The Future Has Begun

Vertical farms will take eating local to the next level — but are they safe?

Image courtesy of Atelier SoA Architects

Bryan Gilvesy doesn’t appreciate being asked first how much his beef costs. In fact, if you ask him the price before anything else, he might just refuse to sell it to you. It’s not that he’s a particularly grouchy guy; he simply knows what’s involved in producing tender, lean, clean beef — and that level of knowledge and care isn’t without cost.

Gilvesy is a fifty-one-year-old farmer in southwestern Ontario who has worked the land since he was nineteen and has, quite possibly, seen the future. For the past fifteen years, he has been raising Texas longhorn cattle, a genetically diverse breed, which roam as they would in the wild through relatively disease-free lives, eating a wide variety of plants, and calving without human interference. For the former tobacco grower, the longhorns were the first in a long chain of dominoes.

His farm — 100 hectares of arable land and 45 hectares of reforested woodlot — is almost entirely sustainable now. He maintains a pure coldwater stream for trout, using a solar pump to deliver the water to his cattle in the field; 30 birdhouses for the bluebirds that eat the flies off his cows’ backs; and a place for native bees to proliferate. Gilvesy says the tipping point came four years ago, when he planted three hectares of drought-resistant tall grass prairie, a deep-rooting ecosystem that provides nesting habitat for several bird species but has been in decline in Ontario. He doesn’t disturb the grassland until late July, when it’s mature and has served its purpose; then he allows his cattle to feed on the top growth. “We’ve developed a new way of doing business,” he says. “Grocers have spent careers making you think beef is beef is beef — Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, grass fed, corn fed. But beef isn’t beef. My beef costs more because of what goes into it.”

Gilvesy’s timing couldn’t be better. He sells his hormone-free meat directly to his customers, rather than going through meat packers and distributors, and the feedback he’s receiving from these farm-gate transactions tells him that food quality and the environment are becoming big issues. It’s a no-brainer for him: “We believe we’ve made the environment better, we’ve produced a healthier food supply, and we’re getting more rewards from the marketplace. There are a lot of wins in farming this way.”

Maybe we didn’t give it too much thought when eating a medium rare hamburger stopped being an option; after all, no one would think twice about passing on underdone chicken. But in recent years, it seems caution lights are flashing over pretty much everything in North America: carrot juice in Florida and Georgia tainted with botulism, bagged spinach from central California found to contain E. coli, raspberries imported from Guatemala infected with a parasite, cases of E. coli and salmonella traced to alfalfa sprouts in Michigan and Virginia. This past summer, jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico were contaminated with salmonella — an outbreak that, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, affected almost 1,500 people in forty-three states and Canada. Then there was polluted cantaloupe from Honduras, and adulterated milk products from China. Of course, last summer belonged to Maple Leaf Foods, whose Toronto plant was infected with the listeria bacterium, subsequently linked to the deaths of at least twenty people across the country.

A bad few years? Maybe. But more likely the tip of the iceberg. “The infrastructure on which our present food system is based is unsustainable at every level, from the seed to the table,” says Herb Barbolet, a food policy researcher at Simon Fraser University and one of North America’s leading food activists. “The premises it’s built on, at least in North America — corporate concentration, export marketing, globalization, heavy reliance on energy — they’re all susceptible to collapse.”

While the threats to global industrialized agriculture are diverse, from the potential of bioterrorism to the reality of extreme weather wiping out crops in a flash, nothing gets people really thinking about the food supply quite as effectively as the topic of food-and water-borne diseases. According to a survey comparing seventeen industrialized countries, released earlier this year by the University of Regina, Canada ranks fifth for food safety, behind the UK, Japan, Denmark, and Australia. Nevertheless, we’re hearing more about tainted food today precisely because more cases are showing up; according to the cdc, one in four Americans a year now gets food poisoning, commonly caused by E. coli, a bacillus found in the intestines of humans and animals and transmitted primarily through fecal matter. When crops and livestock are raised together in tight quarters on an industrial scale, food easily becomes contaminated through direct contact with animals or manure, or as a result of poor hygiene by workers. Then E. coli ends up on your dinner plate.

