By Dickson Despommier
The only system that matters is the Earth itself. The current methods for putting food on our tables are precarious and contributes to the degradation of our environment, but new strategies of urban farming could create stable, sustainable food supplies for the generations to come.
Producing food raises havoc with the planet’s ecosystems. From a biological perspective, we have essentially trashed the planet in order to meet the caloric needs of some 7.4 billion people. Farming has commandeered huge amounts of arable land (nearly the size of South America), 70 percent of the world’s liquid freshwater resources, and requires an enormous input of energy derived from combusting fossil fuels. Traditional agriculture is the root cause of rapid climate change, whose rate continues to increase unchecked.
When things are quiescent — i.e., when there are no massive food shortages and no significant foodborne disease outbreaks or country‐wide crop losses due to adverse weather patterns — we suffer under the illusion that we are all part of some beneficent, nurturing global food system. For the sake of brevity, let’s put aside a discussion of the unfairness of so‐called fair-trade agreements and the graft and corruption that must be factored in to fully appreciate the international multi‐corporate manipulation of the food” system.” In contrast, when things go south, we are forced to admit that the way our food gets to our table is not through the kindness and generosity of some conglomerate food management collective.
It is by pure circumstance of birth that some small portion of the world’s population finds itself geographically advantaged, and invariably grows up believing that the diversity of produce on display daily at Whole Foods is the norm. What they fail to grasp is that Whole Foods and a few other high‐end produce outlets must scramble every day to make sure their inventory meets the expectations of their customer base.
Meeting this demand comes at great expense. But in the end, even these super supermarkets fail when the burden of maintaining unrealistic levels of high‐quality produce proves too much to shoulder every time a major crop failure occurs somewhere around the world. With rapid climate change here to stay, crop failures will become more and more frequent. To be blunt, sustaining large human populations for long periods of time is not possible under these restrictive environmental conditions.
What is required is a new global plan of action that benefits not only us, but all living entities that comprise Earth’s biome. It turns out that our lives are wholly dependent upon a plethora of other life forms that collectively create conditions that maintain healthy environments.
The plan must address two issues simultaneously. The first is ensuring a sustainable, robust food supply; second, it must allow for the creation of urban centres that mimic balanced ecosystems, using technology to do so. If either of these two initiatives fails, we will all eventually fail.
Urban agriculture is gaining popularity in most cities around the world. Along with this, food movement has been the establishment of vertical farms, particularly in Asia and the United States. Vertical farms are the best way to produce hyperdense amounts of crops inside the city limits. Since the advent of these skyscraper farms, consumer attitudes toward food grown inside tall buildings have been most favorable, and the concept has generated a paucity of pushback from the industrial food sector.
Given the current growth rate of various urban agricultural activities, it is anticipated that over the next 20 to 50 years, cities will be able to supply a significant portion of their food from within the confines of their geographical boundaries. This alone could have a positive effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
For example, if all the major cities of the world raised only 10 percent of the plant crops they consumed, some 340,000 square miles of hardwood forest could be realized by the regrowth of trees that once stood where farms are now currently in place. Trees represent an enormous amount of stored carbon in the form of cellulose. Carbon farms (i.e., reforested abandoned farms) could replace a significant number of traditional farms if most of our plant‐based food came from indoor farms. Those who wished to continue to live the rural life could do so and be financially rewarded via a carbon credit system, such as the one already in place throughout the European Union, for their stewardship of “the good earth.”
Reforestation remains the cheapest, most reliable strategy for carbon sequestration. Left to its own devices, nature always finds a way to repair itself.
At the same time, with food coming mostly from within the city, the real possibility of urban centers morphing into sustainable, resilient living environments seems within our reach.
In that new urban world, all municipal functions (energy generation, transportation, education, housing, waste management, etc.) would be linked into a single manageable system, mimicking what already goes on in the natural world. The ecocity concept is the next big step in human evolution, as renewable energy realized from passive capture of wind, solar and geothermal sources has now risen to the top as the most reasonable economic alternative to burning carbon‐based fuels.
Cradle-to-cradle thinking (i.e., circular economic behavior) is now the mantra of all enlightened city planners and managers. The synergy of urban food production and ecological behavior will have an enormous positive affect on the overall health of all those who embrace these principles, and whose social and political support will foster respect for all life on Earth.
Dickson Despommier is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at Columbia University. He earned his Ph.D. degree in microbiology from the University of Notre Dame, and for 28 years conducted laboratory-based biomedical research with NIH-sponsored support at Columbia University. He has spearheaded an initiative whose goal is to produce significant amounts of food crops in multi-storey buildings situated in densely populated urban centers (www.verticalfarm.com and The Vertical Farm: feeding the world in the 21st century, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010; paperback, Picadore Pubs. 2011). Dr. Despommier is currently exploring how cities of the near future might function if they were able to produce a significant portion of their food.