Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rewilding Canada Through Vertical Farming

Rewilding Canada was written by Karl Schroeder in July 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long WorldChanging Canada editorial retrospective, celebrating two years of WorldChanging Canada.

It's better to be active than reactive. It's the difference between generating your own goals from what is best in you, and accommodating goals that have been thrust upon you and are not yours. So. What are we as a civilization planning to do once we no longer have to react to the emergency of global climate change?

Climate change is the great human opportunity; it is the unifying threat that will pull us together as a species, or destroy us. Still, it's not an opportunity we've chosen, but a crisis thrust upon us to which we have to react. And if I were to ask you, okay, once that's out of the way, what are we going to do with our cleaned up, sustainable world, you'd probably look at me blankly. Because, let's face it, we're so stuck in reactive mode that we can't even imagine such a thing as a proactive civilization.

So here's something to imagine—not a reaction, but an action, an ambition if you will, for the step we can take after we achieve sustainability. It's not foolish to look that far ahead, for the simple reason that the sustainable foundation we lay down is what we'll be stuck with for the foreseeable future, which hopefully will be thousands upon thousands of years. Having an idea of what edifice we ultimately intend to build would be... useful... when planning a foundation.

Let's imagine the rewilding of Canada. I'm not talking here of rewilding in the green anarchist sense, but in the sense discussed in the June, 2007 issue of Scientific American (article is for-pay here, but a short summary can be found for free here). In the article, C. Josh Donlan proposes "pleistocene rewilding" which is the re-introduction of megafauna to replace those lost from North America over the past 15,000 years or so. Elephants, for instance, would be introduced and allowed to run free in a "wild zone" that could eventually stretch from sea to sea. Pleistocene rewilding would go a long way to remediating the damage that's been done to the North American ecosystem over this period. It's an ambitious idea--but as described, it sort of floats there in a vacuum. Donlan doesn't discuss how the vast tracts of rewilded land will be opened up, except in passing, nor does he address the pressing issue that by 2050 the world will need 30% more food than it's currently producing, to feed our expanded population. In that circumstance, the idea that we'll have any free room at all for such a project seems ridiculous.

It's not, though, provided we imagine other developments that can happen parallel to the rewilding project itself. Donlan's proposal is ambitious—but not ambitious enough. Let's throw afforestation into the pot—the regrowth of the ancient, continent-spanning forests whose only remnant now is in the Canadian north. And let's add the preservation and enhancement of species diversity and habitats, and round out our ambition by deciding to have our cake and eat it: to keep our cities and our space programs and everything we've got now. We can. We just need to have, as a society, a clear goal in our development.

How to do it? In practice, a whole range of different techniques and technologies will do it, along with some societal changes. But to focus on just one technology, let's look at the potential impact of vertical farming.

Visualization of the inside of a vertical farm (Credit: Vertical Farm Project)

There's a great site introducing the concept called, logically enough, the vertical farm project. This site will give you an extensive introduction to the idea of doing intensive hydroponics agriculture in urban hi-rises, and it includes a lot of architectural plans, systems analyses and hard numbers. Cost is somewhat skirted-around, but doesn't appear to be prohibitive when you factor in the fertilizer, pesticide, transportation and storage costs of our current mode of production.

It seems crazy to talk about farming in a hi-rise; the vision it gives rise to is of a kind of student-residence crammed with pot-smoking hippies who've traded their carpets for wheat. In fact, the approach is pretty hard-nosed and industrial, with very high outputs as its aim. And here's where it gets interesting from the point of view of our ambition to rewild the country: in the study entitled "Feeding 50,000 People, Anisa Buck, Stacy Goldberg and others conclude that a single building covering one city block, and up to 48 stories high depending on the design, can grow enough food to sustain 50,000 people. This calculation doesn't require any magical technology; there's no fairy-dust being evoked here, we could build such a structure now.

