Super Sonic Hydroponic Famine Tonic
Can local urban agriculture cure the globalized ‘Big Ag’ allure?
There have been huge advances in how food is grown over the last decade. A new revolution in agriculture. It just may be coming at the right time. The world’s population is skyrocketing, and more and more people are pouring into cities. We’ll need more food and more ways to make it accessible and new techniques look promising. But at what cost?
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A BERRY BIG PROBLEM
The red dot caught my attention; hidden in the soil of a bed once forgotten. Rain drops wiggled on the fervent green leaves as I lifted the cold pale yellow-green vine with ease. It was hugging its red friend in the shadows of the sun. My fingers surrounded the plump little ball as I tugged it loose of its clutches. On to my tongue enveloped in warmth as my teeth clamped down in the darkness. A cool and wet sugary burst lit my mouth with summer’s first gift. No sooner did the strawberry’s sweet secretion burst were my eyes darting for another with thirst.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she reminds us that strawberries are like “gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.”1
Like the naturally occurring strawberries of her childhood, my strawberries just appeared one year. Probably a gift from a bird. Or, more likely, a rabbit. Most years the rabbits beat me to their splendor, but not this time.
I get nostalgic around gardens. I’m not sure why. I never much liked being hunched over in the sweltering humidity pulling weeds and picking beans as a kid. Bugs buzzed erratically – irritably itchy inching near my ears. Heat seeking mosquitos swarmed my sweaty shins poking their needle through my white knee-high tube socks searching for red blood. But there’s pride in growing your own food and there’s no denying it’s better for you and better tasting.
We always had a large garden in our backyard. Sometimes we’d have a plot in a field in the country next to a small farm. Most of those small farms are being sold off to large commercial farmers these days. The small-town rural agriculture of my Iowa childhood in the 70s and 80s gave way to large-scale rural agriculture. The Green Revolution was just gaining speed.
Between 1960 and 2000 the world’s population doubled while the output of cereal grains like wheat, rice, and corn tripled. And it did it by only increasing croplands by 30%.2 Improvements in genetics, fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanization were fueled by increased private capital and tax-funded public subsidies. Globalization and the Green Revolution enabled unprecedented growth in rural agriculture. Crops could easily be shipped to markets and cities far from where they were grown. For the first time, wheat produced in Mexico found its way into bread sold in Tokyo.
These advances lowered the price of food and provided much needed relief to a growing world population. But it came with a cost to the environment and biodiversity. Unchecked, it will only get worse. The world’s population is expected to grow exponentially until 2050 and over 70% will live in urban areas. To feed all these people will require 56% more food than what was produced in 2010. That means an additional 593 hectares of cropland – an area the size of India.
But if we were to reverse the Green Revolution and rely on smaller organic farming practices, even more land would be needed as yields are mostly smaller. It’s believed two to three times as much land would be needed to produce as much wheat, corn, and potatoes as the conventional agriculture of today. If the world switched to organic farming using current areas of croplands only one half of the world’s population could be fed.3
Meanwhile, the world also needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ten percent of which comes from agriculture – including soils and rice production, 27% percent transportation – including the transport of food and grain around the world, and 24% from Industry – including the petrochemicals needed for Green Revolution farming. We also need to use less water. The UN says agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s freshwater. In dryer areas (like Arizona) that number increases to 90%, due to water extracted from rivers (like the dwindling Colorado River), and aquifers (like the declining Ogallala).
In 2007, these worries increasingly came into focus. Within four months the price of wheat inexplicably doubled, rice prices tripled, and corn shot up 50%. Food riots broke out for the first time since the 1970s. Egypt put their army to work baking bread. Rice hoarders in the Philippines were threatened by sentences to life in prison. This marked the end of the Green Revolution as we knew it. Just as the world had grown accustomed to seemingly guaranteed cheap food, a new dynamic had set in.
In 1979, according to the World Bank, the percentage of global money going to food assistance peaked at 18%. By 2004 it had dropped to 3.5%. Private donations to relief efforts relaxed. They assumed the Green Revolution had cured worldwide famine. Governments reduced spending on agricultural research assuming hunger was a thing of the past. Farmers in developed countries also dissuaded their governments from assisting farmers in developing countries fearing competition. If poorer countries began providing for themselves, they’d miss out on selling to those markets.
The environmental movement had also gained momentum and status. Investors and donors began pressuring the Ford Foundation, the original seed funder of the Green Revolution in the 1950s, to reduce the use of petrochemicals in agriculture. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, became frustrated when his effort to bring green-revolution practices to Africa was thwarted by protests by environmentalists.
Then, highly populated countries like China and India began reducing agricultural exports so they could feed themselves. In 2006, India even began importing food again. Renewed concern over food security inspired governments worldwide to re-fund agricultural research. Venture capitalists fed startups keen to apply new technologies to food production. Beginning in 2010, the number of academic research papers on agricultural innovation exploded with topics like “indoor agriculture, remote sensing, vertical agriculture, hydroponic, aeroponic, aquaponic and soilless agriculture, precision agriculture, and other novel technologies.”4 A second Green Revolution was unfolding.
