I’ve always thought the idea of ‘vertical farming’ (ie. growing crops in urban buildings using hydroponics, LED lighting and various other bits of hi tech gizmology) is a bit of a sci-fi gimmick, but a recent article in the New Scientist almost convinced me otherwise. With improvements in LEDs and other relevant technologies, and with the high prices that rich city folk are prepared to pay for their rocket garnishes, I can imagine that with better water conservation and disease prevention and possibly lower transport costs vertical city farms may soon compete favourably with the more traditional market gardens that have now been priced out of the cities.
Well, good luck to them. Market gardening was originally an intensive and high tech peri-urban pursuit geared to the demands of the urban wealthy for fresh veg (the poor either grew their own vegetables or went without), as explained in Ronald Webber’s fascinating history of the sector1. It only scaled up and ruralised as the ranks of the ‘urban wealthy’ who didn’t grow their own proliferated over the last century or so. So perhaps vertical farming represents something of a return to market gardening as it originally developed, a cutting edge, technological urban horticulture geared to the demands of the wealthy. Whether the possible cost savings over more orthodox market gardens will compensate for volatile urban markets in property rent and luxury food remains to be seen (after all, we small-scale local food advocates are wearily familiar with the arguments that long distance foodstuff transport is cheap and that our farming merely generates niche products for the wealthy).
But let’s be clear that vertical farming will be geared to the demands of the wealthy. Although the New Scientist article makes the predictably overblown statement that it’s a “new, environmentally friendly way to feed the swelling populations of cities worldwide” the crops it actually mentions are lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, peppers, basil and strawberries. Sounds delicious, but that lot ain’t gonna feed any swelling population. It’s garnish for the plates of the rich, and you won’t find it in the poor slums where the real population swell is happening worldwide as erstwhile small rural farmers try their luck in the city. Only when the wheat, rice, maize etc that really keeps city populations fed are grown in these establishments can we talk of vertical farming ‘feeding swelling populations’. I’m not holding my breath.
Anyway, that rather obvious limitation isn’t the reason I say the article ‘almost’ convinced me. What struck me most about the presentation of the piece was the special text box which singled out for discussion a mobile phone app that will enable the vertical farmer to control all their inputs remotely, so that while the farmer is in London “looking for a future vertical farm site to serve restaurants” they can still be looking after their farms back home in the USA. Neat. But also, out of all the food-related questions facing urban policymakers, probably not even in the top one thousand issues of significance.
So why is it given such prominence in the article? Here’s my theory. What really appeals to people of a certain mindset about vertical farming is not its ecological or economic credentials, but the fact that it takes farming out of the countryside, out of the muck and magic realm of land husbandry, out of any sense that human destinies are tied to the vagaries of the natural world, and places it instead in an aseptic world of absolute human rational-technical control (fittingly, the article’s accompanying photo depicts a face-masked functionary in a lab-suit tending shelves of leaves). When even farming can be turned into a mobile phone app then this dream of total human mastery must surely be at hand.
OK, generalisation time. The social linguist George Lakoff argues that people often take predictably ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ positions on a range of ostensibly disparate issues such as abortion, taxation, defence etc because they subscribe to deeper underlying political narratives of individual-state relations which structure their response to the specific issues. He labels these underlying liberal and conservative narratives as respectively the ‘nurturant parent morality’ and the ‘strict father morality’2. I’d argue there’s an analogous process when it comes to matters agricultural or environmental, and I’d suggest the relevant narratives here are notions of humanity as either ‘plain member and citizen of the biotic community’ (Aldo Leopold) or ‘the God species’ (Mark Lynas). It seems to me that a lot of the surface noise in debates over nuclear power, GM crops, organic farming and so on basically arises from these different ways of looking at the world. If you push either notion too far you tend to come unstuck, but I’ve got to say that on balance I’m a ‘plain member and citizen’ kind of guy. For that reason, I find the labcoat agriculture of vertical farming not much to my taste, whereas I imagine the god species brigade would be enthusiasts. To a degree – but only to a degree – the choice between vertical farming or orthodox market gardening is a matter of empirical science: vertical farming either is or isn’t more energy-efficient, less pathogen-prone etc etc. But what’s ultimately more important, I’d argue, than the empirical rights and wrongs of vertical farming, GM crops, nuclear power or whatever, is how they fit into these underlying narratives we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. Perhaps this is why these debates are regrettably so often rancorous.
Such, at any rate, were the thoughts I penned in a letter to the New Scientist in response to the vertical farming article. Sadly, the editorial scissors were rather sharp and what remained of my grand idea was merely a few remnant phrases from paragraph 3 above. Oh well, at least they published it: and how wonderful too to have the blogosphere, where I can unfurl my theories in as much depth as I like to an eager and expectant world. I certainly think Lakoff is on to something, so I plan to probe a little more at this in future posts.
1 Webber, R. 1972. Market Gardening, David & Charles.
2 Lakoff, G. 2002. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.