Globalization amplifies the problem.

Last June, scientists gathered in Boston for a general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology to discuss how cheaper labour costs outside North America will lead to more imports — and more food-borne diseases. In 2004, for the first time, they said, the US imported more than it exported. Two years later, 80 percent of the fish and seafood sold there was shipped in, much of it from Asia, where raw sewage and livestock manure are often used as fertilizer in fish farming.

Government food inspectors cannot keep up. In 2001, for example, the US Food and Drug Administration reported that more than a quarter of the tainted seafood imports it identified were contaminated with salmonella, and more than half of those were shrimp. But the volume of imports is so high that the fda cannot inspect even 1 percent of what comes into the country.

“Salmonella is conventionally an animal organism, in birds or mammals,” says veterinarian and epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews, author of the book Food, Sex and Salmonella. “So what’s this about it showing up in plants? ” He tells of a friend who investigated a place where almonds — whose popularity has grown exponentially in recent years — were being grown. He found that farmers had planted the trees so densely, and the level of organic matter under the trees was so thick, that salmonella was actually growing in the soil.

“Suddenly, we’re all inside the animal,” says the vet in his characteristically vivid manner of speaking. “It’s no longer simply a matter of having the chicken and tomatoes on the counter and there’s cross-contamination; that’s the more conventional stuff. But when it becomes systemic and gets into the soil, and the produce itself, then it’s more problematic. You don’t know where it’s lurking anymore.”

While the problems in the system are certainly grand, the common “solutions” tend to focus narrowly, as Waltner-Toews notes, on “these tomatoes, in these fields.” Technology for identifying the source of contaminants has improved dramatically: particular strains of a disease, for example, can be traced by their dna fingerprints. But that doesn’t mean much if a contaminated crop is distributed across North America. “By the time it gets to the grocery store, you don’t know where it came from,” he says. In fact, your food may well travel thousands of kilometres before it reaches your table.

That frustrates Laura Young, a food advocate raised on a farm her family still owns in the Holland Marsh, a flat, fertile tract of land north of Toronto that produces $50 million worth of produce a year. Grocery stores in the area sell imported vegetables when the same ones are growing literally steps away. This past spring, Young and another food advocate started the Holland Marsh Greenbelt Association, which included establishing a farmers’ market. Now they are focusing on the idea of a national food preparedness program. “Our government asks us to be prepared to feed ourselves for seventy-two hours in case of a disaster,” explains Young. “So why shouldn’t we expect our government to preserve, secure, and organize our food resources to feed us now and in the future?”

Young believes farmers involved in such a program should be treated as emergency personnel. If outside food supplies were suddenly cut off, they would know what was available and what could be set aside for people in their area, including, in this case, Toronto. An emergency transportation plan would also have to be in place. “It would actually be a blueprint or a template for a community to value its food resources and know how to protect them and access them in times of emergency.”

To achieve true security, however, the food system must undergo a massive change, experts say. That means reducing its dependence on cheap fuel, which is fast disappearing anyway, and getting rid of redundancies — the importing of what we export, for example. Most important, it means elevating food to a loftier place on the priority list, and expecting to pay more for something better.

“Cheap food is the problem nobody wants to name,” says Wayne Roberts, acting manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council. “It’s forcing everyone to drive prices down, and it’s totally irrational.” Waltner-Toews agrees: “Rich people want protein, and they don’t want to pay high prices for it. The only way you can really do that is through economies of scale: instead of 500 or 1,000 chickens on a farm, you have 50,000 or 100,000; if you can make these birds grow faster, that also helps the price. You’re just creating epidemic conditions.”

Much of the food in grocery stores, schools, even hospitals, is distributed by just four or five global food service companies. It is cheap because it is bought in mass quantities from as few places as possible — imported from countries where labour costs are low. “Tell me how much Maple Leaf saved by having a centralized system,” says Roberts. “The system has no stability to it, because it violates every principle of nature and economics.”

