Since man first started planting crops and penning in animals to ensure a food supply, cities began to flourish and grow. Agriculture is the single most important advance in mankind’s long climb towards civilization. Animal husbandry, while different, today falls under the same heading of agriculture. The stable supply of food and in quantities that far exceed what a single person’s efforts can consume is the precursor to all other advances in mankind’s coterie of skills that allow for people to have time to think of other things.
It is historically provable that mankind’s advances and new ideas lead to great advances, greater comfort and wealth overall of the population – and more problems in new forms. These new problems come in many forms. Sometimes they are the direct result of new ideas and improvements in the harsh reality of Unintended Consequences, other times they are the impacts of these new ideas clashing with the old.
In the end, that’s what this is about. New ideas clashing with the old and the Effect of Unintended Consequences making their mark on the landscape of mankind’s achievements. So it is sometimes the case that we cannot see the forest for the trees. We see only the benefits of our advances and casually ignore, in many cases, the consequences of those advances, because the benefits are just so overwhelmingly obvious that raising any objections to the advances seems ungracious or even spiteful.
This seems to be Mankind’s general nature. We don’t complain unless there’s something really wrong. We see the positive more than we look at the negative. We act in concert with others and cooperate, even at times when we’re not happy about it, because we see the overall benefits. When bad things occur and situations look grim, instead of gnashing our teeth, wailing and bemoaning our fate, we straighten our backs, stiffen our resolve and figure something out – or at least do our best to find a positive outcome.
Every decade, every century, we make advances in food production, packaging, harvesting, storing and transporting it. Today, the world produces enough food to feed everyone, but, due to issues of waste, spoilage, inefficiencies in storage and transportation up to 50% of all the food produced does not make it into the mouths of the people it is intended to support. Even with the advances made, crop yields, though they are better than they have ever been, are still approximately only 50% of the total planted crop.
This means only 25% of all the food planted gets to the people of the world. There’s more bad news, sadly. Due to politics, greed, strife and warfare in many places throughout the world, the food that is there doesn’t get distributed very well. People starve to death in a world where enough food is produced to feed everyone on the planet.
These are the Unintended Consequences of successful agriculture. There are even more of these Unintended Consequences than many would like to examine. Today I’m going to ask you to examine them and think of them as objectively as possible. Our very lives may depend on us taking stock of the situation in a more objective manner than we, as a society, have been willing to do.
Food production is the cornerstone of our society. Without food production on a scale that literally boggles the mind in it’s scope and size, we’d probably still be in an Age of Steam in our technological and sociological advancement. If our food production capacity were impacted in any large manner – anywhere in the world, mind you, not just in the US – the consequences could be devastating, causing shockwaves to ripple out from the central point across the globe.
The tipping point can come from any number of “vectors” to Mankind’s ability to produce food. The tri-fecta of disasters in Japan shows us the earth itself can be a vector, as well as Mankind’s own poor planning for such forces. This goes beyond simple malfeasance, which isn’t the point of this article. It simply points out that there are forces in the world that can, singly or in combination, wreak havoc on our ability to produce, harvest, transport and store food. While the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdowns didn’t destroy large food supplies, crops or agricultural lands, it disrupted transportation, destroyed infrastructure and halted manufactories, supplies and shipments to production centers all over the world.
What if, instead of Japan and along the coast, a major disaster struck at the heartland of Russia’s wheat production? How about a major drought, flood, blight or disease striking into the central region of China’s rice production? Consider the impact of a major crop disaster, on a scale equivalent to the creation of the Dust Bowl in the early 1930’s, if it occurred again here in this country. What would be the impact of such things?
We can’t even begin to realistically calculate the potential hardships caused by such events. This is not only natural disaster potential in these calamitous (though hypothetical) events. If we have a shipping problem, or a ground transportation problem caused by some political event, warfare, terrorist attack or even the chaos of extreme weather, the effects on our ability to plant, harvest, transport and store food could be impacted over long periods of time.
