In her August 21 pieces “Can Urban Agriculture Work on a Commercial Scale?” and “Five Urban Farms that are Growing Big” published in Citiscope, journalist Flavie Halais enthuses over the potential for small scale urban agriculture, vertical farming, and innovative ways to connect producers and consumers. In doing so, she ignores some very real pitfalls that have long relegated urban food production to the realm of hobbyists.
Pitfall #1: Urban land is too valuable to be devoted profitably to food production
Until a century ago many foods that did not travel well, or benefitted from organic waste (primarily horse manure) generated in cities, were still produced in and around large urban agglomerations.
For instance, in the late 19th century Parisian maraîchers grew more than 100,000 tons of produce annually by using about one-sixth of the city’s land area.1 Beginning in the 1820s with green asparagus, many of them managed to grow several things year round and a few even became pineapple producers. Unlike today’s locavores, who advocate eating locally-produced foods, they always sought the best customers and exported some of their harvests to markets as distant as London.
In the absence of modern technologies such as electricity, refrigeration, and synthetic pesticides though, this de facto “organic” system required much human labor. Accounts describe how most Parisian producers worked between 18 and 20 hours a day during their busiest months and between 14 and 16 the rest of the year. Much of their time was spent in or around horse manure and was devoted to controlling pests and irrigating crops manually.
Urban agriculture in Paris and elsewhere quickly faded away at the turn of the twentieth century. The development of new technologies such as the railroad, refrigeration and improved fertilizers made it possible to grow food much more cheaply where nature provided more sunshine, heat, water and better soils. The movers and shakers in more profitable industries that benefitted from an urban location were willing and able to pay more for land while urban agricultural workers moved in ever-increasing numbers into more lucrative manufacturing operations. These realities haven’t changed. Urban farming simply does not create enough return on investment from scarce capital relative to other activities in cities.
Pitfall #2: The productions costs of vertical farming are prohibitive
The fundamental problem with growing food in high-rise buildings has always been that the additional costs (from building and powering to lighting and heating them) quickly negate any benefits attributable to an urban location. As the agricultural economist Dennis Avery observed a few years ago in a discussion of a 59-story proposal of this kind:2
• 500,000 such skyscrapers would be needed to make up for the 400 million acres of American farmland;
• Buying a comparable amount of Iowa cropland would cost about $5 million, a sum that would at best buy about an acre of land in Manhattan, on top of which a very costly high rise structure would need to be built;
• Each floor of the vertical farm would have to support about 620,000 pounds of either water or water-soaked soil (by comparison, 200 people and their office furniture weigh about 40,000 pounds);
• Replacing sunlight with “grow lights” and heating the structure in winter would require gigawatts of power (ask the illegal marijuana growers about their need for a lot of electricity);
• Feeding livestock (typically chickens and pigs) in vertical farms requires trucking in large amounts of animal feeds (typically a four-to-one weight ratio in the case of pigs) while the current alternative is simply to transport pork chops into cities;
• City taxes and labor costs are always much higher than in the countryside.
Other problems with vertical farms and rooftop operations include the facts that they can never be as convenient and generate the same economies of scale as large land-based operations (try using a tractor on a rooftop). They might also mandate the nearby construction of additional processing operations if these cannot be incorporated in the original structure. Imagine the impracticalities and the smell of a vertical slaughterhouse and the additional traffic problems that would result from moving livestock between buildings in a downtown area.
In the best case scenario, vertical farming can only ever hope to be profitable through the production of high-end/higher-margin plant items that cater to a wealthy customer base – typically one that believes in the alleged benefits of reducing food miles or the superior nutritional value of organic products, and can afford to pay the higher prices necessary for such productions.3 This is a far cry from the affordable and abundant food promised by local food activists.
Pitfall #3: Undervaluing wholesalers and retailers
A foundational pillar of the local food creed, Halais reminds her readers, is the desire to “limit the number of intermediaries along the supply chain”. Unfortunately, many idealistic producers whose heart was in producing things rather than selling them quickly found themselves drowning “under marketing and distribution costs” and “struggling to find retail channels for their products.” “Getting food to consumers,” Halais adds, typically turned into “a logistical nightmare.”
