Of vertical farms, god and Aldo Leopold

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.


13 thoughts on “Of vertical farms, god and Aldo Leopold

  1. Hi Chris,
    I am very much enjoying following your blog after discovering it thanks to your article in The Land. Like you, I am also a recent convert from mental desk-drudgery to organic growing, so it is a pleasure to follow the course of your thinking in recent posts.
    incidentally, I wonder if you are a reader of John Michael Greer, whose interests intersect a great deal with yours, especially in your critique of the cult of progress etc, which Greer sees as an expression of a ‘religious sensibility’ that gave us the mission to ‘conquer nature’:
    “The religious sensibility fading out around us has for its cornerstone the insistence that humanity stands apart from nature and deserves some better world than the one in which we find ourselves. The pervasive biophobia of that sensibility, its obsession with imagery of risingup from the earth’s surface, and most of its other features unfold from a basic conviction that, to borrow a phrase from one currently popular denomination of progress worshippers, humanity is only temporarily “stuck on this rock”—the “rock” in question, of course, being the living Earth in all her beauty and grandeur—and will be heading for something bigger, better, and a good deal less biological just as soon as God or technology or some other allegedly beneficent power gets around to rescuing us.”
    (This is from: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/at-closing-of-age.html)

    • Hi Craig – thanks for posting; I’m glad you find my blog of interest. Funny you should mention Greer, as I was just looking at something of his today. Though truth be told I haven’t read much of his stuff…I have one of his books sitting as yet unread in my in tray. But your post encourages me to pursue his writings further – darn it, more work! I certainly find the passage you quote pretty persuasive. In my view, those I call the eco-panglossians have a very non-scientific, essentially religious, belief in the redeeming power of technology, and they mis-specify the economic sources of much human misery.

  2. Chris, I share your skepticism of this vertical farming. Thinking this will feed the world is just wishful thinking in my opinion. Your observation about the app is interesting, but I translate it a different way. Could it be that the digital crowd just wants farming to conform to the orderly, clean, and predictable environment that they generally work in? Vertical farmers would not have to deal with the messy, unpredictable world of weeds and weather that most farmers have to face every day. Also, I would guess that most of the vertical farming proponents fall mainly in your “plain member and citizen of the biotic community” group and are against GMO crops, rather than the opposite as you suggest. They are not out to “conquer nature” so much as to make it more like the digital world where they are comfortable.

    • Thanks for commenting Andy. You could be right about vertical farming as digitalisation. Though it seems to me that there’s quite a lot of ‘God species’ talk in the digital world, and not so much ‘plain member & citizenship’ going on there. But even if that’s so, it may be that the ‘God species’ ideology of digital types is somewhat different from the ‘God species’ ideology of biotech types along the lines you suggest. It’s an interesting point. If I were still an academic social scientist I’d be tempted to do some actual research on this to test my hypothesis. But I’m finding it much more agreeable these days to grow veg on my (horizontal) farm by day and pontificate outrageously on my blog by night, without alas the opportunity to back up the blog with much original research. But I’d certainly be interested in any further thoughts on the moral narratives of farming – this does seem to me to be an important but under-stressed area in agricultural debates.

  3. On Lumpers, splitters, and the overall human condition:

    First we should find some common ground. Can we agree there are three kinds of people, those who can count and those who can’t? 🙂 So while I see some merit to classifying folk… it enables the debate… I think it oversimplifies too much. You’re already allowing for difference among ‘God species’ types for example.

    I like Craig’s comment above – noting a certain ‘biophobia’ in certain members of the species. Certainly there is a fair amount of this. One might imagine more of us would be less prone to such feelings if we took the time to understand biology just a bit. Or, if understanding biology is too much to ask, perhaps some appreciation of the rationality of outlook might serve. After all, one can have no appreciation of health without a notion of sickness. Beauty finds its definition in ugliness. One better appreciates the warmth of the sun on her face after a miserably cold night. And regardless of the nutritional value of a vegetable – the darn thing just tastes better if one grubs the earth himself to grow it.

    So the folks I feel sorriest for aren’t among the less rich, but for those who simply can’t find happiness in the world as we encounter it. Do you suppose a significant degree of the difficulty comes from our tendency to project our individual experience to interpret how others must feel? Like the peasant discussions here earlier – if we ‘have’ then we immediately project that those who ‘have not’ are miserable (for we would be miserable if we lost what we have).

    So might this human tendency to look at other’s situations through the lens of our individual experience be causing half the trouble? Does a ‘plain member and citizen’ just not have the means to wrap his arms around the plight of a ‘God speciesist’?