BRINGING NEW MEANING TO GREENING
The second Green Revolution aimed to be a Green Green Revolution. The original Green Revolution was born out of the 1950s institutional patriarchy found in government, urban planning, civil engineering, and agricultural. They sought, and continue to seek, to centralize, industrialize, and capitalize. These efforts led to prosperity and food security for many, but they have also balkanized, disenfranchised, and ghettoized many places in the world. Glamorized westernized ways have meticulously metastasized. Colonized earthly crust, of countries with cautious distrust, find temporary prosperity crushed when exhausted land goes from soil to dust.
But the new Green Revolution, backed by a flux of venture capital greenbacks, hopes to bring agriculture’s ‘green’ sheen back. And like most high-tech ventures, these efforts are mostly urban. Researchers define Urban Agriculture as “the production, process, and distribution of food and other products by plant and/or livestock raised in and around cities to meet local needs.”5 By that definition, our family garden in suburban Iowa was a form of urban agriculture. My wild strawberries gifted here in Kirkland, Washington are too.
In fact, after our town’s founder and chief colonizer, the British industrialist Peter Kirk, failed at attempts in the 1800s to turn Kirkland into a steel town – the ‘Pittsburgh of the West’. Kirkland then became known as a farm town. Summer fruit would be packed onto a ferry headed to Seattle’s growing urban metropolis. Soon real estate companies sold Kirkland’s agricultural land to developers. Kirkland went from a source of urban agriculture to a Seattle suburb.
Seattle area farmland was also getting converted to suburban development. In the 1920s, the Picardo family, who had immigrated from Italy in 1890, secured 20 acres to continue farming. This acreage came to be called the Picardo Patch, or P-Patch. The city then bought the land in the 70s to preserve its use and the word P-Patch is now commonly used to refer to a community garden. The original P-Patch now boasts 259 community plots.
But one of the more popular, and controversial, P-Patches in Seattle sits atop a parking garage below the Space Needle. Called the UpGarden, it converts 25,000 square feet of concrete into 98 gardening plots. There have been recent attempts to sweep the dirt away, but intense community protest saved it. It even inspired a rededication last summer.
Both P-Patches are forms of urban agriculture researchers call Uncontrolled Environment Agriculture. They rely on the uncontrolled, or loosely controlled, variability of soil and climate conditions. The Picardo community farm resembles more traditional rural farming but in an urban environment. The UpGarden is a rooftop garden that mimics a traditional garden on the roof of a concrete parking structure. It also resembles a form of Controlled Environment Agriculture known as building-integrated agriculture.
These are typically enclosed greenhouse structures inside a dedicated or mixed-use building. They’re plant factories. They draw on the innovations cited in the growing body of research literature and are a form of what some call Innovative Urban Agriculture. In dense urban areas, where space is a premium, they take on the form of indoor vertical gardens.
These methods of indoor farming rely on less water and soil. In some cases, no soil at all. Hydroponic horticulture plunges roots to a small amount of nutrient rich water that can yield tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, and lettuces. A similar method, aeroponics, suspends plants in the air and can be grown by misting them with nutrient rich compounds forced through high-pressure mist heads. Tanks or artificial streams of water can also be used to grow fish (like shrimp) and aqua plants (like seaweed). This is known as urban aquaculture. Hydroponics and aquaculture can also be combined to create aquaponics. These are systems that take nutrient rich water from aquaculture tanks to feed trays of hydroponic plants.
This method, although less high-tech, has been around for centuries. Since as early at 5 AD various forms of integrated polyculture rice-fish farming took place in Eastern Asia. Evidence of this practice existed well into 13th century China. Around that same time, the Mesoamerican Aztecs built islands, sometimes movable, on top of wetlands, shallow lake beds, and canals. These methods were used to meet personal, family, and local market needs. That’s as true of innovative urban agricultural in developing countries today as it was centuries ago
.The poorest people in the world today spend upwards of 85% of their household revenue on food. It’s hard to tell how much urban agriculture is done today to offset these costs. In our highly industrialized and globalized agricultural economy, there’s little interest – and thus little data – on agricultural techniques outside the norm. One 1993 study estimated 15-20% of the world’s food was produced by some form of urban agriculture. A more recent 2010 study looked at 15 developing countries and determined urban agriculture made up anywhere from 3-27% of their total yields.
While there are indeed individually motivated urban farmers in developed countries today, like in backyards, front yards, decks, empty lots, rooftops, and parking lots, most commercial innovative urban agriculture is motivated by social desire and market opportunity. Some claim hydroponic systems have the potential to grow 11 times more lettuce per acre than conventional means. One study suggests 1.5 times more tomatoes could be grown. And what about those little bursting red bundles of taste bud bliss? An estimated 13 times more strawberries could be grown through these new techniques.
