Urbanites have lettuce-in-the-sky dreamsBy Keith Roulston
A recent issue of Canadian Business magazine featured 30 “big ideas” and “hot trends” as opportun-ities for 2015. The good news for food producers is two of them involved food production. The bad news is that it’s the kind of food production few food producers will recognize.
Number 22 on the list was Next Millenium Farms, north of Toronto which is raising crickets for food – like honey-mustard-seasoned roasted crickets. Apparently there are 24 other companies like this across North America counting on people who want protein that doesn’t come from animals.
The bulk of New Millenium Farms’ sales, apparently is in a protein-rich flour made from ground-up crickets that can be added to food. I’m not sure when New Millenium Farms will find protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Crickets on its door-step, but it must be only a matter of time.
The other food item, one that rated a full-colour photo taking up an entire page, was for “Farms in the Sky”. Featured was “Urban Barns”, a Montreal company that’s growing lettuce, kale and assorted micro-greens for local restaurants. Plants are grown on vertical conveyer belts programmed to move automatically, ensuring vegetables receive enough water, nutrients and light from LEDs.
It was a couple of claims for the advantages of “vertical farming” that raised my eyebrows. The company’s CEO says production of his vegetables emits less carbon dioxide and consumes less water than traditional farming.
This “consumption” of water complaint about farming always gets me wondering. Anti-meat advocates, for instance, like to claim it takes 1,799 gallons of water to grow one pound of beef, counting the water it takes to grow the grain and pasture a cattle beast eats, the water it drinks and the water used in processing. Nobody seems to ask how this could happen: could the water disappear somehow? Does the rain not fall on a field if there are no cattle in it or there’s no grass or corn crop? Does the steer drink the water that never comes out?
The other advantage touted for vertical farming really got me wondering if anybody stops to think when they write these pieces: “indoor food production doesn’t rely on pricey farmland”. If farmland was expensive compared to urban land, there’d be no need for the province to freeze development to protect development on the edges of Toronto. As for building upward, I looked up the average per square foot of condominiums in Toronto: $545. I know a condo is finished more expensively but even at half the cost, a farm in the sky looks like pretty expensive food space. And has anyone taken a look at how many towers of farms in the sky would be needed to replace just the vegetable farms of the Holland Marsh?
These aren’t the first such “vertical farming” articles I’ve seen. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised: I’ve been in the news business more than 40 years, a business as addicted to the “new” as a heroin junky to his next fix.
It’s easy to have fun with the naivete of this urban farming dream but what worries me is that the separation between city and country has grown to the point it just seems normal for urban thinkers to want to take food production to a more man-ufactured state. For one thing, farm-ing seems so old hat – there must be a more modern way. For another, it seems to me there’s a certain mistrust of anything grown in an “uncontroll-ed” setting, which is why farmers have adopted quality control rules.
These schemes aren’t endanger-ing traditional, soil-based farming yet but how much damage to farm-raised food is being perpetrated by people flogging their “better” way?◊
Keith Roulston is publisher of The Rural Voice. He lives near Blyth, ON.