    • Clem, I think what’s more important than classifying people into any particular camp is identifying the underlying narratives that implicitly organise our thinking. It struck me that the Leopold/Lynas distinction may help to explain why my gut instinct is scepticism towards vertical farming even though on further reflection I can see that it may have its place, whereas others are immediately enthusiastic. Maybe if we can better identify these underlying narratives it becomes easier to understand where others are coming from – so I’m interested in any comments on my Leopold/Lynas distinction or further suggestions concerning these beneath-the-surface suppositions. I can find ways of embracing both perspectives – as indeed did the Garden of Eden story, beautifully, nearly 3000 years ago – though I do think there’s a problem with excessive ‘God species’ thinking in the present day.

      I’m not sure I fully understand your point about those who can’t find happiness, but if I’m interpreting it correctly then I think I agree with it. There are nearly a billion people alive today who are ‘biologically’ under-nourished, so to speak, and in my view that’s largely a result of the contemporary food regime, not a result of its impotence, and a major indictment of it. But beyond that, yes – rank poverty and obvious unfairness aside, there is no intrinsic relationship between ‘having’ and happiness, which is one reason among many why I think the aspiration to replicate European or American material cultures globally is misplaced. Certainly there’s happiness to be found in high octane consumer culture, but there’s happiness to be found elsewhere too; it’s a big mistake to presume that the ramification of the former model is the only, the best or the least ‘elitist’ road to happiness, a point I develop at greater length in my article in the Journal of Consumer Culture at http://joc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/13/1469540513488406.abstract

  4. I’m having a tough time trying to craft a narrative that places Leopold and Lynas at points along a continuum. Earlier I had a better feeling about how you took interpretations of Genesis to create contrasting narratives.

    If we consider that our place on planet Earth is merely plain member and citizen then it seems to me it may indeed be our turn to sit down and shut up. But is there another citizen, another member who will step up now, take the floor and make a case for another narrative or a path for the future (by this I mean another species)? I guess I’m suggesting here that the original metaphor has been beaten to a pulp by our species. In the tragedy of the commons that is 21st century earth Homo sapiens may not deserve the title, but CEO seems to fit.

    My skill constructing an economic metaphor where we humans assume the role of a corporate CEO in charge of Earth, Inc will soon be shown as inadequate, but that’s seldom stopped me before. So, Earth, Inc has many stakeholders. Among these all our fellow travelers – the living species – and the natural resources all the living depend upon. The corporation has an R&D effort (and I’m particularly enamored by this department), but there are also sales and marketing, production, brand management, etc. So production is and for most of history has been the single most significant effort made by Earth, Inc. Biological productivity is what the stock value reflects. And the corporation was doing a bang up job before we got involved. Whether it was Eden before we arrived is arguable, but a different question concerns whether it can ever become Eden (by human intervention or despite it).

    If we fail to husband Earth, Inc properly during our tenure then the stock value should wane and another management team will be given the reigns. Looking around the current board of directors I’m seeing quite a few of us, and not so many ‘them’ (the other species). As stock holders – indeed as corporate worker bees – we have a role to play (perhaps more a duty) managing some aspect of productivity and in helping define the direction going forward.

    So is the distinction between a philosophy like the Land Ethic (Callicott’s development of Leopold’s ideas) and an anthropocentric philosophy of ‘our way or the highway’? (Is that too extreme an interpretation of Lynas’ approach?)

    • I’m always ready to salute those who boldly go with a metaphor, so I enjoyed your Earth Inc. analysis. But though I agree that Earth Inc goes big on production, my feeling is that – unlike a human corporation – it doesn’t set out to produce anything in particular for anyone in particular. So rather than a corporation, perhaps it’s more like one of those collectives of idealistic and self-centred artists – they need each other, but they can’t quite remember why, and they argue a lot. Get them to appoint a CEO from among their number to impose order and direction? Forget it.

      At any rate, perhaps you’ve put your finger on two different interpretations of the ‘God species’ metaphor. On the one hand is the notion that we are like unto gods and can do whatever we damn well please on our way to escaping our biotic limitations and becoming cyber-wanderers of the universe. On the other is the one that I think you’re exploring – that we must act as stewards for the rest of creation, because no other creature is capable of doing so.

      I agree with you on this latter point to some extent, though I’ve been influenced by writers such as Leopold, Richard Mabey and Stephen Jay Gould who’ve argued in different ways that we shouldn’t overstate the importance of our stewardship or our credentials as stewards. I recently came across this quotation from Gould, which I like: “Our planet is not fragile at its own timescale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.” I think there is virtue in caring about the rest of creation, but if it’s worth considering ourselves plain members and citizens of the biotic community at all, then it’s more for our benefit than for anyone else’s in the community.

