Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vertical Farms and Lab-Grown Meat: Have We Lost Our Minds?

It seems there have been a lot of articles about the future of food lately. Inevitably these articles in glossy magazines and web sites on major media outlets tout high-tech methods as the solution to coming up with enough food for the projected nine billion-plus people on the planet by 2050. Many of these ideas are already beyond the developmental stage.

In February of this year, as reported by Treehugger, an outfit called Plantagon broke ground on a "vertical farm" in Sweden, a multi-story "plantscraper" designed to grow plants in an urban environment. Vertical farms have become the darlings of the high-tech green movement. Essentially, proponents propose building towering concrete, steel and glass skyscrapers in dense urban areas around the world not to house people or businesses, but to grow plants.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, scientists are growing meat in high-tech laboratories using cells from animals. Here's a description of the process:

It’s made by taking cells from pigs, adding horse fetal serum in petri dishes, and growing it into transparently-thin strips. Petri meat is “fed” a muckture of sugars, fats, amino acids, and other “nutrients”. The sources of these are, presumably, also made in labs. The color is gray, as there is no blood involved, and the texture…well, let’s not go there.

Since the color is gray, artificial coloring has to be added to make it look like "real" meat. According to one of the scientists, "In the beginning it will taste bland. I think we will need to work on the flavour." The cost of a single hamburger? Two hundred thousand pounds (311,200 dollars)! Here are more details:

Professor Post's group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick. They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger by the autumn. The cost of producing the hamburger will be £200,000 but Professor Post says that once the principle has been demonstrated, production techniques will be improved and costs will come down.

This technique has the high-tech agriculturalists agog, and has been written up everywhere from Slate to Wired. In a similar vein, proponents are touting using genetically engineered salmon, nanotechnology, embedding computer chips to track plant growth, food pills and employing robots to harvest food in a world already awash in surplus labor.

So these sophisticated high-tech and energy-intensive "solutions" are designed to do what man has been doing literally since the stone age using no fossil fuels or technology - grow edible plants and produce meat. And this is what the "experts" are touting as the future of food? This brings to mind only one question:

Have we lost our minds?

There' another way to grow meat. It's called an animal. There's a bright glowing ball in the sky that will provide all the light you need to grow plants for free. Want to grow them indoors? Try a greenhouse. Honestly, are these "innovations" when we're using expensive and complex technologies to do things that even the lowliest peasant could accomplish relatively easily since the neolithic revolution? Really? Is this progress? For example, we need to turn to fish farming because we've toxified, polluted and overfished our oceans. We need to start businesses and design artificial systems to produce what nature used to give us for free. Is this something to get excited about? These ideas are like something out a bad 1970's science fiction flick. What's next, Soylent Green?

Seriously, how technologically-obsessed have we become as a society that these are the only solutions we can envision? These two examples are the best illustrations I can think of for what James Howard Kunstler calls techno-narcissism - the idea that we must always solve every problem by creating new high-tech whiz-bang solutions dependent on large quantities of energy and sophisticated technological know-how to keep the status quo going, rather than asking if the status quo is a good idea in the first place. We refuse to consider overhauling or reforming our dysfunctional systems of economics, politics, business, agriculture, urban design, and pretty much everything else in favor of coming up with new technology to prop up the current system at all costs, rather than just coming up with simpler and less complex solutions that favor human needs, human scale, and the needs of the environment.

Are we surprised this takes place in a country where people drive their SUV’s from work to the gym to spend an hour on the stationary bike?  Where electric can openers are commonly found in the kitchen? Where office buildings are torn down to build parking garages? Where freeways are continually being expanded to alleviate congestion, only to cause more congestion? Where trees are chopped down to give better views of billboards? After all, this is the country that invented the solar-powered tanning salon.

Most of the intelligentsia got that way by climbing the ladder it in today’s technophilic modern economy, so their biases are toward the gee-whiz novelty factor of high-tech farming and meat grown in a lab (even if they’ve never met, much less talked to, an actual ‘regular’ farmer). These technical people know the latest Android model, but don’t know the first thing about agriculture – their food comes from the supermarket (and probably purchased via an iPhone app). If a machine were invented that scrubbed carbon from the atmosphere and turned it into useful food, construction materials, animal feedstocks, and fibers, all while rebuilding topsoil, it would be on the cover of every tech magazine in the world and its inventor would be a celebrity millionaire. Yet I’ve never seen a tree on the cover of Wired.

