Food and energy are inexorably linked to each other on many levels. As the U.S. economy has become fully industrialized, so too have our systems of food production. As we learned in class, we currently expend about 10 units of fossil-fuel energy inputs for the production of one equivalent unit of food energy. While “food miles” are typically portrayed as the main energy culprit, the majority of this energy expenditure actually is used during food production processes. While we may not experience any revolutionary shift in the way we produce our food any time soon, there seems to be a growing consciousness in the US related to the nexus of food and energy- and a related growth towards urban agricultural systems. Several areas are interesting to examine.
One interesting group focusing on developing urban agriculture projects is called Growing Power. This group aims to transform communities by developing Community Food Systems that provide local and healthy food that is accessible to everyone in the community. Their method appears to be functioning, and has been highlighted in a variety of publications from ABC News to the New York Times. In addition to functioning at the community level, Growing Power hosts training sessions and conferences to teach people how to utilize urban spaces for agriculture. Based in Milwaukee, the CEO Will Allen recently received a Macarthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship to help broaden the reach of the program.
Businessman John Hantz views urban agriculture as a possible way to help revitalize Detroit, as well as make a profit. He has set up Hantz Farms Detroit in order to make this happen. His goal is to use underutilized land in the city to create the world’s largest urban farm which will “transform Detroit into a destination for fresh, locally grown natural foods, create a viable, beautiful environment that will enhance the City, attract tourism, increase the tax base, create jobs and greatly improve the quality of life in Detroit.” While Hantz appears to be ready to invest up to $30 million into the project, as of now it has been delayed due to zoning and regulatory issues at the municipal level.
The idea of vertical farming appears to be the most far-fetched (or least energy efficient), but does at least make for an interesting concept. Columbia University Professor Dickson Despommier is the leading proponent of this concept, which proposes to produce food in large closed-loop skyscrapers in urban centers. While none of the many designs have actually been constructed, they claim to be able to produce food 4-6 times more intensively than current systems, while being an overall energy saver. This last claim seems to fail to take into account the total energy costs of building a skyscraper, but the life-cycle assessment of the entire system would be interesting to find out.
AeroFarms is one company focused on urban agriculture that proposes some technological innovations that would enhance efficiency and lead to a more viable system. The main idea is to grow food indoors in closed trays of crops being supplied with mists of water and air, and placed under specially designed LED lights. These LED lights would use specific wave lengths of light to maximize the efficiency of the photosynthesis process. The system would use 20% less water than conventional agriculture without using any chemical based herbicides or pesticides. However, off the bat, I can’t help but see the sun as much more efficient than any LED light bulb.
These examples show the wide range of systems, programs, and technologies people are developing to enhance the prospects for urban agricultural systems. It appears like there are a lot of good ideas out there, but the overall net energy impacts remain to be seen. Issues related to policy, efficiency, scalability, and economics are just a few of the many hurdles any of these ideas needs to overcome in order to significantly change the way we currently produce food and reduce the associated energy costs.