Most of my time gardening has been spent with ornamentals, but this year I decided to finally start a garden of proper food-growing plants. Food growth appears deceptively simple: buy a tomato plant, dig a hole, water it in, harvest. But, of course, that mental image is far from the truth. Mid-April, as I’m currently learning, brings the night moths, the snails, the aphids, the leaf borers. If you want your tomatoes to stay vegetarian, some kind of insecticide is to be called upon. Thus, in a flustered attempt to debug my tomato plants, I learned a lot about the relationship between food-bearing plants and the environment which they are embedded in. I also realized how ill-equipped Florida’s soil is for the naive gardener. But the more I learned, the more I realized that I, and others like me, didn’t know about the broader implications regarding our food choices and their impact on the macro-environment.
Everything we do as humans is implicated in the broader context of the planet. We build, we create, we destroy. This is true of food as it is of any human endeavor. But food is a unique issue, in terms of our ability to ignore it as something potentially problematic and pernicious on the globe itself. With fewer than 2% of our population currently employed in the agricultural industry, and most of them cordoned off in large scale operations far from any urban eye, it’s no wonder how oblivious most of us can be. For the vast majority of the American population don’t see the topsoil runoff, we don’t see the aquifers being polluted by pesticides, we don’t have to endure negative health consequences (neurophysiological and respiratory damage, predominantly) from being downwind of a slaughterhouse. The simple reality is that we have our backs turned on the very mechanism which brings food to our fridge.
An Agricultural Actuality
The issue of food justice and its concern with environmental justice are not particularly sexy, certainly not “BREAKING NEWS” in CNN’s liberal use of the term, but these issues are in fact worth caring about and, whether we realize it or not, will become defining issues of the future (my) generation. The United Nations, for instance, projects a world population of roughly 9.8 billion by 2050–that’s a rather large bump from our current 7 billion: roughly 3 billion more mouths to feed. Compile this reality with the State of the World’s observation in 2001 that between 1950 and 1990, “world grain yield per hectare rose 2.1 percent a year,” but “between 1990 and 2000, however, the annual gain was only 1.2 percent.” Effectively, this figure suggests an unpalatable truth: crop yield is decreasing simultaneously with an increasing at the rate of population rise, meaning that some people are going to go hungry. Many already are going hungry.
This trend of mutually reinforcing factors contributing to hunger are only worsened when we zoom out and ask how we can meet the needs of the projected future population. Not only are we running out of arable land, but we are running out of water. Our agricultural system uses approximately 50 billion gallons of water per day, 60% of which is directly draining from our groundwater aquifers. These figures exclude the other uses (often misuses) of water in other areas of our society (i.e. drinking, cooking, showering, watering your lawn, etc.). The scary reality of groundwater depletion is heightened by the reality of a growing global population, which will only metastasize through the havoc of climate change. And, of course, we could always desalinate water, or cut down hectares of forest to grow food, but the common environmentalist is already disquieted by such prospects. If there is a more agreeable alternative to our unsustainable food system, then we should seek out that path.
Pivoting to the broader impacts on the food system by climate change, the scientific consensus currently projects hundred of millions of people being forcibly relocated due to unlivable conditions. This is relevant to the question of food justice precisely because so many agricultural hubs in the tropics are projected to be forcibly relocated within the coming century. My home state of Florida is one such locale of climate change’s ability to turn a billionaire into a refugee, almost overnight. Florida, funnily enough, is an agricultural hotbed: 62% of the United States’ grapefruits are grown here, for a start. If my state sinks due to rising sea levels, as predicted, then we’ve got a lot more than grapefruits to worry about. For instance, as sea levels rise, they eventually overflow into our freshwater reserves–largely underground–thereby contaminating wells and poisoning farmlands (literally salting the earth). Not only will people have to relocate, but we will have to relocate our resources anew. And this is a double-effect: people lose their financial security at the same time that they lose their croplands. Climate change, as predicted, robs us of our homes, of large swaths of farmland, of our water, and thus, our very lives.
Beyond the isolated concerns regarding Florida, it’s important to understand how environmental refugees are spawned by more than sea level rise alone, and how this exacerbates the strain on our already unsustainable food system. Frederik A Kaufman, in his book, Foundations of Environmental Philosophy, writes of environmental refugees as “people who can no longer live in their traditional homelands because of environmental degradation.” This broad definition encompasses those victims of repeated/prolonged droughts, storms, floods, and rising oceans. So, in other words, any climatic region is vulnerable to climate impacts. Norman Myers, staunch defender of environmental justice, writes of how climate change will affect areas like southern Canada, southern Europe, mid-western United States, Australia, etc. which are all crucial regions to food production. Climate change threatens the food system from every front, forcing farmers off their lands and eliminating the supply chain for over 100 of the words developing countries. We are very likely facing famine on a scale we have never seen, dwarfing that of Mao’s China. A prolonged drought in these areas would cause an estimated 50 to 400 million people to die due to lack of food access; this estimate excludes impaired growth, cognitive function, physical ability, and all the residual effects on those who survive the famine, but only just so. And, in terms of worldly concerns, the amount of lost revenue and, thus, increased unemployment will be staggering. In this grim future, starvation would almost become normal.