The solution is painfully obvious and simple, most agree, but not so easy to implement. Many of the food issues of concern in the developed world boil down to the same things: not only do we want food to be cheap, we want it year round, whether it’s in season or not. So, again, we rely on a handful of global sources to bring us food from other countries, often at the expense of the content (the longer the wait between picking and eating a fruit or vegetable, for example, the lower its nutritional value), and often from places where farming practices are riskier. These methods force local, small-scale growers and processors out of business, which only perpetuates the problem.

Herb Barbolet, like many others, believes the necessary reinvention of the food system involves, in a sense, taking several steps backward — localizing, relocalizing, and/or creating from scratch. He farmed organically for a decade and co-founded FarmFolk/CityFolk, a non-profit society based in Vancouver dedicated to creating local, sustainable food systems. “There’s a lot of work going into creating demand for local produce,” he says, “but very little done on creating supply.” The latter is extremely complex and requires a sea change in respect for farmers, for farmland, and for water. “It challenges the ideology of the metaphysicists who call themselves economists that the market is what rules.”

Nonetheless, there are encouraging signs. Across North America, individuals and groups — food policy councils, community economic development centres, academics, health and nutrition experts — are working to improve the food system. Shoppers are starting to pay more attention to agricultural policy and, through local farmers’ markets, are spending more of their food dollars closer to home. At the moment, most of these efforts are disconnected; what is needed now, experts say, is collaboration at all levels. “We need a lot more entrepreneurs, a lot more skilled people, a lot more farmers and fishers and ranchers,” says Barbolet. “And to make it viable for them to stay in or to get in, we have to change the economic system we’re operating under.”

More than a year ago, Barbolet helped create a network of networks called Local Food First in BC, which facilitates collaboration and co-operation among everyone from restaurateurs and food purveyors to government representatives and private consultants. “It’s about linking up and trying to increase the efficiency of the various members — about reinforcing and supporting each of the separate initiatives,” he explains.

If you ask Barbolet what kind of model he has in mind, he names Emilia-Romagna, a fertile region of northern Italy known for its food industry. There, he says, the market is simultaneously co-operative and competitive. “They don’t understand Americans — they can’t imagine why you’d try to kill your competition.” Instead, they peacefully coexist, “and then compete like hell to have the best product possible.” In terms of food policies, Barbolet says Cuba has the most elegant in the world. Since 1989, when the country was suddenly plunged into a crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had until then supplied food and provisions), Cuba has become one of the most outstanding examples of urban agriculture. Bearing in mind that much of its land is state owned and therefore not subject to competition, farming is managed by city residents on tiny plots, and provides fresh local produce for much of the country, as well as some 350,000 jobs.

On a smaller scale, similar supply systems are cropping up in Canada and the US. Nevin Cohen, an expert in environmental planning and an assistant professor of urban studies at the New School for Liberal Arts in New York, documents some of the many communities incorporating residential housing and working farms in the December 3, 2007, issue of The Nation. One of the most successful, he writes, is Prairie Crossing, a self-described conservation community about sixty-five kilometres northwest of Chicago. Connected to the city by two rail stations, its 359 single-family homes and 36 condominiums coexist with prairie grasslands, wetlands, and 62 hectares of organic farmland. “Carving out farmland and farmers’ markets in the midst of homes,” Cohen writes, “these communities offer unusually inclusive spaces where residents can bond with their neighbours and with the people growing and selling food. They enable residents to know, quite intimately, the sources and attributes of the food they buy, encouraging producers in turn to adopt more transparent production methods.”

Lori Stahlbrand has been thinking about food for a long time. The former cbc broadcaster and co-author of the book Real Food for a Change was working for the World Wildlife Fund Canada in 2000, trying to reduce pesticide use in Ontario agricultural operations, when she decided to start a program dedicated to establishing a sustainable food system. For the past three years, Stahlbrand has been president of Local Food Plus, an award-winning Toronto organization that links institutions with local food. “A lot of people out there wanted to support a new way of doing agriculture,” she says, “but the only way they could was through small-scale projects, like buying at a farmers’ market, or buying certified organics, which were increasingly coming from California or farther afield. If we wanted to give people a chance to support local sustainable food systems, we had to give them a way to identify them.”

