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Move agriculture to the big city and save the planet

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• The concept of vertical farming is briliant. Use abandoned city buildings and other special structures to create giant growing chambers for fruits and vegetables. • But critics say until better technology comes along, this system uses more energy to produce locally than what what be used to transport produce from the countryside.

The idea of buying farm produce locally has spawned a number of far out ideas over the years. But one I read recently – moving agriculture into abandoned big city buildings, and allow much of our nation’s farmland to return to its natural state to help ease global warming – well that just about took the cake.

The concept at the heart of the aforementioned idea, vertical farming, is really quite brilliant. In fact, several of these ventures are already operational. For example, inside a 12-story triangular building in Sweden, plants travel on special racks to optimize sunlight penetration and harvest. And in a former meat-packing plant in Chicago, veggies are grown on floating rafts. In another technique, plant roots are suspended in the air and painted with nutrients, eliminating the need for soil.

Vertical farming is touted as a way to supply produce to the citizens of a big city and eliminate the energy costs associated with shipping it from the countryside. Critics of vertical farming point out that any energy savings from not having to transport food into cities would most likely be more than offset by the higher energy cost of running the vertical farm.

The man considered the father of vertical farming, Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University, believes that skyscraper farming can overcome these problems with new technology. Once that is out of the way, Despommier believe vertical farming could eventually produce half of the world’s food.

That seems a bit ambitious. But he didn’t stop there.

 “A significant portion of farmland could be abandoned. Ecosystem functions would rapidly improve, and the rate of global warming would slow down,” Despommier said.

And so, in an ironic twist of fate, farming would move from the country to the city, sort of like the old television show Green Acres, only in reverse.

“Darlin’ I love you, but give me Park Avenue tomatoes.”

Of course, ideas like vertical farming, or organic farming for that matter, catch on because Americans, rightly or wrongly, want to believe there is a better way to produce the world’s food, fiber, fuel and feed.

That’s why it’s so much more difficult to convince people these days that conventional agriculture, although far from perfect, is the only time-proven, sustainable system in existence that continues to pay strong dividends for producers and consumers.

And it’s relatively simple – plant the seed in the soil, nurture and protect the crop, then harvest it. And of course, make sure you’re able to repeat the process indefinitely and consistently supply enough food for everybody.

It’s nice to think about a city farm stretching into the sky, whirling and humming and turning out produce for city folks like a giant, 12-story vending machine. But for me, nothing will ever replace the good old outdoors, a patch of dirt and the skills of the American farmer.

erobinson@farmpress.com

 

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