Cities are vulnerable to many types of impacts. Cities are now where approximately 80% of the world’s population lives. Additionally, the vast majority of cities sit along either: coasts, major navigable rivers, or close to large bodies of fresh water. Anything that impacts a city, or multiple cities, has the potential to be disastrous to large segments of the population. However, the destruction of food, in any manner that severely affects entire countries, possibly multiple countries is even more potentially disastrous.
These are the Unintended Consequences of such food production and the resultant accumulation of the population into large pools of human resources. Just because they haven’t really happened on such a scale yet doesn’t mean they never will. We, supposedly rational beings, top of the food chain, masters of all we survey, are supposed to be smart. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.
It is time for us to look at our cities, at our food production, at the consequences of the methods we have used for millennia and wonder – is it the best way for us to continue from here, just because it’s been so apparently successful all this time? If we never re-evaluated how we did things, just because we’ve done them for a long time, we’d still believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the world was flat and that going faster than forty miles per hour would cause us to suffocate. Those ideas sound silly to us today, but the Ptolemaic system of the Earth centered universe lasted for 1500 years, a round Earth wasn’t readily accepted by most until after Cristolo Colombo made his important voyage in 1492. Even so we held onto the silly notion of a 40 mph top speed before it killed us until the advent of vehicles that could, in fact, go faster, like the steam powered train circa 1840.
Science has a long history of breaking it’s own staid and formal reality of what is and is not possible. It also has a long history of doing it to itself. In other words, scientists have the job, as part of the process of scientific thought, of making themselves wrong as often as they are at making themselves right. The act of changing worldviews comes from realizing that what we know about things may not be true and it may be based on information and evidence that is questionable at best; suspect always.
In light of this we need to re-examine our agricultural processes and what our cities are – and what they are supposed to be. These two subjects, while treated by science with regularity, have never really been examined from the perspective of what they do and how they do it best. These two aspects are both empirically tested and yet, they are literally the cornerstones of human endeavor and society throughout history.
Mankind has been described as a plague upon the planet, a virus, a cancer and an indelible stain. Yet, here we are, the dominant species on the planet, effecting change and creating far-reaching complications – from our perches within cities, dependant wholly upon the land to sustain us in the process. As a living organism within the context of our environment, we are dependant creatures that must, somehow, find a balance of sustainable behavior. A practice that allows us to continue to live in cities, where we can leverage our human talent pool to it’s best advantage, while maintaining a responsible commitment to our environment by not destroying it’s ability to let us continue to do so.
All this leads up to my initial title. Growing up in the city. You see; I’m talking about food, oxygen, reduced pollution and improved storage and distribution of food. Any organism in the environment has, but one imperative: survive. Cities are organisms of large blocs of mankind.
Like cells within a living organism, mankind fulfills many different functions within that organism to maintain the life of the host. The host, as a large, complex organism must endeavor to survive within it’s environment. If that organism cannot find sufficient sustenance to convert to energy, or if it damages it’s environment to the point where it cannot survive within it, it must either die or adapt to the new conditions.
An organism’s internal workings must achieve some sort of balance as well. A cell within the organism must repeat this on a smaller scale. In nature, herds, packs, swarms and flocks all move around within their environment, giving a wide range of their environment. This assures those creatures of a food source and for their waste products to get properly recycled and used to replenish the environment. It’s their mobility that provides them this cushion.
Cities don’t have that luxury. Neither do croplands. These are two of the most important advancements of mankind and they are the two advancements of mankind that do not fit a balancing model for the environment within which they sit. This is the empirical data that belies what a great idea both of these advancements really are. They both create a wildly out of balance situation with the environment – as successful as they seem to be.
Are we doomed? Is it our destiny to fail, because we cannot see how flawed our two greatest achievements of mankind are? I don’t think so. In this I believe, once again, mankind’s ability to act in longer-term best interests will win out and we’ll survive.
To this end, cities must come to act more like organisms in their environment. They must be able to distribute resources internally in as efficient a manner as possible and they must be able to do so such that they are self sustaining, like a cell in a body. It’s a question of our ultimate survival and the ability to do so must be accomplished in accordance with all other organisms in nature – or we will be doomed.
