Mallika Writes: Just Speaking

February 6th - DNA

Food prices are soaring. Farmers weep and commit suicide as they do not get adequate rains, or get too much rain, or crops fail, or prices do not support agriculture. Pulse production falls by 30% leading to people eating less dals and thus leading to malnutrition. A false war gets created by partisan agencies, to mislead people into believing that saving the environment means stopping industrial growth. Meanwhile the state of the earth, of the seas, of the air we breath, deteriorates and new diseases strike everywhere every day.

One of the greatest pollutants in the world is the water run off from agriculture, laden as this water is with deadly pesticides and agrochemicals.  And the world over about 70% of the available fresh water is used for this. Contrary to what we think, agriculture, as we know it, is only several thousand years old. Before that we lived of f the land and what we could gather, pluck or kill. To clear land for planting humans cut through forests thereby starting a process that has lead us to where we are today. And yet we are unable to feed our hungry. Estimates suggest that soon the lack of tillable land will lead to increasing food riots – add to that the amount of farm land being gobbled up by industry and we have a sure shot disaster for humanity.

It is in this context that the idea of a completely different kind of farming for our times, mooted by Dr.Dickson Despommier, once professor of microbiology, public health and environmental science at Columbia University, points to such a fascinating solution. Dr. Despommier dreams of what he calls a vertical farm, one that is housed in a ten storied, scientifically designed building, with no or little soil, a closed water loop, and job opportunities for farmers and farm hands. Built either within city limits or just at the edge of the cities, these farms could produce vegetables and fruits all the year around, without creating the carbon foot print necessitated by transporting food thousands of miles, and without the fear of runoffs. Using natural sunlight and cutting edge science, these farms have many advantages.

Because the agriculture is under controlled conditions, there are no more summer or winter crops. In fact production goes on uninterrupted all the year around. Concomitantly there are no crop failures (imagine what this will do to farmer misery). There is no water run off as all the water is recycled back into the production loop, thereby saving huge amounts of fresh water and avoiding polluting the rivers and seas of the world. Additionally this technique of agriculture uses between 75 to 90%  less water than regular agriculture, further easing the water problem. City grey water can also be recycled to be used for the vertical farm thereby reducing the city’s requirements for treating raw sewage and household water. The land freed by this kind of agriculture can also be left alone (if we can avoid the land grab by industrialists and builders) to let nature restore itself and become a carbon dioxide  sump, allowing rural areas and city limits to become the lungs once again. As these farms are city farms, the amount of time and energy reduced to get the food to the consumer also reduces the carbon miles generated today by our eating apples from Australia and melons from Israel. Another great advantage is that this farming uses no pesticides or agrochemicals – food is grown in water fed with the correct microscopic amounts of nutrients, or on wire meshes bathed in a spray of water with controlled amounts of what healthy soil would produce.

To many of us this might sound like science fiction. In fact most of these experiments are no longer experiments but highly successful working models at different places. What is required is the government will to invest heavily in the first few vertical farms, with all the required ancillary sciences and agro-industries in tow to take a giant leap forward to get us out of the current quagmire of related problems.

Quoting the author, “By applying state-of-the-art controlled-environment agriculture technologies as an integrated system contained within a multi-story building the world could rapidly become a much better place to welcome the next generation of human beings.

February 6th, 2011, DNA


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