As Urbanization Week continues, Liz Borkowski put up a great post about feeding cities that includes a nice, rational (look at the comments for more good stuff) discussion of the idea of Vertical Farming. I'm glad to see the issue come up, because it has so much power. I'm grateful to Liz for providing such a balanced and rational discussion, since most of them aren't.
I don't think I'm even overstating when I say that every time I go somewhere and talk about food, someone asks me what I think of the idea of Vertical Farming. It is the cool, trendy idea about feeding cities that gets tons of attention - woohoo, let's build heated food towers in Manhattan. I can understand the appeal in many ways.
Now this idea has been subject to some take downs, including this one by George Monbiot (thanks to Moshe Braner for pointing me to this article), but to me, the problem with vertical farming is the same problem that I have to whatever the latest super-hot renewable technology that's going to save us as soon as it comes out of development and becomes affordable, or even for fancy light rail systems in smaller cities (note, I'm not opposd to all light rail). The problem is that that the ideas are bad or wrong per se - the problem is that they are complex and expensive, and we are puttiing the cart before the horse when we leap to complex and expensive before we go for cheap and simple.
We have a strong taste for complex and expensive, especially when it looks cool - generally speaking, and in an era of cheap energy and economic stability, there's at least an argument for doing the complicated fancy thing - first, you can, second, the results are more elegant than what you can generally get without complexity. But in a society with major economic constraints and facing the reality of less, rather than more available energy for consumption, complex and expensive becomes not only a bad idea, but infeasible.
This isn't something we have to hypothesize about - ask yourself whether the State government or city of New York can afford to build multi-million dollar high rise, heated semi-solar food growing towers in mid-town Manhattan? Ask whether your small city, already laying off cops and firefighters can afford a huge new tranportation system? Ask whether you can wait for X miracle technology to come online before you act? Where will the money come from right now? And if we don't have the money right now, why do you think we can do it further down the depletion curve, or after climate change starts taking a larger and larger percentage of our GDP?
These are often elegant solutions, and that's how they get so much airplay - I don't deny that, and like everyone, I have a taste for the elegant. It would be fun for you to be able to go to your vertical farm and buy out of season tomatoes - but it would be smarter if you could just get tomatoes in season that were grown in your neighborhood, without the million dollar investment. Moreover, given the energy required to make it happen, it almost certainly would require less energy to fly tomatoes in from Florida. If you could do it at all, do we really think that the ordinary middle class and poor will be eating those vertical farm tomatoes? If not, why do we care? Making sure the rich get tomatoes in February is simply not a priority for me, and I suspect, shouldn't be for a society at large, if the larger question is "feeding the city" not "feeding the affluent" (generally speaking the affluent do a decent job of taking care of that for themselves, I've heard)
The problem is, using the solar panels we already know how to build, and turning off thel ights, using the seed varieties we already have but that the poor can't get, using the school buses during the weekends and after school to provide local public transportation and putting up ride sharing boards, using the inexpensive technologies we already have to extend seasons and getting over the idea you should always have tomatoes isn't sexy. It isn't elegant - in fact, it is complicated and ambiguous - but cheap and simple. Everyone can do them.
Municipalities already struggling with budget cuts can take the municipal compost and help people establish community gardens and urban farms, and local season extension. They've already paid for the buses, so taking the elderly to the grocery stores on the weekends so that they can stay in their homes and encouraging carpooling is cheap and simple. Solar panels aren't cheap - but get enough people organized together and you can put them on some of the critical infrastructure - maybe not on every house, but you can have a solar water pump in each neighborhood in case the water goes out, you can power the local community center so people can take a shower there and stay warm when the power is out everywhere else. Getting over our presumptions about how the world ought to work - ie, that it ought to be costly, consumptive and complex - is easier, realistically, than most of the elegant solutions.
These solutions are particularly important in cities, where you can often substitute human cooperation for fossil energies fairly easily - but first you have to think in terms of human cooperation, to make a place for putting that first, to change our 60 years of assuming that we can always go immediately to expensive and complex. We know that this is no longer true - there are a host of studies, most notably the Hirsch report that demonstrate clearly that our options today are not the same ones we had in 1970 - and as long as we persist in assuming that we can start our projects any time we get around to them with the exact same results, that we don't have to give up the taste for elegant complexity, we're in big trouble.