Back to basics : what future for food production ?

When Jean de La Fontaine wrote the fable entitled « Le Rat des villes et le Rat des champs »[1] he created one of the most popular images of the gap between urban and rural ways of living. Indeed, cities have always been the epitome of power, modernity and progress, overwhelming the country. The rural are peasants, while the citizens (and the word is etymologically explicit) are civilized. Such ideas are deeply rooted in collective imagination, and the industrialization combined with the rural exodus, or rural-urban migration, have reinforced the idea that the city is offering better opportunities in life than the country.

Basically the urban used to get food, great amounts of it, but without being aware of how it gets to supermarket: it is wrapped, clean, shiny, and it looks tasty. And for a long time it was the way we wanted it. We even dreamed of meals held into small pills, just like S. Kubrick imagined in 2001, Space Odyssey. But then sustainable development, environmental issues and global warming came, and we went from meal pills to growing organic and local food. We linked our health with our plates. We linked our way of living and eating with global warming. We started to realize that we were many humans on a small planet, and we worried about THE major trivial, animal, instinct: how and what will we eat tomorrow? And we are now even more worried that the question is pregnant and very much connected with the fact that we mostly are living in cities that tends to becoming megalopolis.

How come such an interesting turn occurred? In a nutshell, the relationship between city and country completely changed. As cities were growing, the lands used for agriculture reduced. A massive problem: without land there is no food production, and without food, there are not many chances left for human beings. The equation is childish but the solution is incredibly complicated.  So many people live in cities, and so many cities became ruling cities for the global system that we cannot think of merely coming back to rural lifestyle. And anyway, not everyone on Earth could have its land and crops and kettle, because once again, there would be a space issue. A new kind of solution then came out of some architects head: why not simply marry rural and urban? Why could we not blur the border between town mouse and country mouse? Indeed, cities have many unused spaces that could be used to grow local food: rooftops, public parks, road edges, and many more. That is the beginning of many gardening movements: town farms, pirate gardening, and something quite different called vertical farms. This last concept is quite interesting, both innovative and worrying.

The farmscrapers, is the name Dickson Despommier gave to those vertical farms. This professor at University of Columbia (New York) in microbiology, environment and health and creator of this concept, imagined those urban farms in 1999 and since then he supported this concept as a very serious solution to the crucial issue of feeding a growing population in a context of urban extension. The idea is simple: concentrate in one building the production of foodstuffs, green energies, and a closed feed system, with limited needs in road haulage. This project went further than the mind of Mr. Despommier, inasmuch as the SOA[2], a French architects’ office, decided to present a project of farmscrapers during a young architects’ challenge (see photos below) entitled: La Tour Vivante [3]. The verticality of the tower symbolizes the exact opposite of the horizontal extensive use of land needed in agriculture. Therefore one of the ruling words of farmscapers is density: concentrating most of an agricultural activity on a minimized surface, and  considering that adaptation to the city is the only realistic choice.

 La Tour Vivante, SOA architectes

Three of my classmates worked on the vertical farms project to demonstrate one of the possible evolutions of the perception of the rural world in an ecological perspective. They delivered a little survey made very simply within the master students. There were two types of reactions: enthusiasm and skepticism.

Those who were enthusiastic admitted that it seemed to be an odd project but thought the arguments were impressive, thanks to a range of technologies. Sustainable technologies of course! Solar energy, wind-driven energy, rainwater collection, the farmscraper should be an autonomous and self providing building. Thanks to a perpetual provision of energy, it can produce all year long many varieties of fruits and vegetables, independently from the seasons. This is the first added value of this concept. But even more valuable is the fact that there is an important reduction of transportations: everything being produced, collected and redistributed from the tower. This means less use of petrol, fewer intermediaries, which could also influence the prices of the foodstuffs. Of course it seems to be a utopia. Or, according to the skeptical students, was it not more a disguised dystopia?  Why is that so ?

First of all, because of the technological evolution called hydroponics which allows growing food off the ground all year long –  in this case thanks to water tanks enhanced with nutrients and minerals. But the idea of eating cucumbers, potatoes or strawberries that were never connected to the ground was worrying them. Maybe being French, religiously obsessed with food and being out of time peasants was not helping, but even if this off-ground food would be organic, there seems to be something wrong in the picture. There is also quite a lot to think about when it comes to the union between technology and environment: is it more sustainable to let cities expand massively thanks to food-producing towers? Of course one more materialistic point is the cost of such a project which limits its feasibility. From the rural side there is also the question of the issues for the agricultural activities: in terms of adaptation, employment, or redeployment.

It is hard to imagine that the future lies in highly technical farms, just as it is hard to imagine that for the sake of the world everyone must go back to having its crops.[4] But anyway, this article did not aim at determining if vertical farms are hell or heaven. There is no point to go radical; one can be curious and skeptical at the same time. The farmscrapers are an interesting perspective of what human brains can achieve to solve some issues. It shows that our imaginary, even its craziest bits, could help us towards a more sustainable future. But, in front of the magic of what we are able to achieve, to change, to reshape, even when it comes to basic things like food, we must stay alert. We must always think of what means a more sustainable living. The fact that we could produce anything at anytime in a sustainably built tower is as much part of the consumerist dream as it can be part of a greater and greener world ideal.

To learn more :

About vertical farms : http://www.verticalfarm.com/

About urban farming movement :
http://www.guerilla-gardening-france.fr/ (in french)
http://www.urbanfarming.org/ (Detroit, one of the pioneer cities)
http://www.urbanfarm.org/

These are just a few of the many more websites from urban farming initiatives around the world!

For this article I address a special thank you to : Marie Drique and Mathilde Vervynck, for their help on this topic.

by Nadège Boisseau


[1] The town mouse and the country mouse

[3] The Living Tower

[4] About that debate, a must read is What we did to Father by Roy Lewis, 1960 (Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père, Roy Lewis, Ed. Pocket,)

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