn’t throw out the idea of vertical farming entirely I just think there may be a better use of our energy and resources. Skyscrapers alone use ample amounts of energy in their construction let alone ones potentially holding complex hydroponics systems. Some of these designs incorporate aspects of passive and active solar, wind, housing, rainwater harvesting, methane digestion for energy, composting, aquaculture, and other generally cool features you would expect from the sustainably minded. But, here is what my friend Richard Register author of Ecocities: rebuilding cities in balance with nature had to say about it, “the notion of filling a building [with plants] and artificially supplying the light for the plants … from any kind of energy system is one of the weirdest ideas I’ve ever heard of. It’s not serious agriculture. It’s just not…. It’s an intellectual plaything.”
“A better answer is to develop, over time, more compact, energy-efficient cities along the European model, he says. That would free up land near urban areas for conventional agriculture with “100-percent-free solar energy” falling on it. Urban community gardens and high-intensity conventional commercial gardens could also supply part of the need.”
I echo Richards sentiments; it seems to me that before we consider growning food in farmscrapers in the future we should reclaim what is already available to us now. New York City alone has 1700 unused and vacant lots! If space is the issue well I’d rather get rid of some streets. Mo Town in Detroit is starting to turn into one large urban farm and should’t we encourage ideas from the bottom up, as in from the community, versus developers first. This doesn’t mean I think vertical farming is a absolute dead end. Like I said I still think that it is an idea with good merits but it needs to be more scalable and less impute intensive. If vertical farming becomes a euphemism for taking the industrialized petrol based monoculture outside and then reconfiguring that inside (which is what some designs looked like) then I say no way! Recently, one design called Sky Vegetables caught my eye. This design was developed by 22 year old Keith Agoada, a University of Wisconsin business student, and took home a 10000$ first place prize in a competition for creative start ups. Sky Vegetables is basically a big box remix with vegetables being grown on the grocery store roof (in greenhouses), complete with rainwater harvesting, solar panels, compost, oh and large unsightly asphalt parking lot too of course. I believe if you were to add affordable housing and office space to a idea like this, scale it down a bit, build most of the building with Glubam or with recycled wood, and of course take out the parking lot, well then I might sign on to vertical farming. Until then, when I hear the word vertical farming used I’m going to think of a forest garden.
Take care and fair share!
P.S. Check out my next post on this subject when I examine arcologies and the way in which they aproach vertical farming. Oh, and sorry about the typos I have to stop typing so late.