Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Vertical farms - no lighthouses for ecological cities

The dream of food without dirt. That is the best description of how we will get food in the future if we would believe the impressive number of food tech start-ups which will produce food without soil or animals. But few of them deliver on their exaggerated promises. 

Image result for IKEA indoor farm
The IKEA indoor growing kit.

The growing of plants in water with drip-fed nutri­tion is a much-hyped technology. There are some traditional hydrocultural systems that work well, where people farm on floats in rivers or lakes, e.g. in Bangladesh and Burma, and of course there are edible aquatic plants which are grown or collected. 

In its modern scientific form hydroponics was developed by researchers at Berkeley University in the 1930s.[i] In 1937, Time Magazine reported that hydroponic had “yielded some remarkable results”.[ii] Seventy two years later the same magazine elected a vertical hydroponic system to one of the 50 best innovations in 2009.

An extreme version of hydroponics are indoor vertical farms in cities. We see sketches of green skyscrapers feeding the people with clean, local and nutritious food. Most such plans remain on the drawing boards for very simple reasons. For sure, it is possible to produce lettuce in high towers with automated systems. But the fact that it is possible doesn’t mean it is viable on a larger scale, and even less that it will take place in the cities. Vertical hydroponic farms are totally dependent on inputs that will need to be transported in, they are not part of any ecological context in the city, and if they are large, the crops will be put into the normal food distribution networks. In that sense, they are like any other assembly plant. And, like any other assembly plants, they are better located outside of city centres. But the rational for stacking crops on top of each other is gone where land prices are lower. Hydroponics is already, since decades, the dominating form for commercial production of tomatoes, capsicums cucumber and lettuce in greenhouses in many countries in the world. By and large, it can only compete in high value crops where production is close to the market, and greenhouses are often located close to transportation hubs or energy resources rather than in cities.

It can of course be a marketing gimmick for a supermarket to grow its own lettuce on the roof of the outlet or in a green dome inside the shop, in the same way as they have an in house bakery. And, similarly, it can be an interesting architectural and engineering challenge to have green skyscrapers, and it can increase the commercial value of the property. But it has little relevance for feeding the population, which is underscored by that the commercial application are all about growing baby lettuce, pak choy or herbs, crops which provide almost no food energy or proteins.

The claims of environmental benefits are mostly not backed by any facts. In-door production of lettuce, herbs and other small leaves require in the range of 250 Watt per square meter of energy efficient LED lamps (a lot more is required for the production of tomatoes or potatoes).[iii] With 12 hours light per day one would need 3,000 Wh per square meter and day, or 1,095 kWh per year. This means that only three square meters of such a farm would consume the global average per capita use of electricity.[iv] The company Freight Farms offer a container ready for vertical farming. For 85,000 dollars you can buy the monster which will consume 36,000 kWh of electricity anually. It will produce 500 heads of lettuce per week. Hardly enough to keep one person alive.

LED lit vertical farming also doesn’t save land as it often claims. Assuming, optimistically, that we could produce the electricity with solar panels, depending on where we are located we would need solar panels on an area which would be between 4 and 8 times bigger than the area of each layer of cultivation.[v] And this is only for the light. In addition to light one needs energy for ventilation, cooling, water pumping and purification etc. The claim that the production is climate-smart is also questionable; T. Shiina and colleagues (2012) found that growing lettuce with artificial light causes at least 6 kg CO2 emissions per kg, which is considerably more than for common greenhouse production and at least five times more than arable lettuce production.[vi]

In an entertaining article professor David Keith at Harvard calculates that his small-scale household cultivation of lettuce causes greenhouse emissions of 50 kg CO2 per kg lettuce and use 100 times as much energy. In addition, the production cost is 5-8 times higher than for normal lettuce.

Indoor farming in the cities are part of a narrative of ‘sustainable cities’ in which cities become self-sustaining ecological units. Unfortunately, those technologies are not integrated into the ecological web of the city, rather the opposite, they need to be sealed off even from the people and the water used must be of premium quality. They can’t even use the rain falling in their roofs.

While it is commendable to strive to reduce the ecological footprint of cities some realism is called for. For their provisions and waste disposal, cities need forest, agricultural, marine, and wetland ecosystems on lands many hundred times the area of the city itself.[x] If we are serious about feeding the cities more locally, we should look more to the perimeters of the city and to the interplay between cities and their hinterland. It is here that there really is a potential to feed the cities.

Meanwhile, urban farming - with soil and animals - has a role to play in reviving commu­nity spirit and for recreation. It is also a good way to engage people in food production and in appreciating food quality. Despite the hype and attention given to urban farming in modern wealthy cities, most urban farming takes place in developing countries by poor people using very simple technology producing a lot more food than any vertical farms.

