What if you could eat farm-fresh fruits and vegetables without wondering where they came from and worrying about their carbon footprint? The average American meal endures a journey of 1500 miles from farm to plate, leaving a trail of greenhouse gas from the fossil-fueled trains, trucks, planes and high-energy refrigeration chambers that keep it fast and fresh. But consumers are getting wise to inefficiencies, and demand for local produce and the 100-mile diet is becoming more and more vocal.
Yesterday's National Geographic News reported a collaboration between scientists and architects working on solutions to the problem of food production for a burgeoning global population living with shrinking agricultural space. One viable solution is farming up rather than out with vertical farms, large production farms within residential skyscrapers that could provide efficient solutions directly in the hearts of cities. These buildings will not only provide agricultural space, but they will also eliminate the carbon footprint suffered from food miles. Even better, the controlled systems of indoor farms will greatly reduce the risk of losing crops to natural disasters, pests and disease.
But cities will have to look at the entire life cycle of food produced in urban skyscrapers before jumping for joy.Critics say urban indoor agriculture is no better than shipping food from far away since nutrient-rich hydroponic farming is highly energy intensive. Fossil fuels will most likely play some part in keeping the urban farms functioning, while perfectly free and clean sunlight will go unused outside the building.
Proponents say architects are fine-tuning designs of the buildings to maximize the amount of sun reaching crops, as well as the amount of energy that can be harnessed to power the system. One progressive model is the Pyramid Farm, which would break down sewage, convert it to water and carbon and re-power the building.
In the meantime, while we wait for vertical and pyramid farms to take root in our neighborhoods, eating in-season local foods and cutting down on land and water-intensive meats are good steps toward a more sustainable future.