Vertical farms: Wrong on so many levels

Vincent Callebaut Architects
© Vincent Callebaut Architects

TreeHugger has had some trouble digesting vertical farms for a decade, as has Stan Cox of Alternet, who wrote in 2010 that “Although the concept has provided opportunities for architecture students and others to create innovative, sometimes beautiful building designs, it holds little practical potential for providing food.” Now he is at it again, refining his points in a new article in Alternet that was picked up and retitled in Salon as Enough with the vertical farming fantasies: There are still too many unanswered questions about the trendy practice.

Cox is particularly critical of the original Vertical Farm concepts of Dickson Despommier, who wrote the book on the subject. His images all have floor upon floor of farm, all lit by artificial light and a bit of natural light that comes in from the windows. Vertical farm proponents claim that this can be done with renewable energy; Cox notes that this does not make a lot of sense.

There is much loose talk in the vertical-gardening world about using renewable energy sources to power their grow-lights. That discussion spirals into some interesting circular logic: that we would use solar arrays and wind farms to convert sunlight’s energy into electric current that would feed lamps that would convert a portion of the electrical energy into artificial sunlight to shine on plants so they can convert that light energy into food. At each of those conversion points, there are big losses of energy and heavy infrastructure costs. It’s about as wasteful as a system can be. Better to let crop plants do what they do best: capture cost-free, emissions-free sunlight for themselves, directly.

Spread vertical farm© SpreadAutomated indoor vertical farm will produce 30,000 heads of lettuce per day

And while the yield under artificial light is higher, it is still not as good as growing under natural sunlight.

Cox also dismisses the idea that we don’t have enough farmland, even though so much land that was farmed has returned to forest because right now it is more economical to ship produce long distances by rail and truck. But in fact there’s lots of farmland around; we have just been using it really badly.

Much could be done to protect our lands while improving access to good food for all Americans, rural and urban. As a start, we could slow or stop the degradation of the nation’s soils by eliminating the feedlot system of meat production and the scores of millions of acres of corn and soybeans that supply it.

Also, anyone in real estate will tell you that there is a highest and best use for land, and in the city, farming ain’t it. As Adam Stein noted years ago,

Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There’s a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that’s what New Jersey is for.

Lufa Farms© Lufa FarmsFresh & city-grown: Montreal's second rooftop urban farm opens

Cox is not against urban farming; like TreeHugger, he likes rooftop greenhouses.

The roots of urban food insecurity are as economic and political as those out here in farm country. Sun-fed urban gardening, fruit and vegetable cultivation close to cities, and people’s food initiatives all are important and need to keep expanding, but a still more profound economic transformation is needed.

But that does not include vertical farms. “But thanks to their hefty electric bills and limited crop range, they will have a hard time venturing beyond the elite market, let alone reducing their climate impact.”

It should be pointed out again that Cox said much of this five years ago, as did TreeHugger in Fix Our Horizontal Farms Before We Go Vertical

More in Alternet.

Tags: Farming

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