City life 2.0

Food production has to compete fiercely for space in any urban environment. In a bid to escape these constraints, some food producers have gone up in the world, literally. Welcome to the world of vertical farming, a high tech adaptation of hydroponics, in which plants are raised in row upon row of troughs, each level illuminated by a blend of artificial lights that add up to a passable semblance of continuous light. Vertical farming has the squeaky clean credentials of a rising star in the food industry, earning extra points for season-free crops of strawberries, salad leaves and baby spinach leaves.

Converts and supporters of vertical farming point to the careful use of environmentally friendly electricity, the green credentials of the indoor space management in commercial growing operations that can supply high grade salad crops to supermarkets in a continuous production cycle.

The BBC has visited a leading exponent a number of times. Here is what they reported in August 2022 (https://bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-62491123). The Bristol-based Jones Food Company is preparing to launch the biggest vertical farm in the UK. There is a lot of high tech green know-how at work in the business. However, while its carbon footprint is doubtless beyond reproach, one is left wondering whether there is any role for nature in this high tech warehouse. After all, there is no commercial requirement for nature to be a part of any business plan.

The Jones Food Company website argues that its core business is farming sustainably, without some of the “hazardous substances” associated with field farming. By cleaning and reusing water up to 30 times, water intake is one tenth of what a conventional field crop would need. JFC also argues that in-house water hygiene allows the company to operate without toxic crop treatments, saving money and improving the flavour of crops.

This is an activity that sets out to be part of the solution, if not all of the solution, rather than any kind of problem. The basic assumption that what goes on in the wider world is either too distant or irrelevant does not hold water. There is a duty of care to the planet to give some thought to the whole ecosphere, when planning what goes into a growing space, however small.

Seen from that angle, the emphasis changes in a subtle shift towards a planetary view. To be sure, assuming that the vertical farmer is so close to her customers that food miles cease to be an issue, whereas procurement of fluorescent tubes probably requires a longer trip around a continent or two. It may be that the calculation of food miles needs to be done on the basis of inputs as well as outputs.

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