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Solving mass starvation, climate change, and a world population on the trajectory to double, is no easy task. From the literature I have steeped myself in, I don’t think any one person could say with a straight face that they have a solution. But we are bound by duty to feed our fellow neighbors, to protect our planet, to harbor the climate refugees when they come, to restructure society in a sustainable way, to curb population growth, etc. Though I am of the belief that there is no panacea for this problem, I will attempt to sell you on what I perceive to be the closest things to it. And making those changes, in terms of practicality of reinventing our food system, requires an antecedent ideological restructuring of our food values (aesthetically, ethically, and environmentally).
Japan: A Lesson in Innovation
Traditional agriculture relies on expansive farmland which to some extent restructures the physical landscape such that it is optimal for maximum yield. Obviously, given the interconnectedness of environmental concerns and concerns of food justice, we have to change the way we are growing food. And, as we’ve seen, this comes at all levels: water management, topsoil conservation, biochemical sensitivity, etc. Japan has taken up this challenge mightily, but it has yet to expand its scope beyond a few prototypical factories. Their idea is to grow more food in less amounts of space by building vertically: Japanese scientists repurposed an old Sony factory, beginning in 2004, and progressively onward, which has become arguably one of the most agriculturally efficient food production facilities in the world.
This Japanese operation consists of a mere 25,000 square feet, yet yields over 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. This vertical interpretation of farming is over one hundred times more efficient, inch for inch, than traditional agricultural methods (horizontal and outdoors). Not to mention, they have fewer insect problems, less fungal issues, a decrease in power usage by 40%, a decrease in food waste by 80%, and a decrease in water usage by an astounding 99%.
An unexpected benefit to this new form of vertical farming is disease resistance: if one greenhouse breaks out with a plague (akin to the great potato famine, only one crop yield suffers). They are physically isolated in the way that open-air, outdoor farming is not.
Following the disastrous earthquakes and tsunamis to wreck Japan over the last few decades, notably the recent 2011 travesty, scientist Shingeharu Shimimura determined this new method of vertical farming to be the future. Much cropland in Japan was lost in the recent tsunami event, and this seemed like an obvious solution. The factory, repurposed, not only reclaimed old urban space, but offered somewhat of a food sovereignty to the locals of Japan. Rows of LED lighting line the vertical racks of lettuce and, in conjunction with temperature and humidity controls, artificial days and nights, water retention and soil preservation, this previously abandoned space has transformed into one of the most promising beacons of the future.
Prototypes of this vertical farming have expanded to Russia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, and beyond. If the United States, one of the most prolific food wasters, inefficient agriculturalists, and most neglecting environmentalists in the world, adopted this program, there are untold benefits to such an endeavor.
Importing Agricultural Ideology
If we accept this new Japanese method of vertical farming as a potential solution to the multifaceted problems we’ve so grimly outlined above, then we must take this application and integration into American society very seriously. The first question arising is a logistical one: Where would we build these factories? An obvious answer would be to repurpose our own buildings in America, akin to the Sony factory in Japan. It is no secret that America is not only home to the free and the brave, but the deforested and abandoned strip mall. These large spaces, impractical for retail restructuring, serve as ideal floor plans for a similar grow-op in nearly every urban city in America. As these buildings are climate controlled to an almost unrealistic degree, they can be located anywhere: north, south, east, and west.
Though Shimimura’s prototype factory has not experimented with a gamut of popular crops, one could easily envision a crop like Quinoa–which requires high elevation to maintain its consistency of firmness, taste, nutrients, and yield–being grown through controlled air conditions. One could, in theory, harvest winter crops like kale in the dead heat of a Floridian summer. Not only does is this farming more efficient, it is expandable, it has diverse purposes, and it serves to reinvigorate American jobs directly in their native communities. Thus, in terms of food justice, vertical farming in urban spaces attacks all facets of modern food justice: food deserts, grocery gaps, food insovereignty, gender and racial inequity, socio-economic barriers, environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and the list goes on.
Questions? Comments? Concerns?
As rosy as the picture I have painted sounds, we have to take into account some immediate concerns, worries, and potential objections to the proposal I have just outlined. The first and most obvious concern is the question of startup cost: who is going to pay to renovate these abandoned properties and repurpose them with expensive equipment, American wages, distribution costs, etc. There is, in other words, a large up-front cost which may not be met: the demand might just not be there on the consumer end. While this is indeed a viable concern, it is a very narrow and short sighted approach to the problem. At best, this concern is cynical, because it assumes a parsimonious society, placing primacy on the pecuniary and not the longevity of the planet. This has some merit, but I would simply reply to the cynic here by pointing out how, as with solar power, the immediate costs are practically paid off overnight: lower energy requirements, more efficiency of crop yield, lower water usage, less square footage required, less chemical to protect crops, etc. are all immediate gains by method alone. If we take Shimimura’s 100% increased efficiency at its word, then one would, in theory, make 100% more profits per harvest. In all but the immediate, this vertical farming approach pays for itself before the first investment check has been cashed.