So, let's do the math. If the population of the Toronto area is, say, 3 million people (it's more or less depending on where you draw your lines) then 3,000,000/50,000=60. Sixty large buildings could feed the entire city. It's a big effort, but not much bigger than the current condo boom happening down by the waterfront, where literally dozens of projects are planned. Certainly there's room; the city could feed itself without importing anything (except we'd want cow's milk and beef and mustard and luxury foods--which I'll get to in a minute).

Design for a vertical farm (Credit: Chris Jacobs)

To continue with the math: if the population of Canada as a whole is around 30 million, then 10x60=600 buildings will feed the entire country. Yes, you're seeing that right. An area 25 city blocks on a side could feed Canada. An area the size of a small town can displace the entire Canadian agricultural sector and much of its aquaculture as well. It's hugely energy-intensive, and labour-intensive too; but the buildings recycle their own water, produce much of their own power, and with the right economies of scale, could run at a profit.

Now we can rewild and re-forest the country, stop overfishing, and set up the ecological foundation for the restoration of species diversity. Imagine large swathes of the prairie as prairie, with herds of bison (and yes, lions and elephants) and a healthy ecosystem living in parallel to our own. It's a beautiful vision--unless, of course, you're a farmer.

Hold on, though, am I really talking about the death of the family farm here? I am definitely suggesting that less land will needed to be farmed in the future, but that's not really the same thing. It might be, if the economics of the game stayed the same. If traditional farmers in this future scenario had to compete head-to-head with vertical farms, they'd lose big-time. Vertical farms, however, are the ultimate monoculture: factories producing standardized tomatoes, potatoes and tilapia. Most of the farmers I know today spend much of their time huddled in front of a spreadsheet, and most of their winter playing the stock market. They're already alienated from their own land, and they grow crops that are as close to uniform as possible, so the only way they can make money is to produce more of everything. A lot of this is because our supermarket chains demand such uniformity; they reject and destroy tons of perfectly good food every day, just because it doesn't look like the idealized image on their produce packages. If you look at consumption patterns in mainland Europe, though, you see something quite different. People there like to shop in a just-in-time fashion, taking goods trucked in from local farms this morning and cooking them tonight. And in many places they prize odd and unusually-shaped vegetables, because these sorts are considered more likely to have unique and interesting flavours. There used to be hundreds of varieties of everything, from potatoes to peas; now there are fewer and fewer. Anything that looks or tastes even slightly unusual will be left to rot by the wholesalers.
Farm fresh produce (Credit: Mary Thorman)

Vertical farming is an opportunity for traditional farmers, if they decide to become what they've always been traditionally: stewards of a piece of land, whose products both come from and reflect the essence of that locale. Small crops with unique local characters will sell extremely well to cities whose staples are produced in the factory down the street. With less land to till, higher profits per bushel, and an incentive to experiment with cross-breeding and intensification of the lines, farmers can contribute to the rebirth of diversity in the the species we depend upon for our food, so that a single epidemic of rust won't kill an entire monoculture.

This kind of win-win situation is what a proactive civilization is capable of. Remember, I haven't waved any magic wands here, I've just extrapolated a single technology that we already know we can industrialize. Combine it with sustainable power sources, smart systems such as distributed self-organizing sensor nets, as well as current and emerging knowledge of genetics and ecological diversity, and even more is possible.

We need to stop reacting and start acting. The first step is to imagine positive goals for our civilization. It's amazing what can happen when you try; it's also a little depressing to realize how little of this kind of thinking goes on these days.

Front image: Photo: Architectural Designs by Rolf Mohr, Modeling and Rendering by Machine Films; Interiors by James Nelms ­Digital Artist @ Storyboards Online

Inside image 1: Gordon Graff

Inside image 2: Vertical Farm Project

Inside image 3: Chris Jacobs

Inside image 4: Mary Thorman

Rewilding Canada Through Vertical Farming is part of our month long retrospective celebrating celebrating the second anniversary of WorldChanging Canada on October 31. For the month of November, we'll celebrate two years of bright green Canadian ideas, models, and solutions