These technologies have inherent biases embedded in them – centralized control, specialized expertise, control of nature thorough artificial means, complexity, etc. Are not our problems with agriculture caused by these biases? Therefore, why do we assume that the solutions will come out of these biases? Perhaps it is the bias itself which is the problem, and the invention of new technologies along the same lines will not fix anything but merely cause more problems, both environmental and social. But we cannot look beyond them, so locked are we into this world view, so unable are we to see alternatives outside of it. The fundamental problems with agriculture have been caused by an over-reliance on technology, so it is unreasonable to believe that they will be mitigated by them.

What these ‘solutions’ have in common is that they require advanced technological expertise and lots of capital, as opposed to lower-tech alternatives and this is why they are preferred. It is not because lack of alternatives, but the alternatives are often low-tech, distributed, decentralized, work with natural processes, and do not require large amounts of capital or advanced technical knowledge. So when they say this is the future of food – this is the future that the multinational corporations, big finance and governments want for us; it is not better for us or the planet. And the centralized authorities will spend a lot of money, as in the Slate article, convincing us that this is the ‘answer’. The answer, of course, depends on the question you are asking. If the question is how to preserve our dysfunctional society, failing systems, wealth concentration and environmental degradation, than yes perhaps these are the answers. But if we ask different questions, we come up with very different answers. Are these solutions about really solving the problem or about keeping productive land and wealth concentrated in the hands of the few?

We tend to think of innovation solely in terms of technology. Concepts like Permaculture, agroforestry, biochar production, holistic management, food forests, planned rotational grazing and composting are not given the attention they deserve. Similarly, solutions to other problems, like denser urban communities, shorter working hours, or energy conservation are not considered not because they won't work, but because they do not fit the needs of the elites. I'd rather have forty million farmers than one vertical farm.

Blogger Adam Stein of TerraPass writes "fix our horizontal farms before we go vertical." :

"I'm as concerned about food as the next guy — scratch that, I'm more concerned about food than the next guy — which is why I find it somewhat dismaying to see a serious and complicated set of issues turned into a sort of fetish. I really don't know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space. Brooklyn was once one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States. Manhattan was once home to innumerable factories. There's a reason that farms and factories decamped to more suitable locations. Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that's what New Jersey is for."

Similarly, in an article for Alternet, Stan Cox and David Van Tassel  write:

"Although the concept has provided opportunities for architecture students and others to create innovative, sometimes beautiful building designs, it holds little practical potential for providing food."

For obvious reasons, no one has ever proposed stacking solar photovoltaic panels one above the other. For the same reasons, crop fields cannot be layered one above the other without providing a substitute for the sunlight that has been cut off....As a result, the lion's share of a vertical farm's lighting would have to be supplied artificially, consuming resource-intensive electricity rather than free sunlight. This led us to wonder, "What would be the consequences of a vertical-farming effort large enough to allow us to remove from the landscape, say, the United States' 53 million acres of wheat?"...Our calculations, based on the efficiency of converting sunlight to plant matter, show that just to meet a year's U.S. wheat production with vertical farming would, for lighting alone, require eight times as much electricity as all U.S. utilities generate in an entire year.

The solution to soil and water degradation is not to strip food-producing plants from the landscape only to grow them, deprived of sunlight, in vertical factory farms. Instead, we have to address the Achilles heel of agriculture itself: that it has displaced, on a massive scale, diverse stands of natural perennial vegetation (such as prairies, savannahs, and forests) with monocultures of ephemeral, weakly rooted, soil-damaging annual crops such as corn, soybean, and wheat. So far, the weaknesses of the current food-production system have been compensated for agronomically through greater and greater inputs of fossil fuels and other resources, worsening the ecological impact; vertical farming would extend that trend.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot writes:

[Vertical farm advocate Dickson] Despommier asserts that his system will require “no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers”. Perhaps he has never seen a fungal infestation in a greenhouse. And what does he expect the plants to grow on: water and air alone? He also insists that there will be “no need for fossil-fueled machinery”, which suggests that he intends to farm a 30-storey building without pumps, heating or cooling systems.

His idea, he says, is an antidote to “intensive industrial farming, carried out by an ever decreasing number of highly mechanized farming consortia” but then he calls on Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and IBM to fund it. He suggests that “locally grown would become the norm”, but fails to explain why such businesses wouldn’t seek the most lucrative markets for their produce, regardless of locality. He expects, in other words, all the usual rules of business, economics, physics, chemistry and biology to be suspended to make way for his idea.