Agricultural runoff today accounts for approximately 80% of water pollution. That runoff from the USA through our greatest river system in the nation, the Mississippi and it’s tributaries, creates a dead zone where no sea life can exist from the mouth of the Mississippi for over 80 miles out to sea, spreading out in a giant 6000 square mile fan shape, exceeding the size of New Jersey. Other rivers in our country do the same thing to greater or lesser degrees. The same situation occurs in every country that has large cities and requires large agricultural spaces to feed their populations. The Dead Zones have increased in number and size and continue to do so at alarming rates.
Additionally, we are over fishing and polluting the waters of the oceans to the point where catches are dwindling at alarming rates. These rates are being ignored by large corporations and our governments, because money is being made. We are ruining the planet’s ability to recycle our wastes in a manner consistent with our own long-term health and survival.
Enter hydroponic and aeroponic farming. Not out there, in our agricultural farmlands, but right here in our cities. We grow up, instead of out. This is not my idea, though it seems to me to be a really smart and efficient move to ensure our own longer-term survival. If we do this in our own cities, across the nation, throughout the world, we ensure food production while shortening our transportation requirements and improving our storage and freshness of that supply.
Hydroponic and aeroponic farming can be done in extremely small spaces to produce yields significantly higher than standard agricultural techniques. In fact, in one instance, a strawberry farmer who owned 26 acres of cropland in Florida had his farm destroyed in Hurricane Andrew. He converted one acre to hydroponics and now produces the same yields on one acre in a hydroponic greenhouse that his 26 acres produced through traditional agricultural methods. The other 25 acres? Now converted to the wild, returning those 25 acres to oxygen producing carbon reducing natural land.
There are literally hundreds of empty buildings in cities all over the country, that are just waiting for an opportunity to become productive centers of commerce, industry and production. Imagine an empty warehouse, converted to a large-scale hydroponic and aeroponic farming system. Using state of the art techniques, lighting, nutrient delivery systems, filtering and employing hundreds of people in each center to produce food. Food that won’t have to be driven from the heartlands in trucks, using fuel and resources that would no longer be necessary if we grew our food in our cities.
In such an environment, we could control our growing seasons, the light, heat, water, feeding of plants. We could increase yields by creating stable environments for growing. Pesticides would be unnecessary for the most part, because pests would be stopped through control of the environment. Crop plant yields would also be higher, because we could control the environment and study the seed grains to improve their germination rates, as well as their overall health. Also, food could be grown year round, in staggered sections so that there was always fresh produce.
Hydroponic and aeroponic gardening uses approximately 80% LESS water than standard flood irrigation. With drip and mist irrigation in such an environment, controlled lighting, temperature and humidity, the productive yield of an acre of indoor farming like this could produce easily 26 acres worth of produce for a fraction of the water. The land that would be used could be reverted to wild lands, or it could be reduced into crop rotatable portions, using techniques that are less destructive of the land and provides a more sustainable agricultural method. These things would serve to reduce water pollution, increase our carbon reducing vegetation and provide arable land for hardwood forest production.
All of these would provide a more sustainable method for mankind the world over. No matter where you live in the world, producing food inside a large structure, using all available space, including going up in skyscrapers, you could grow food year round. Imagine it. You could renovate empty office buildings, warehouses, old department stores, etc, and convert them to produce food. The nutrients, lighting, air control, quality control, technical expertise – all these things are marketable products of the process and they are also potential markets for increased employment, new businesses and new technologies to revitalize currently depressed areas of cities, primarily the inner city areas where many buildings lay fallow and unused, creating a literal economic drain and burden on the cities within which they exist.
It all sounds very ideal and pie in the sky. It is idealistic, to be sure. Think about it, though. Is polluting our water, dumping heavy metals in large quantities into our water tables, our soil and our oceans the best way we can feed our world? Is trucking produce hundreds of miles in refrigerated trucks and trains the best method of food distribution for mankind? Is relying on the weather to be kind the best way to ensure food stability?