      You’re right that Leopold vs Lynas can hardly be seen as points on a continuum. They’re very different, though personally I can appreciate the logic of both positions. Both of them, I think, struggle with the fundamental problem of the human relationship with the non-human (I once read a book by Michel Foucault who neatly disposed of this problem by denying that ‘the human’ was a meaningful category…hmm, perhaps I’ll dig that out again). But anyway, back in the non-Foucauldian world, given that biotic change is inevitable I think the Leopoldians have trouble specifying which anthropogenic changes are acceptable, which ones aren’t, and what the difference is. The God squad, on the other hand, seem to err towards a series of anthropocentric and amoral positions along the lines of ‘that which is, is good’ (which is why I like to call some of them ‘eco-panglossians’) and therefore have trouble finding any basis upon which to ground judgement other than through various ideological concepts like ‘efficiency’ and ‘progress’ which they universalise, inappropriately in my view. So yes, it becomes ‘our way or the highway’. But with the eco-panglossians comes the conceit that ‘our way’ turns out to be good for the rest of the biota too – not so, in my opinion, as I tried to outline in one small way recently through my analysis of whaling.

  5. On the point of Earth not setting out to produce anything in particular… I agree. Perhaps ‘Life, Inc’ would better serve. I do think that living organisms set out to produce, and thus living beings share/compete for the nonliving resources of the earth. And as for appointing a CEO – yeah, that doesn’t seem to work well either. Perhaps a kingdom metaphor fits better. And sure, taxonomists are all over that one – the kingdoms of life.

    On the notion of God species however, any and all critters great and small have the option to try whatever behavior they have the capacity to try. Success is rewarded, and failure… well it allows someone else to have a go. We Homo sapiens have an incredible capacity. No other species has thrown something to the moon and then brought it back.

    Stewardship to me then becomes one of the behaviors we can choose to do. On a playing field of survival of the fittest where only the strong survive, the winner take all… on first blush a notion of stewardship seems counterintuitive. But we have come to realize we have a vested interest in preserving resources – and that some of the resources we need and want are living… we can’t convert sunlight and CO2 with water into sugar – so we need plants. And indeed it grows beyond that. We have a vested interest in not just protecting our domesticated partners, but in studying how all the pieces fit together, and not destroying pieces just because we can as they may have an as yet unappreciated value.

    So while Gould makes a great point – we’ve not been King of the hill for a long time on a geological timescale. I do think when we make the effort to protect resources other species rely upon we can rightly put on the mantle of steward. It may well be that our image of steward is more for our own benefit… (I imagine my dog’s tail wagging is a sort of recognition that she appreciates something I’ve done for her)… but still for our own benefit we do well to maintain the nest we inhabit, so stewardship needn’t find its value in geological timescales or to the rest of creation.

    So when we engage in a behavior that we consider beyond the reach of any or our fellow living beings (space travel for instance) then we set the table for an argument that we are somehow super-natural. This gives the God-squad folk a talking point. But one can equally suggest that before Homo sapiens discovered we could travel beyond the earth there would have been some other incredibly sophisticated behavior reserved to some limited number of members of living things. Controlled water oxidation for photosynthetic purposes comes to mind. The first photosynthetic organisms could arguably have claimed some super-natural talent… it hadn’t been a part of nature before they did it.

    So even though Life Inc isn’t a democracy… dolphins didn’t vote us to be in charge… we social Homo sapiens have a fairly sophisticated toolbox and whether we want to wear a steward’s mantle or not I’d suggest we own one and it is more a matter of being good stewards. Its a value proposition. Indeed Leopold and Caldecott make arguments for such.

  6. Clem, that all makes a lot of sense to me – as good an exposition as I could hope to read of a position I’m happy to sign up to…”we have an incredible capacity, we’re stewards, but let’s not let let it go to our heads”

  7. The idealization of vertical farming, follow the same track as hydropics, aquaponics, algae cultivation, synthetic meat. All of them are possible. All of them are high tech. All of them are promoted by people wanting investments money or research grants. All of them appeal to the media. All of them are “positive news”. Even if they are possible they are mostly oversold and very far from break-through and in most cases economically not viable today, and probably even less in an energy deficient future. I think it is cool that some people try out new things. But the hype around them is dangerous as it draws the attention away from brick and mortar solutions which work. A bit the same with the hype of GM.

  8. Pingback: Is Vertical Farming The Answer? | Blue Labyrinths

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