But the real issue is scarcely mentioned in his essays on the subject: light. Last week one of my readers, the film maker John Russell, sent me his calculations for the artificial lighting Despommier’s towers would require. ... They show that the light required to grow the 500 grammes of wheat that a loaf of bread contains would cost, at current prices, £9.82. (The current farm gate price for half a kilo of wheat is 6p.) That’s just lighting: no inputs, interest, rents, rates, or labour. Somehow this minor consideration – that plants need light to grow and that they aren’t going to get it except on the top storey – has been overlooked by the scheme’s supporters. I won’t bother to explain the environmental impacts.

And Lloyd Alter points out that:

... the [vertical farm] idea only makes sense if you think of farming as a no-holds battle to the death and when you think of soil as nothing more than an mechanism to hold a plant up. Sami [Grover] has written that "there are more organisms in one teaspoon of soil than there have ever been humans on this planet." Others are trying to build biodynamic, organic, regenerative, or ecological farming communities, where food is grown naturally and is actually good for the soil instead of destroying it. It is a much more attractive and probably better tasting future of food.

As an architect, I have some idea of the difficulty in constructing large buildings; of the legions of experts, the engineering and design, the manpower, the planning, the staging, the legal restrictions, the complex funding instruments and revenue streams. These buildings, as works of civil engineering, are among the largest undertakings we do as a species. The advanced systems of construction, erection, and waterproofing are all based on fossil fuels. The material creation and application for skyscrapers are based on fossil fuels. The maintenance is based on fossil fuels. The systems that make them accessible and inhabitable are based on fossil fuels. And yet these are touted as a solution to fossil fuels use in agriculture?

Buildings require extensive maintenance. If future revenues do not materialize for maintenance, they fall apart, something that is already happening even to newer buildings in municipalities all over the country weighed down by debt. Planning and maintenance must be taken into account, as must be future expansion. This alternative proposal claims to make vertical farming “work” from an energy standpoint, but only at a cost of extremely complex, interconnected, highly technical system requiring delicate balancing, extensive maintenance and vulnerable to breakdown. It aims to mimic nature by recycling resources as much as possible. Why not just use nature instead, instead of trying to duplicate it? This is a complex solution, not a simple one.

As for frankenmeat, it takes a lot of sophisticated technical expertise and access to advanced technology to grow meat in a laboratory. It does not require as much to feed and slaughter a pig or chicken. And one can always breed more pigs and chickens, whereas a meat-growing lab or vertical farm nurtures dependence. The problem is not meat eating. It is too many people and the way we have used our land.

Meat consumption is a complex issue and too involved to go into much detail here. But it is known that a truly natural form of organic agriculture cannot be devoid of animals, and that some regions are much better suited to animal pasturing than annual crops. Proper use of animals in systems like planned, rotational grazing has been shown to reverse desertification and build topsoil. For thousands of years it was known that farming could not be done without animals. Yet we rely on chemical fertilizers while concentrating animals into consolidated animal feedlot operations that effectively torture living creatures, producing meat of lower quality as well as environmental destruction from effluents, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a host of other ills. If promoting resilience and reducing food miles is the answer, animals must be part of the solution. Joel Salatin’s diversified farm model provides abundant food sustainably, yet Salatin’s methods are considered impossible to implement because farming can only be "profitable" by farming millions of acres of monocrops with machines. As Sharon Astyk writes:

Without petroleum based and industrial fertilizers...there is no such thing as a viable agriculture without animal production. David Montgomery’s wonderful book _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization_ will give anyone a clear overview of the radical difference between societies that manure ground and those that didn’t – such an agriculture has a long and important history.

Are there places where cows are being raised right this minute that shouldn’t have cows on them? Absolutely. Are there places right now that are being tilled to grow corn and soybeans that shouldn’t be tilled? Absolutely. It is impossible to speak in general terms about what one should do with each piece of arable land – in fact, the difficult and emergent task is to do WHAT IS BEST on each one – best for the land, best for the people who depend on it, best for the wildlife and other creatures who inhabit it.

