Urban Farming Taking Root
Urban farming (a.k.a. urban agriculture, vertical farming, factory farming) is the growing of food crops in densely populated areas. I'm pretty enamored of this idea, which I attribute to my always having lived in cities (Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Ann Arbor). I've grown to have an idyllic view of nature and standard farming, and the idea of being reliant on nobody but myself.
And it makes sense that food should be produced at the point of consumption. If all food crops could be produced on-site, the cost of transportation would be cut to near zero and the items would be available at peak freshness. Not only would the cost of transportation be lowered to zero, but so would the cost of cooling. A lot of produce is kept cool at the grocery store so it will stay fresh longer, but if the produce is only picked as its needed, then there's no need for cooling.
All of this is part of the dirty energy problem. There was a book that came out a while back called "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better", which put forth the hypothetical situation of $20 per gallon gasoline. As the title says, our current trajectory will put us in this situation sooner or later, and what will happen to the cost of food if we continue to use so much energy transporting food from the other side of the country or world? (Seriously, go take a look at your produce department... most of it comes from far away). I won't say seriously bad things will happen, because I think clean energy is at a point where it could quickly overtake dirty energy if we actually wanted it to, but I think we'll need to find an alternative food system for the short term. For that reason, today's small number of urban farmers will be tomorrow's food leaders for a short amount of time.
There are other advantages to urban farming besides locality:
- As long as it's being grown indoors, food can be grown year-round.
- And while it's being grown indoors, you might as well stack lots of floors on top of each other (vertical farming), so many times the amount of food can be grown with the same land footprint, which is especially important in urban settings where land values are much higher.
- All organic.
- You have complete control over the taste and vitamins of the produce because of your tight control of the soil and/or water.
- Lower danger from disasters like drought, flood, freezing, insects, and sickness.
Even with all these advantages, I don't think urban farming will be cost-competitive with standard farming.
What would it really take to make it cost-competitive? It will have to be fully automated, and the market would have to be tightly controlled to maximize value. It may seem wrong, but I think a form of price fixing would be absolutely necessary. For example, if there are two urban farming companies in an area and they don't talk to eachother, they may overproduce some crop, lowering the value of each unit of that crop, and hurting their returns. Such a situation may put both companies out of business. Therefore, planning crop production between businesses to maximize value would be very important to compete with traditional farming. And even when that doesn't lower the cost below standard farming, perhaps the quality of the product will be worth paying slightly more for.
Hopefully this sort of thing is further out than I fear, but at least I know there are people already working on a solution.
Links: $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, Vertical Farm, Sprout Robot, Lettuce Made In A Cleanroom Farm – The Future Of Food Production?