Growing indoors, growing up in buildings and spaces specifically repurposed for that effort promotes a more efficient method of producing our food. It ensures year round, temperature and humidity controlled production. It provides economic potential and employment potential in economically depressed areas of cities in the nation, even the world. It reduces our dependence on fuel as a resource for long distance transportation and distribution.
All of these things would help to reduce our pollution footprint, ensure greater food stability and allow us to employ and utilize buildings and structures that currently act as a drain on city coffers. It would also provide incredible employment opportunities in areas where relatively little training would be required for the majority of work, while acting as magnets for high tech employment for specific functions within the projects.
More employment and more opportunity lead to greater economic potential. More jobs, real jobs with long term prospects, result in greater economic power for those employed and for those who invest. More utilization of buildings and more businesses involved in such a project will generate more revenue in property taxes, providing economic benefit to city coffers. Benefits that will allow municipalities to continue to improve and upgrade their infrastructure to support greater efficiency, reductions in pollution causing methods and to increase their quality of life for their citizenry.
All the while, increasing and stabilizing the food supply of that city. It might be difficult to get interest going before it becomes a dire necessity, because there are so many voices already raised in negativity against the idea. Then again, as mentioned before, we have a long history of hearing some experts proclaim loudly and with authority how wrong things are. Like the pronouncements against: the steamboat, interchangeable parts, computing in something smaller than a warehouse, going to the moon or a four-minute mile.
Doing these things simply reflect a more rational and logical approach to ensuring our food supply. Reduced transportation, increased control and stability, year round production and drastic reductions in water usage, not to mention the potential for filtering water with parts of the processes used to grow our food. This is a step in the direction of creating self sufficient and more stable cities. Cities that would be capable of providing food at relatively low cost and high quality that is fresh and healthy for it’s citizens. A city that grows up in this way is a city that has a much better chance at living – like a cell in an organism – longer, healthier and in a sustainable manner.
If we’re going to be the dominant species on this planet for any length of time, then we must focus our incredible talents on making our cities livable, sustainable and healthy places for our populations. This includes providing food in a way that doesn’t rely on millennia’s old concepts. Concepts that have only been modified to operate on a grander scale and scope, but are more destructive to our longer-term survival than most are willing to even consider.
There are all sorts of doom and gloom points that can be made, but of what use are such dire predictions without something else to offer hope? I was taught in the US Air Force this: That if you see a problem or recognize one, look for a potential solution before you bring it to someone’s attention. Look for solutions, not problems. I see the idea of Vertical Farming, as proposed by Professor Dickson Despommier and others, to be a central tenet of how to shift our view of cities and our food supply issues.
Dr. Dickson Despommier didn’t coin the phrase Vertical Farming. That attribution is given to Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915. While Despommier is a strong proponent of the Vertical Farm, Ken Yeang is the architect credited with the Open Air concept, where a skyscraper is not some hermetically sealed food production center; instead it is a mixed use living, growing and filtering network, producing not only food, but energy from the waste products that cannot be easily recycled.
Hydroponics studies began around 1600 in early forms. These were the first scientific experimental forays into learning to grow plants without soils. The Aztec people established their floating gardens by building mats made of reeds and rushes. It’s easily arguable that such a feat if ingenuity also constitutes one of the oldest known and recorded successful efforts of hydroponic terraforming.
The difference between these older efforts and today’s concepts of Vertical Farming are those of scale, technological advancement and overall knowledge of the process. There are many issues to be worked out and there are plenty of criticisms by established experts in their fields that literally consider Vertical Farming or Skyscraper Hydroponics a complete waste of effort. In light of our history of predictive idiocy based on authority and experts of their day, this is to be expected. It’s a good thing, really.
While I agree there are many considerations and obstacles to overcome, the idea and the technology to do it has great merit. As there are plenty of things to consider, it’s not an easy answer for or against. I would like to offer, in summation, that there is a long tradition and a long list of experts in their field telling us, the laypeople, that this latest new idea, new technology, new invention, new way of doing things, just can’t possibly work – and they were wrong. Could it be that all we really need to make this work, make it profitable, is to ignore to a great degree the experts in their fields (who are not experts in the particulars of hydroponics) and have a little faith in the ingenuity and determination of the new folks offering us one more potential solution to our long list of achievements?
