Should ‘vertical’ factory farms get a free pass?

Courtesy of Fast Company

In a recent Fast Company magazine article there was a feature on the benefits of using technology to produce food. The article praised the efficiency gains made by implementing the latest in what technology could provide. The farm in the article is located in San Francisco. That’s right, it’s a vertical farm. The company’s name is Plenty, and it looks to provide local food on an industrial scale. The company tagline is: Local produce everywhere. It’s a revolution, without the pitchforks.

The Fast Company article is a great illustration of how confused people are about food production. When you have Silicon Valley pushing the acceptance of vertical industrial agriculture on some of the same merits that conventional horizontal agriculture provides I get a little worked up.

“When you’re not outside and you’re no longer constrained by the sun, you can do things that make it easier for humans to do work and work faster, and for machines to work faster.”

The message being relayed is: when you farm vertically technology is good, but when you farm horizontally, it’s bad.

Large horizontal farmers are constantly labelled as “factory farms” due to the scale of the operations based on the push toward efficiency. But the CEO of Plenty even says “Growing at a small scale, you can’t get to the labor efficiencies that you need. It requires, in essence, too many people.”

Hear what Lyndsey, Shaun and Kelvin said about Plenty on May 19 RealAg Radio Show

In my opinion, if you are growing crops in a building, with four walls with a roof and artificial sunlight, you are actually the true definition of a factory farm. You should not be given a pass because you are a cool tech startup that claims “no GMO” and no pesticides.

Another important point submitted to me by a RealAg fan is that while vertical farming may be okay for growing “water crops” like cukes and tomatoes, the reality is that it will never be able to effectively produce crops that will sustain life, i.e. crops that produce energy (in the form of starch and fat) and protein. No insult to important vegetable and fruit foods like cukes and tomatoes, but they are not capable of sustaining life as are cereals, oilseeds, pulses, and root crops, for which vertical farming just ain’t gonna cut it. This is another point that should be brought into the discussions and hype about concepts like vertical farming, urban gardening, rooftop farms, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, vertical farming has major benefits in deserted inner cities, providing local produce, efficient use of water and implementation of technology but … vertical farming should not get a free pass on implementing many of the same strategies and techniques as horizontal farming just because venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley said you should accept it and throw away the horizontal version of agriculture.

If these technologies are good when vertical, then consumers should not have a problem with the horizontal versions, but we all know that would make too much sense.

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