My previous article on the Vertical Farm Project received a number of thought-provoking comments from readers. Some of these dealt with food policy and international trade issues that I’ll be looking at in the weeks to come. For now, I would like to respond specifically to part of one very thoughtful comment made by Douglas Romig, a soil scientist based in New Mexico, who wrote:
I’d submit that the innovations we need are primarily in our attitudes about food: eat less meat, buy locally-grown food in season, join a CSA farm, and go organic whenever possible.
A number of other readers seconded this remark, which I think demonstrates the rhetorical longevity of this idea. For many years, notable environmentalists from Wendell Berry to Barbara Kingsolver have placed a strong emphasis on demand-side reforms. And for many years, this was precisely the right thing to emphasize, because since the 1970’s public support for environmental initiatives and products had been on the wane.
However, recent data suggests this is clearly no longer the case. Americans’ attitudes towards food are now strongly biased in favor of sustainable agriculture, and local agriculture in particular. Pretty much every consumer poll taken within the last few years bears this out. For instance:
- A 2007 Harris poll found that 61% of all Americans described themselves as “very likely” to purchase locally grown food if it were available and priced within their budget.
- A Zogby poll taken one month later found that 65% of consumers already go out of their way to purchase local food when possible, and that 85% of shoppers want to know where their food was grown.
- A 2008 Ohio State University study found that regional shoppers were willing to pay a 42-cent premium for strawberries grown in the state.
What I would submit is that the demand for local and sustainable agriculture is already established on both broad and deep levels. What impedes the growth of local & sustainable is not demand, but constraints on supply.
There are three major constraints on the supply of local & sustainable food. First, agricultural policy subsidizes unsustainable production to a ludicrous degree – an issue I will return to in a later post. Federal, state, and municipal tax, transportation, and zoning laws also inhibit the growth of local food. Second, established infrastructure and best practices have made industry slow to adapt to the local food movement, though that is starting to change. Finally, over the past several decades if not centuries, there have been only a few innovations in sustainable agriculture to gain critical mass.
I recognize that to some, talking about technological breakthroughs and sustainable agriculture in the same sentence may seem jarring. Yet technology does have a place in sustainable agriculture, and it always has. To name a recent example: the proliferation of four-season farming, utilizing movable greenhouses and cold frames, has enabled many small growers to extend their harvesting season and productivity. It may not look much like what we would normally describe as “technology,” but it is a genuine production innovation. Another example, somewhat more high-tech, are recent advances in pairing aquaponics with vegetable production.
Now, the Vertical Farm project probably does not represent the kind of innovation that is needed right now; on that, I think most of us can agree. Probably a good deal more important are infrastructural innovations that would enable more cost-efficient distribution of locally-grown foods. Following that, it is also essential to find ways to make local, sustainable growing more profitable, so that more people actually become farmers. The innovations at Polyface Farms, which were memorably described by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, represent one way to accomplish this. Those of Growing Power, a nonprofit that teaches young people to build productive community gardens out of vacant urban lots, represents another.
We need to grow and deliver our agricultural products in a more sustainable fashion. Technology has long been seen as an impediment to that goal, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether in the form of process innovations such as four-season farming, or technological innovations such as methane digestion, technology can also be a driver towards more sustainable agriculture. The reason I’m writing at CleanTechies is to look specifically at technological innovations that show promise for just that purpose.