The process of science – and of technological advancement – requires people to poke holes in ideas. If not for this process of negative viewing, we’d never refine anything. Not simple nay saying, mind, but honest and critical evaluation of the concepts and their flaws. Without that before experimentation, we’d be stumbling around blindly and repeating many mistakes independently.
I think, on balance and with the history of predictions of experts being so completely off the mark, I’d prefer to go with a little faith in my fellow idealists and dreamers of the new.
Here are some links for you to peruse in order to satisfy any personal curiosity you might have.
Fertilizer Is (Not Always) Our Friend:
- Nitrates, Arsenic and lead are the three most common water contaminants.
- Nitrates are usually the result of agricultural runoff into the groundwater.
- Arsenic can be formed from certain fertilizers and animal feeding operations running off into water.
Sure, sure, sure, it’s the “company” propaganda, but there’s good reason to read it for the filtering information.
Another company propaganda site, but again, there’s plenty of real information here to find out more.
This site seems to be more focused on contaminant levels and their effects. More semi-scary info.
A general informational article about runoff and it’s effects.
Is it safe? Here’s an article that may dispel some of your comfort levels on bottled water being safer than water from your tap.
More technical information for you to absorb.
The Dead Zone:
- March 2004: 146 Dead Zones reported. In 2008: 405 zones were reported.
- A Dead Zone is a hypoxic (low oxygen) area where no normal animal or plant life can live.
- Nitrogen and Phosphorus are primary causative factors (2 primary components of fertilizers.)
- Phytoplankton blooms (increased growth at extreme rates) caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus (fertilizer) cause higher deposition rates of dead phytoplankton (it’s a plant) and is consumed by bacteria, which consumes the oxygen in the water and releases carbon dioxide, taking out the oxygen in the water.
- Without water flow replenishment or circulation, the area becomes a dead zone.
This is from 2004 and briefly recounts the 146 Dead Zones officially detected in that year of study.
This is a 2008 study that shows the growth of the Dead Zones and their spread, now at 405 (a 100% increase in 4 years) and up from an estimate of 49 in the 1960’s.
- This one notes that NASA has indicated there are 415 Dead Zones.
- Dead zones can be caused by natural and by anthropogenic factors. Use of chemical fertilizers is considered the major human-related cause of dead zones around the world.
- Natural causes include coastal upwelling and changes in wind and water circulation patterns.
- Runoff from sewage, urban land use, and fertilizers can also contribute to eutrophication.
This one’s a tad apocalyptic, but hey, it’s something we need to really take notice of.
Fun Fish Facts:
- Over90% of the world's living biomass is contained in the oceans, which cover 71% of the Earth's surface.
- At present, we harvest about 0.2% of marine production. (You might think that there is room for growth).
- Marine sources provide about 20% of the animal protein eaten by humans. Another 5% is provided indirectly via livestock fed with fish.
- 60% of fish consumption is by the developing world. In Asia, about 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein.
- Estimates suggest that seafood production from wild fish stocks will be insufficient to meet growing U.S. and Global demand for seafood products in the next century.
- The fishing enterprise employs some 200 million people worldwide.
Lots of charts and graphs, which are better explained above and by reading the site.
Another good site to read.
More in depth information from 1950 to present (basically.)
Coastal Crowding Craziness:
- Approximately 3 Billion people live within 200 km of a coastline (120 miles).
- Half of the world’s wetlands disappeared in the 20th Century, as did half of all Mangroves and 60% of world’s coral reefs have been seriously degraded.
- The average world fishing takes in coastal areas (the primary locus for fishing) has gone down to an estimated 10-30% of what it was only 30 years ago.
(Though it’s dated 1995, I though it prudent to use it as a sort of “baseline” comparison with current information)
- 2/3 of humanity are considered to be living either on the coastline or within 150 km (90 miles) of it.
