Is America’s Food… Secure?


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Periodically, America has a food scare. Sometimes it is tainted beef at a big supermarket chain, sometimes it’s E. Coli contamination at a national fast food chain. It might even be bird flu at a chicken farm. Some of our favorite foods… like bananas and oranges… are expected to be wiped out by invasive pests. Food is becoming very scary! Is any food safe? Or at least safely grown?

Today’s food is… complicated. Bugs and pests have invaded America and periodically wipe out a crop. So we double down on pesticides and irrigation. Of course, that washes away the soil, so farmers need to dump fertilizers into the fields to keep the farm profitable. Downhill and downstream, all those chemicals do strange things to our rivers and lakes.

American farming is locked in a vicious circle of chemicals, pests, depleted reservoirs, and angry parents who want more natural foods for their families but have grown used to the low prices that come with mass-produced foods. The thing is, all the land that can be profitably used for farming, is used for farming. Unfarmed land pretty much isn’t worth farming. Except for national parks. But we’re not quite ready to burn down our forests to make more farmland. Yet.

Every day that passes means that a bit more of America’s farmlands die. Over-irrigation washes away the soil. Without soil to hold the plant and to provide nutrients, food can’t grow. In many places in America, over 100 feet of top soil is gone forever. If those fields lose another foot or two… or in some cases just an inch… nothing will grow.

As our soil loses productivity farmers use more and more water to irrigate crops, soaking the soil with minerals and salts that further degrade productivity. This soil degradation destroys 38,000 square miles of global farmland annually. Sounds bad enough, right? But consider this… for every foot of soil that dies, several other feet of farmland less and less productive. 

America’s growing population also requires land for homes, schools, malls, and the rest of the infrastructure of our 21st Century life. Future city land is often made from former farmland. Between 1992 and 2012 urban development in cities and towns cost America almost 31 million acres of farmland.

Commercial farming is headed in a dangerous direction. However, there are alternatives. Like Vertical Farming. Vertical farming is the evolution of hydroponics…. growing food indoors, without soil. The brilliant, but simple, innovation of vertical farming is that instead of growing one flat level of produce, you stack hydroponic “farms” on top of each other… from the floor to the ceiling… multiplying the productivity of the farm with every additional level you add.

A soil based farm has only one level, a vertical farm have 3 or 4 levels (more with a high ceiling). If your V-farm is in an abandoned factory, with multiple floors, you could have ten levels on every floor, with several floors built the same way. That would give you 30 or 40 times the productivity of the same footage of soil. With a temperature controlled environment, you can grow crops all year round, instead of having just the 2 or 3 you get with most soil farms.

There are other multipliers, like 24-hour “sun”. Add it all up and V-farms can be 100 to 300 times more productive than a single layer soil farm. Because the food is indoors and all of the pests are outdoors, there’s no need for pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals. Even storms and cold weather can’t destroy your crops.

Just as importantly, indoor farms can be in the center of a city. A V-farm can be next to (or on top of) a supermarket. Without the need to transport food from across the country, or around the world, millions of tons of carbon emissions would be eliminated.

With all of these advantages, are V-farms the perfect way to grow food? Alas… no. Where it works (and doesn’t) depends on specific circumstances. Consider all of the artificial sunlight you need to grow crops. Today’s LED lights are amazingly efficient, but they still use electricity, which is one of the primary costs of indoor farming.

If you live near coal-fired power plants, more power means more pollution. On the other hand, if cheap hydro, wind, or solar power is available, AND there are abandoned factories nearby, you can have a very successful V-farm. Build your V-farm in a low-income urban environment, where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, and there are other social rewards.

Vertical farms may not be perfect, but they are going to be an important part of the future of farming. What about you? Want to use your roof as a farm? Could your local school grow produce for its students? The great thing about vertical farming is that you don’t need to change the whole world to make a difference that matters. You could just change a few square feet of space, and start your own miniature farm.

Let your fellow readers know what you think!

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