And in The New York Times, Jay Bost wrote:

What are these “right” and “wrong” ways of producing both meat and plant foods? For me, they are most succinctly summed up in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

Yes, natural meat production is more resource intensive than growing plants which are lower on the food chain. But it needs to be location-specific. No, it does not make sense to chop down the Amazon to grow beef cattle for McDonalds. Yes, CAFOs are an abomination. But it makes more sense to raise dairy cows than grow lentils in Wisconsin, and it makes more sense to pasture bison than grow soybeans in Nebraska. We should not resort to reflexive oversimplifications like "eat less meat" without taking into account what the best type of agriculture for a specific region is and how an integrated approach can be more sustainable in some cases. So yes, perhaps relying less on meat in our diets is part of the solution. But let's make sure we're growing our food in the right places, and integrating animals in an ecologically sustainable manner into our agriculture. Grasslands are enormous biomes that sequester carbon. They also stabilize soil (as the United States found out during the Dust Bowl). Grazing animals on these lands can be a boon. Meat eating doesn't have to be destructive. Shouldn't we fix this first before breaking out the test tubes? Integrating animals in the appropriate places in an environmentally sensitive manner is far more beneficial and less energy intensive than growing it in a lab.

Perplexingly, vertical farming and lab-grown meat are seen as a solutions to the problems with conventional farming, but isn’t the answer for correcting our misuse and abuse of the land to stop misusing and abusing the land, rather than building a skyscraper to grow plants or growing meat in a petri dish? How exactly do they ‘solve’ anything? Backyard gardens like the Victory Garden movement during the second world war grew large amounts of food. The city of Paris grew most of its vegetables locally in the nineteenth century using a series of innovative techniques based in empty lots in the city. French Intensive Gardening used horse manure on raised beds, mulches, human labor, cold frames, and even bell-shaped glass jars to grow food almost year-round at a northern latitude. What about vacant lots? What about rooftop gardens? What about backyard chickens? What about corporate control over the food supply and land consolidation? Maybe we should stop building over our most productive farmland and think about why we build in the first place and how we inhabit the landscape? These are just a few of the alternatives to the high-tech solution proposed by the technophilists. Many cities even in the age of sprawl are surrounded by productive farmland that is underutilized. Transporting food into the cities is hardly a crisis that needs to be solved with skyscrapers; bicycles, or even boats, would do in a pinch. How can we be proposing things like this when small farmers are still going bankrupt and throwing in the towel?

The other unstated assumption is that vertical farms are necessary to continue the global experiment of kicking farmers off the land and forcing them into overcrowded and unsanitary slums to eke out a living making consumer goods for rich countries in sweatshops or earning a living by whatever irregular work they can find. Maybe we should reconsider an economic system relentlessly devoted to sidelining labor in the name of efficiency and driving down costs no matter the consequences. Perhaps it is this policy in need of consideration rather than claiming that vertical farms and lab-grown meat are the answer. We’re breathlessly told that these are the only alternatives to looming disaster without asking how we got to this disaster point in the first place. Perhaps we should question the underlying assumptions that brought us to this point before plowing ahead with new techno-fixes.

Agribusinesses will spend billions of dollars patenting terminator seeds, but naturally breeding higher-yielding varieties of perennial grasses languishes in obscurity. Millions of dollars are being raised for building farming skyscrapers while a Permaculture project that effectively greened the desert using natural systems sits neglected and abandoned in Jordan. Thousands of dollars are given to scientists to grow meat under fluorescent lights but ecological restoration efforts such as returning a buffalo commons to the Great Plains are starved for funds. Farmers practicing organic agriculture and responsible animal husbandry constantly hear complaints about how their food is “too expensive,” yet we’re getting excited about a 300,000 dollar hamburger grown in a lab. Again, have we lost our minds?  Perhaps the fact that there are more cell phones than toilets in India should cause us to question our priorities.

To be clear, I'm not against acquiring new knowledge. I think it's great that we know how to do these things, and I fully support continued research in these areas. Every bit of knowledge is a potential tool, whether we end up using it or not, and I'm glad scientists are working on these things. No, what I'm criticizing are our priorities. We constantly hear laments about how we need more engineers. But why don't we hear as much about needing more farmers? Maybe we should give money to small-scale farmers and soil scientists before investing it in plantscrapers and meat labs.

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Extraenvironmentalist interview with Dr. Michael Huesemann, author of Techno-Fix

The BBC gets in on the act: BBC News -  Future foods: What will we be eating in 20 years' time? Although, I do think the insects and algae ideas have some merit.