City farming or the hanging gardens of Methanopolis

A couple of years ago (I don’t remember the precise year) I read an article on hydroponic farming and also that no more than the area of Vermont would suffice to feed the world if it would be farmed to the best available methods today.

Feeding the world is a goal that deserves our best efforts but the solution to this problem does not only lie in throwing better technology at parcels of planetary surface.

Up until now, economies of scale have ruled the agricultural world. The bigger the farm, the bigger the machinery it could employ so the better were profits. Some of todays agricultural gear smacks more of terminators or transformers.

But what they do is still as primitive as 5000 years ago when early civilizations dropped seeds by hand into the soil.

Let’s take a look at what agriculture needs in order to get plants growing. Its nutrients for the plants, sunlight, water and it also takes structural support for the roots to claw themselves into.

In order to get this to work, enormous amounts of the planetary surface were rectified for easier usage by agricultural robots and transformed into what we call cultural landscapes today. In reality, we look at something that’s as natural as a plastic bag.

But even worse, we do this destruction in order to achieve measly results. The yield of product per acre has increased over centuries but it’s still a pittance. If one compares the productivity of an acre of average farmland with the productivity of an acre Silicon Valley in financial terms , one must blush.

But agriculture is low tech, dirty-hands type of business where pairs of hands are more important than gray matter. Ain’t that right?

Not anymore.

Smart, not toil ...

Smart, not toil …

The advent of distributed work, fast delivery to the door and 3 d printing plus robotisation changes the way we live and just in place, just in time production to a customers every whim becomes important in the chow-business as well.

Mass is dying in the foods business and it takes the giant monocultural farm into the grave. What we see coming now is small, decentralized, up to very minute specifications farming. The old monocultures just cared for output. New farming caters to diversity. Old, long forgotten plants, grains and fruits are en vogue again and this is not anymore a Soho fad.

However, if we look beyond a couple of food aficionados, technology is pushing the envelope in ways never seen before.

Let’s take another look at yield. An average farmer in North Carolina yields 200 to 250 bushels of cucumbers per acre. This includes patches of farmland where cucumbers grow less than optimally due to poor soil or less sunlight or … – one of the myriad reasons why things don’t work as well as the textbook would dictate they could be. Nature has its ways of messing with planning.

However, in order to put insult to injury, there is bad weather spoiling crops, wildlife munching what we would like to find on our plates and plant diseases taking a toll. So, if we just assumed perfect conditions for farming and subtracted all the external influences that reduce yield, we would do a lot better. That happens in greenhouses where conditions are being kept as good for our vegetable friends as they can be.

But it’s still soil, in which those plants have to grow. If we took away the need for soil and put the plants into some kind of biodegradable foam for structural support and sprinkled nutrients and water directly onto the roots, we would give the plant optimal conditions to become as big, as tasty, as good looking, as – whatever you want.

Don’t forget that there is no genetics or nanotechnology in such a world just yet. We just provide the plant with an optimal environment for growing. However, surface area still limits things severely. Even if one used the best available conditions for raising the green, surface area will put hard limits to what is possible on an acre.

Well – NO. Humans have soon discovered that going vertical will save lots of space and opens up entirely new possibilities of human life. The megacity of today would be unthinkable without high rise buildings.

More than just one kind ...

More than just one kind …

What’s true for humans would also be true for plants. What’s wrong with growing them on racks in a totally controlled environment. Just imagine an old factory building or warehouse where lettuce or other high-value crops are grown on racks. Lettuce does not grow very high so many layers of growing lettuce could be stacked in order to increase yield. This can also be done in a regular high rise in the heart of the city and it would not be limited to lettuce. In fact, just about anything that grows could be raised that way.

But what does this do? It brings the farm to the consumers and this makes infinite choices possible. Farmers will be physically close to the end consumers again and will respond to their very whims at the bat of an eyelid.

The logistics of mass farming made a reduction of choice necessary. Great choice transported over long distances means infinite complexity on the transport system. However, great choice over very short distances in a distributed production – consumption relationship would be easy to create and maintain.

Large centralized logistics systems need a lot of top-down brainware in order to work. Those nano-farming solutions however, will need next to no brainware at all.

In the end, there will be modularized food production units that will be able to produce an enormous variety of plants food just in time and on the spot so restaurants and specialized shopping parlors will manufacture customized premium food.

Because there will be perfect conditions and the certainty that there is no plant disease and no animal that has nibbled on it or dumped a load of pee just beside. And no pesticides or herbicides will have been sprayed on it.

It will be cleaner, healthier, better to look at and tastier than anything you ever had. And it will beat organic at every level.

Methanopolis is all about short ways and decentralized production. City farming will eventually cover all our nutritional needs.

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