Stahlbrand’s first target was universities. Like most large institutions, universities contract out to one of three major food service companies. Influencing how those companies did business, Stahlbrand figured, was the key. “Universities can have a really enormous impact,” she says. “They have buying power, they have clout, and they can start playing a role in changing the system.” In 2005, she found a willing partner in New College at the University of Toronto. The college was renewing contracts for food services, and Stahlbrand and her team helped write new requirements that 10 percent of the food budget be supplied from local sources, with a 5 percent annual increase. The changes went into effect in September 2006, enabling her to raise more money and approach farmers. In the meantime, other colleges at U of T have come on board, and Stahlbrand is now deluged by calls from schools wanting to set up similar programs. Last year, Local Food Plus moved about a million dollars’ worth of local, sustainable food to schools, and about two dozen restaurants and small retailers. Last fall, they added half a dozen medium-sized retailers to their stable.

Local Food Plus certifies farmers as local sustainable growers; they are rated, using a point system, on their production systems — crop or animal — as well as on energy efficiency, labour conditions, biodiversity, and animal welfare. Those who earn the requisite points are actively linked to supply chains, and get a 10 percent premium on their food.

Rebuilding actual relationships among suppliers, distributors, and buyers, and encouraging them to work in new ways, is essential. “Toronto Public Health did a study a while ago and found that Toronto would have three days’ worth of food if the borders were to close,” says Stahlbrand. “Meanwhile, we’re paving over our best agricultural land in southern Ontario. Can you blame farmers for selling out? It’s taken fifty years to dismantle the local food distribution system.” She is confident things will improve once this new way of business is established. “But we’re now working against the flow.”

Stahlbrand’s husband is coming at the whole issue of food from a different angle. Wayne Roberts’ food policy council, the first of its kind in Canada, is appointed by the Toronto Board of Health and made up of city councillors and volunteers from various backgrounds. Roberts and his group are trying to change the way government thinks about food. “You could read a lot of stuff and not read about food,” he says. “It would be nutrition or a compost department or a safety department, but it would never be food as a whole thing that goes from seed to farm fork to plate fork to compost. If you look at a city, or any government, it’s organized around the premise that there is no food. There is a waste pro-gram.” Roberts’ group reminds the municipal government that there are many aspects to the food issue. “And that enables us to come up with solutions that benefit many groups.”

Politically and socially, Toronto is ahead of the curve, with forward-thinking organizations, community gardening, and a community food security board. “We helped put green roofs on the North American agenda in the early 1990s,” says Roberts. The Toronto Official Plan of 2002, which just took effect last year, was one of the first in North America to deal with food. “Now the position is that city planners must respond to food issues.” Other food policy councils are on their way: one is operating in Vancouver now, and councils are forming in Montreal and Victoria and across the US.

And a growing number of consumers are clearly ready for change. “This is not a crisis-driven movement,” says Roberts. “It’s about authenticity and the concern that we don’t know where food is coming from. It’s part of a genuine re-evaluation.” He also credits the fact that there is increased disposable income for food and a large group prepared to pay. In addition, immigration growth has made an impact. “Most cultures in the world have not been so alienated from nature and from their own bodies,” he adds. “However low their income, they’ve come here with a reasonably high level of skill around cooking and a preference for fresh food and whole food.”

By far one of the most fantastical and massive concepts for the future of food came out of a medical ecology course at Columbia University in New York nine years ago. It began with the premise that if you damage the environment there will be health risks, and with the desire to do something locally that would have global implications. The idea has now been refined and reworked by eighty-two students; the first class focused on the possibilities of rooftop gardening in Manhattan.

Initial results were disappointing: the study identified thirteen acres of suitable rooftop in the city, with rice as the crop most likely to succeed — but that yield would feed a mere 2 percent of Manhattan residents. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health, urged his students to move their operations inside, to reimagine abandoned apartment buildings, air force bases, empty lots. He coined the term “vertical farming” to help them visualize indoor spaces that could be converted to hydroponics, or aeroponics, a growing method that entails the constant spraying of suspended plants with nutrient-rich water.