[i]         Gericke, W. F.: 1940 The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening Putnam.
[ii]        Time 1938: ‘Science: Hydroponics to wake’ Monday, 23 May 1938 http://content.time.com.
[iii]       Maximum Yield 2014: ’ A Beginner’s Guide to Calculating Garden Lighting Needs’ https://www.maximumyield.com/a-beginners-guide-to-calculating-garden-lighting-needs/2/1350 17 February 2014.
[iv]       World bank 2017: ’ Electric power consumption (kWh per capita)’ http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.ELEC.KH.PC 14 December 2017
[v]        Based on industry data drawn from several web sites.
[vi]       Shiina, T., Hosokawa, D., Roy, P., Nakamura , N., Thammawong, M. and Orikasa, T. 2011. ‘Life cycle inventory analysis of leafy vegetables grown in two types of plant factories.’ Acta Hort. (ISHS) 919:115-122
[vii]       Atkins, P. J., P. Lummel and D. J. Oddy (editors) 2007: Food and the City in Europe since 1800 Ashgate.
[viii]      Steel, C. 2008: Hungry City. Chatto & Windus.
[ix]       Rundgren, G 2015: Global Eating Disorder. Regeneration
[x]        Folke, Carl, et al. 1997: ’Ecosystem Appropriation by Cities.’ Ambio, vol. 26, no. 3, 1997, pp. 167–172. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4314576.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A people's food policy for England

There is a vibrant food movement in the UK and Brexit means that there will be a national food and agriculture policy in the future. Will the UK stick to it market-liberal free trade politics or will it take the opportunity to re-shape its food system? A People’s Food Policy want it to be fundamentally transformed.

In Sweden, it is very difficult to discuss food or agriculture outside of the prevailing market paradigm. The story goes like this:
The consumers determine which food is produced, how it is produced and where it is produced through their purchasing behaviors. Therefore there is no need (well, very little need) for government interventions or other kinds of regulations in the food sector. If people want farmers to take care of their animals, the environment and their workers, they will favor producers doing so by buying their products. By and large it is a question of information and linking the proper information to the particular product.

The more advanced proponents add that this should be complemented with Payment for Ecosystem Services and the Polluter Pay Principle, whereby all external costs and benefits will be priced. I will not expand on all the arguments against this notion in this article, but you can read about it here, Can we shop our way to a better world? And here, Food: from commodity to commons.

Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. Agriculture and food systems, the resources needed for producing food and the landscapes where this takes place are a kind of commons or a public good. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropri­ate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc., are private property and provided by the market.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25).

Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons is what I would call a real shift in paradigm (a most overused word!). It doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources.
Political actions to reform the food system can take many forms and happen on many levels. Citing America’s Declaration of Independence and the Maine Constitution, the one thousand or so citizens of Sedg­wick voted in 2001 in favor of a local ordinance stating that “Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.” In similar ways many municipalities and counties in Europe have declared themselves to be GMO-free zones. All the Austrian Bundesländer (states) have declared their intention to remain GMO-free and more than hundred municipalities have signed resolutions to the same effect. Of course, these are primarily provocations, rather than a practical policy. But the system certainly needs provoking.

The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact commit the signatories to “develop sustainable food systems that  are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse, that provide healthy and  affordable  food  to  all  people  in  a  human  rights - based  framework, that minimise  waste  and conserve  biodiversity  while adapting to  and  mitigating impacts  of  climate change.” The 144 cities having signed on to it includes New York, Beijing, Milan, London and Buenos Aires (no Swedish city has signed, so much for progressive Sweden).

One of recent political projects regarding food is A People’s Food Policy, in England. In the policy 80 organisations have agreed that
“Our vision is of a food system where everybody, regardless of income, status or background, has secure access to enough good food at all times, without compromising on the wellbeing of people, the health of the environment and the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.“

There is a vibrant food movement in the UK and Brexit means that there will be a national food and agriculture policy in the future. Will the UK stick to it market-liberal free trade politics or will it take the opportunity to transform its food system? The policy builds on the concepts of Right to Food and Food Sovereignty and elaborate a hundred different proposals, which, if implemented would largely re-shape the English[i] food system.

The policy strives to relocalize production and consumption of food produced according to agro-ecological methods. It want to support the kind of produce which currently is mostly imported, e.g. horticulture, as well as environmentally friendly farming methods. Meanwhile it proposes a ban on GMOs, several pesticides and antibiotics and environmental taxes on artificial fertilizers.
Two thirds of the population is malnourished or overweight and more than eight million people are short in food (scandalous in one of the world’s richer countries!). Better access to food and regulations and taxes for junk food, sugar, salt and fat are proposed.

Only one percent of the population owns half of the agriculture land in England. Land and housing ownership contribute to growing inequality and limits the opportunities for new entrants into food production. The policy falls short of radical redistribution of land (a “Land reform”) but it calls for strengthened community access to land and a number of other measures to make access to land easier. 

In an interesting twist the policy rejects both agricultural support based on production (which was the case earlier in the EU) and based on land management. The former drives intensification overproduction the latter favours big land owners over small ones. Instead it suggest that support could be distributed according to the amount of work involved or the jobs created, whatever you prefer to call it.

Finally, the People’s Food Policy calls for a very different view on trade and markets. It calls on protective tariffs and quotas to protect producers as well as renegotiation of the WTO agreement on agriculture. Trade agreements should not undermine social or environmental standards, in the UK or overseas. The existing Groceries Code Adjucator (a kind of ombudsman for supermarket suppliers) should be given much extended powers including ensuring that a “fair proportion of retail price goes to producers”.  

The measures described above of the above are radical, but wouldn’t amount to a “transformation” of the food system, taken one by one. But taken together they might actually tip the scale towards a new system. A system which we don’t know how it will look like in any detail, but where the guiding principles are food as a right and public goods.

[i] There are other processes going on in Scotland and Wales which is why the policy is for England and not the UK.