And don’t count out rooftop gardens. If you happen to be blessed with the climate of Bologna, Italy, you could be growing heaps of food from the heat on your roof. One rooftop garden produced an estimated 12,000 tons of vegetables in a single year – enough to round out meals of 77% of urban dwellers. One study estimates that if the industrial rooftops of Montreal featured hydroponic systems, they could grow 277% of that city’s total demand – at a fraction of the cost. A 2011 study suggested a 20-story “SkyFarm” high-rise in Egypt, equipped with vertical aeroponic greenhouses on every floor, could produce 200 times as much rice as that country’s most productive conventional rice farm.
HOW HARMONIC ARE PONICS?
These statistics can cast innovative urban agriculture as a panacea. And it just may be. But the Green Revolution was also cast in those same terms. In fact, over the last two centuries societies have routinely been seduced by the promise of technology, the adoration of the individual “great inventor’ who will finally, once again, save us from ruin. People glamorize and valorize individualistic human accomplishment while disguising and patronizing community and environmental suffering. Hypnotized by success and desensitized to distress.
There is no doubt these new approaches to agriculture show great promise. They indeed use less water and land while producing more yield for less money. They are closed systems that can be optimized for efficiency. One aquaponic experiment featured a double recirculating system. One cubic meter of recirculated water could increase fertilizer efficiency by 24% compared to conventional aquaponic methods. It even managed to produce the same quantity and quality of tomatoes per cubic meter of water. As a bonus, that same quantity of water also produced 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of tilapia fish. But all systems come at a cost.
These systems require buildings made of sophisticated construction. The growing supplies are made of plastics, processed metals, and synthetic fertilizers. Electricity to power their highly controlled climates, lights, computers, pumps, misters, and filtration systems must run around the clock and throughout the year. How clean is that electricity? Will increased yields induce profit seeking companies to package and ship even more food around the world? Few, if any, studies have been conducted on the upstream and downstream lifecycle costs of innovative urban agriculture.
Furthermore, this is all new. And while there are many successful greenhouse and hydroponic companies out there selling vegetables today, cereals, grains, and proteins are also needed to balance the food basket. Aquaponics hold promise for efficiently growing diverse nutritious foods, but commercial scale is in its infancy. A 2016 survey in Europe revealed that 75% of commercial aquaponic enterprises were built on or after 2010. Nearly half of the employees were researchers working at universities. One-third were government funded, one-fifth were true commercial endeavors, but only 12% had sold fish or plants in the previous 12 months.
Currently the U.S. leads in research and development of innovative urban agriculture. These investments seed similar efforts around the world in both developed and developing countries. There is no question these new forms of commercial agriculture will have an impact on how the world’s food is grown. But I also know the experience of eating that strawberry I plucked at my feet can’t be imitated. Sorry Driscoll’s.
Driscoll’s strawberries, the world’s leading strawberry producer, are genetically engineered to yield a certain experience. Their farmers, or “strawberry manufacturers” as Driscoll’s calls them, all adhere to a certain standard to uphold their vision of what a strawberry is supposed to be. They ship a billion plastic clamshells of strawberries around the world. They have a room at their headquarters in California filled with monitors that track every truck carrying their red, heart-shaped berries across North America. They have two weeks to get their product from harvest to destinations across the country and around the world. They are so popular in China, their price and availability influences international trade relations.
Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that my opportunistic strawberry plant had “in fact been up all night assembling little packets of sugar and seeds and fragrance and color, because when it does so its evolutionary fitness is increased.”6 The more attractive nature makes that little bundle, the more likely an animal like me will eat it and spread its seeds. I guess to do my part to further this plant’s evolutionary fitness, I’ll need to poop in the nearby woods. Kids, don’t try this at home.
But the Green Revolution changed these uncontrolled evolutionary elements of agriculture. The Green Revolution turned food evolution into a controlled ‘Big Ag’ volution. Strawberries are now engineered and their seeds are dispersed by ships, planes, and trucks. Once consumed, they’re flushed into wastewater treatment plants.
The new Green Green Revolution, or Innovative Urban Agriculture, is the next stage in agriculture’s own technological evolution. But don’t forget, old fashioned residential and community gardens are part of it. But new technologies have the potential to maximize space, water, and energy to produce even more locally grown yummies. Perhaps we’ll even see Controlled Community Gardens.
Maybe these new techniques could transform who we are, our relationship with our food, and how we interact at a local level. It’s up to us. Perhaps food production can be made local again. New forms of urban agriculture could be a gift. Like a backyard wild strawberry. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it:
“It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal.”7
If done right, I might add, maybe even the evolutionary fitness of the planet and us all.
Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer. 2015
An Edible History of Humanity. Tom Standage. 2009.
The second green revolution: Innovative urban agriculture's contribution to food security and sustainability – A review. Dian T. Armandaa, Jeroen B. Guinéea, Arnold Tukker. Global Food Security. 2019.