While the idea of growing fruits and vegetables indoors on a massive scale may seem absurd, nasa scientists had already begun to research the potential of hydroponic vegetables, and Despommier’s students were able to use some of the information collected by the US space agency. As he says, it turns out there isn’t anything you can’t grow indoors — including a redwood tree. “You can control the growth characteristics; you can stack crops on top of each other. We began to look around and say, who’s doing this? The answer is nobody. Not a single person is growing food in tall buildings.”

There are myriad problems to work out in the prototype stage: how much water would be needed, how much and what kind of energy to use, and so on. Waste is an important issue, because if you don’t deal with this, Despommier says, then the structure is not viable, and it becomes a burden. In his vision, agricultural runoff doesn’t exist; black water (waste water containing biological effluent) and grey water (which contains no food or body waste) are purified by the plants and recycled. Furthermore, energy could potentially be derived from human waste. Each component of this plan exists now. “All are being done in small scales around the world. We have to pull them all together, put them under one roof.”

Already, several people have weighed in with fabulous, futuristic building designs, including Despommier, who designed one vertical farm that looks like an extraterrestrial pyramid. In his mind, the prototype might be four or five storeys tall (and would cost $20 million to $30 million to build). Once enough is known, potentially within a couple of years, the first full-scale version could be built: a thirty-storey building that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and could theoretically feed 50,000 people. He acknowledges the risks associated with such centralization, but an argument could be made for having hospitals and schools — even individual apartment buildings — produce enough food to become self-sufficient.

Naturally, as a growing area is magnified, so is the potential for problems. Chief among them, of course, are pests, which in a vertical farm could potentially have a devastating impact. But Despommier thinks if plants are offered the same protection as patients suffer-ing from immunosuppression — that is, workers would go through the same drill as staff in a hospital or high-tech electronics factory — then a building could be made pest-and disease-free.

As for the energy needs of vertical farms, Despommier is considering a resource unlikely to be depleted: deriving power from human feces.

In an average year, he says, the bodily waste generated by 7.5 million New Yorkers could be converted into 900 million kilowatt hours of electricity. “What’s wrong with that? ” he says. “Not a goddamn thing.”His vision has generated interest among city officials across the US. Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer is putting together a feasibility study on vertical farming for the mayor of New York. Officials in Portland, Oregon, are pondering its potential. And in Seattle, a similar but smaller design for an urban agriculture centre won a green building contest in 2007; the proposal would grow grains, produce, and even chickens to provide a third of the food for the building’s 400 residents — all on a fraction of a hectare.

A similarly grand project, albeit on a smaller scale, has been quietly chugging away for a decade, two hundred kilo-metres north of the Arctic Circle. Behind Igloo Church, at the corner of Gwich’in Road and Breynat Street, is the Inuvik Community Greenhouse, the northernmost commercial hothouse on the continent. Since November 1998, the former hockey arena has been home to a variety of crops and flowers over two areas: a 12,000-square-foot community garden, where residents and local groups can tend to their own; and a 4,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse that pays for itself. Despite a relatively short season — mid-May to late September — eight weeks of non-stop sun intensifies the growth. Now residents of Inuvik, whose mean temperature is minus 9.7°C, have access to fresh local produce for as many months of the year as most of the rest of Canada.

Demand for Bryan Gilvesy’s beef is growing steadily. This year, he will process between forty and fifty animals; last year, he added fourteen heifers to his breeding herd; the year before, nine. He knows his market has room to expand, and he’s comfortable raising his prices. “We find our customers are motivated by a lack of trust in the mainstream food distribution system,” he explains. “They need to trust the quality of the food and the cleanliness of it [that it is hormone and antibiotic free], and they love to see that we care for the environment.” Hundreds of visitors have toured his farm to see how his operation works; other growers in the area are increasingly interested in farming more sustainably.

Slowly, slowly, things are starting to change. But the necessarily massive systemic overhaul is still far from a reality. “For every solution we’re trying, we have to battle against all sorts of regulations and impediments,” says Barbolet. “But if a transnational wants to bring in a genetically modified product, it gets subsidies. It’s ass backwards.” Nothing he and others envision will take fewer than twenty or thirty years, at best, to put in place. However, he says, “there’s no other choice.”

Nora Underwood