Another objection to my proposal is what I’ve alluded to somewhat already: the concern regarding crop biodiversity. If we take food justice concerns to heart, including culturally significant foods as worthy of concern, then it is important that we don’t look to vertical farming as a panacea. For watermelons, for example, require an abundance of horizontal space to produce sizable fruits. How could this be alleviated by vertical farming? In a sense, this objection has some veracity; but even on its worst day, vertical farming still outperforms horizontal farming in aggregate. A watermelon-producing vertical farm would, in every case, produce more than a horizontal one, but it may not be the touted “100%” more efficiency of lettuce. But what about fruit trees? In some cases, fruit trees can peak out at fifty feet tall; wouldn’t this eliminate the benefits of going vertical? Yes and no, for not many fruit trees peak at such height, and none of them–to my knowledge–cannot produce fruit at a more petite size. So, in a sense, this objection has merit, but only if we are being pedantic about the specific percentage of increased efficiency of this farming method. In all cases, we are being wiser–both economically and environmentally–to move indoors, to move vertical.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, he puts to bed the question concerning the relationship between one’s diet and one’s environmental impact: “Omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” His analysis of environmentalism draws on research from the University of Chicago, which reveals how our food choices contribute at least as much to climate change as do our transportative choices. And, according to his research, drawing on Pew and the United Nations, farmed animals contribute more globally to climate change than transport. He cites 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions–“around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector”–as due to eating animals at the factory farming, industrial scale. Somehow, in our political discourse, all we hear about regarding climate change is fossil fuels. Yet, according to the UN, factory farming is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems” especially “land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” As Safran Foer so damningly puts it, “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call [oneself] an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”
The case presented by Safran Foer is exactly why I was so hesitant, at the top of this essay, to call vertical farming a “solution.” Yes, it solves the problems of plant raising. But we cannot realistically expect to eliminate meat eating if we are to properly feed the projected 9.8 billion population by 2050. We need a stable protein source, we need the extremely calorie-dense meats to adequately serve the nutritional needs of the many–right?
A Creepy Crawly Solution
Most people find the thought of insects disgusting. We pay people hundreds of dollars a year to eliminate them from our homes, from our yards, from our lives, and yes, from our food. But, as evidenced across many cultures, insects are extremely nutrient dense foods. Unlike livestock, they are ubiquitous, affordable, and rapidly procreating. Compare 100 grams of insect protein with that of chicken, pork or beef: the protein content is much the same, but crickets (for instance) report higher levels of essential vitamins and minerals (i.e. calcium, zinc, and iron), gram for gram, than that of traditional livestock. Not only is this a more nutrient-dense solution to the question of increasing global hunger, but it is also a spatially considerate solution, akin to my proposal to vertical farming. The 1.53 billion hectares of cropland, and 3.38 billion hectares of pastures, accounts for a resulting 38% of land you’ll see on a map being used for agriculture and farming. But, whereas one pound of beef requires 200 square meters of land to produce, insect protein requires just 15 square meters for the same production of crickets. Again, fixing one factor of our agricultural system, the inefficiency of growth space, affects many other aspects of our problems concerning food justice.
Another way insect protein solves our issues of food justice and environmentalism is the question we have raised above concerning water. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live without regular access to drinking water. Returning to the inefficiencies of our water use in agriculture, this could be reduced dramatically. One kilogram of beef requires no less than 22,000 liters of water to produce; one kilogram of crickets requires no more than one liter of water. Farming insects instead of livestock is, simply, twenty-two thousand times more water efficient, kilo for kilo. There is no question that transitioning to insects is a better environmental alternative to current livestock farming. And, as though this were not enough, insects as food are demonstrably more efficient in terms of digestive capability: roughly 80% of a cricket is edible and digestible, whereas just 40% of cattle is edible.
A final consideration regarding eating insects is the obvious one: the gross factor. Most westerners like myself are repulsed at the idea of snacking on a cricket for breakfast. But, despite such resistances, it’s not as though you and I are strangers to eating insects. That’s right, for every 100 grams of lettuce consumed, an average of 50 insects have made it into our mouths as well (i.e. aphids, mites). This is true not only of lettuce, but of foods like peanut butter, and drinks like beer. We may not care to admit it to ourselves, but bugs are extremely common to the human diet.
Synthesizing our Supper
Throughout the previous pages, I have tried to approach some multifaceted concerns regarding food justice (population increase, climate change, starvation, etc.) and propose practical, immediate solutions to those concerns (vertical farming, shifting our diets from animals to insects, etc.). None of these strategies on their own will cause a volte face in our food system. There is too much entrenched corruption, bureaucracy, greed, and tradition at stake to see such an overnight change. But these shifts in agricultural practice, location, dietary makeup, and environmental relationships, can be taken up in any location, by anyone, at any time. The science has yielded quite an abundant harvest of innovation and technology to move forward, it is up to us to ensure we don’t let that harvest rot and go to waste.