- By 2025, approximately 75% of the world’s population is expected to be living in this region.
- 54% of the US population lives in this region.
- 56% of China’s population lives in this coastal region.
- Approximately 30% of the world’s coral reefs are listed as “Stable”
- The remaining 70% breaks down into: 10% damaged beyond recognition, 30% in critical condition (life expectancy of 10-20 years) and the remaining 30% in threatened condition (lifetime of 20-40 years) at current rates of degradation.
- At a rough estimate more than 200 million people worldwide live along coastlines less than 5 metres above sea level.
- By the end of the 21st century this figure is estimated to increase to 400 to 500 million.
- In Europe an estimated 13 million people would be threatened by a sea-level rise of 1 metre.
- Some densely-populated areas in the Netherlands, England, Germany and Italy already lie below the mean high-water mark. Without coastal defence mechanisms these would already be flooded today. For all these regions, therefore, the question of how fast the sea level will rise is extremely important and of vital interest.
Filtering the Information (and Pollution):
A new technique (not sold in ANY stores!) is available to filter contaminants from water on a community-sized scale.
This is actually a water treatment “corporate line” page, and even so, is quite informative on the whole.
Eww, GROSS! This is what happens when you violate natural principles of livestock production in attempts to increase “yield.” Without some scientific efforts at remediation/reduction, we’re going to drown in shit. Don’t forget to check the bottom of the linked page – even more links to more information to keep you better informed. No shit.
Let There Be (More Efficient) Light:
The only thing we can count on is change. An article about aquarium lighting. Not wholly on topic, but useful for a basic lighting primer regarding efficiency changes.
Wikipedia is not always the single best source, but it’s always worth a look. It’s sort of the internet version of Basic How Stuff Works. This is on grow light concepts and science.
More Power Scotty, this site explains and promotes the advances in battery technology – this will be a necessary component to power storage and charging for Vertical Farming.
Yes, it’s dedicated to marijuana growing. Oddly, new advances and critical information is being developed through the attempts to better control output of an illicit market. Ignore the crop, focus on the technology.
Control Systems, inclusive of automated lighting systems. Worth a read, even if completely written for corporate advertising. Hey, some companies rely on truth in advertising to market their products.
LED grow light manufacturer. Also worth looking at.
Another manufacturer and designer of LED lighting systems. Go Green!
Another manufacturer and distributor of LED lighting.
Guess! Yes, another designer and manufacturer of lighting with LEDs.
This is an excellent source for basic light information for plants as well as current, new and upcoming lighting technology. Definitely worth the time to peruse.
New development in LEDs is starting to be big news in the Agro industry.
A story of study, investigation and research powered development that changed a company.
A new technology, plasma lighting for horticulture indoors.
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century [Hardcover] (2010) ISBN-13: 978-0312611392 ISBN-10: 0312611390 Dr. Dickson Despommier (Author)
Vertical Farming (1915) ISBN-10: 0548901481, ISBN-13: 9780548901489 Gilbert Ellis Bailey (Author)
Vertical Gardening: Grow Up, Not Out, for More Vegetables and Flowers in Much Less Space [Paperback] (2011) ISBN-10: 1605290831 ISBN-13: 978-1605290836 Derek Fell
Agricultural Urbanism: Handbook for Building Sustainable Food Systems in 21st Century Cities [Paperback] (2010) ISBN-10: 0981243428 ISBN-13: 978-0981243429 Janine de la Salle (Editor), Mark Holland (Editor)
Green Design: From Theory to Practice [Hardcover] (2011) ISBN-10: 1907317120 ISBN-13: 978-1907317125 Ken Yeang (Editor)
Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature [Hardcover] (2007) ISBN-10: 047177751X ISBN-13: 978-0471777519 Douglas Farr (Author)
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability [Paperback] (2002) ISBN-10: 0646418440 ISBN-13: 978-0646418445 David Holmgren (Author)
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature [Paperback] (2002) ISBN-10: 0060533226 ISBN-13: 978-0060533229 Janine M. Benyus (Author)