There is another obvious question: How is it that wholesalers and retailers are now as important as ever when no producer is ever forced to deal with them? In reality, the benefits of intermediaries is so obvious that they were even noted in Plato’s Republic more than two millennia ago. As one philosopher observed to another, permanent salesmen used “money-token for purposes of exchange” to facilitate transactions between “those who desire to sell” and “those who desire to buy” when individuals could not meet in person.4
Closer to us, in 1815 Benjamin Constant wrote approvingly of the middleman class found “between the grain producer and the consumer.” These people benefitted society, he argued, because they had “more funds than the producer and more resources for setting up warehouses.” Because they dealt “solely with this trade,” they could “study better the needs they undertake to meet” and “free the farmer from having to get involved in speculations which absorb his time, divert his resources, and drive him into the middle of towns.” While these middlemen had “to be paid for their trouble,” so did “the farmer himself” although “at greater cost” because he was not as effective and skillfull. “This extra expense,” Constant observes, “comes back to the consumer, whom [anti middlemen] people thought they were helping.”5
Pitfall #4: An urban location does not keep agricultural pests at bay
Halais further tells us that the founders of Lufa Farms, a Montreal based urban agriculture firm, have developed an approach that “exclude pesticides, herbicides or fungicides” while using “biological pest control to get rid of harmful bugs.” Not surprisingly, the reader later learns that they had never worked on a farm or in the food industry before launching their business.
Suffice it to say that insecticides, rodenticides, herbicides, fungicides and other pesticides were developed because of the very real shortcomings of biological methods. Although they are costly, all commercial agricultural operations (including organic ones) feel compelled to use some of them because they deliver value for money. Given enough time, agricultural pests will show up in Lufa Farms’s greenhouses and they will need to be dealt with quickly, cheaply and efficiently. After all, insects and plant diseases found their way in the Biosphere 2 project, a self-contained ecosystem in the middle of the Arizona desert, where they ruined the experiment.6 When this happens, these sustainability pioneers will understand why commercial producers use means they do not approve of.
Pitfall #5: Failure to learn from failure
Halais doesn’t ask whether pretty much anything that can be achieved in an urban context could be done for much less money in rural areas. She does not discuss the failure of past local food movements as well as more recent high tech urban farming operations.
The history of all advanced economies over the last two centuries is replete with local food initiatives triggered by either economic recessions (to boost regional economic activity or as a form of protection against price inflation), wars or their threat (to increase local food security), romantic impulses during relatively prosperous times (for environmental and social considerations), alleged excessive commodity travel (meaning too much transit between various points as opposed to a more straightforward distribution itinerary between producers and final consumers), and unnecessary handling by too many profit-seeking intermediaries.7 Yet, none of these ever survived the end of armed conflicts, economic recovery or competition from more efficient commercial operations.
At the same time, projects similar to those described by Halais have already gone out of business. Indeed, had she written her report out of Vancouver instead of Montréal she would have had to mention and analyze the bankruptcy of the heavily subsidized parking lot rooftop greenhouse run by Alterrus Systems about a year after its launch.8
Failure to analyze failures can only result in more failures. History may not repeat itself, but can be instructive as we learn from the failures of others.
The More Things Change…
What today’s enthusiastic locavores ultimately fail to understand is that their “innovative” ideas are not only up against the Monsantos of this world, but also in a direct collision course with regional advantages for certain types of food production, economies of scale of various kinds in all lines of work and the fact that pretty much anything they can achieve in urban environments can be replicated at lower costs in the countryside. These basic realities defeated sophisticated local food production systems in the past and will do so again in the foreseeable future.
While no one argues against the notion that our modern food production system can be improved, and entrepreneurs are always searching how to do so, the desire to make urban agricultural a viable commercial reality distracts from more serious issues such as international trade barriers and counterproductive domestic agricultural subsidies. The sooner well-intentioned activists understand these realities, the better.
Pierre Desrochers Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto and co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, PublicAffairs, 2012.
1 See, among others, G. Stanhill. 1977. “An Urban Agro-Ecosystem. The Example of Nineteenth Century Paris.” Agro-Ecosystems 3: 269–284.
2 D. Avery. 2010. “City Farming – Pigs in the Sky” Center for Global Food Issues (October 19) http://www.cgfi.org/2010/10/city-farming%e2%80%94pigs-in-the-sky-by-dennis-t-avery/
3 On why many customers are wrong on these topics, see among others G. Edwards-Jones. 2010. "Does Eating Local Food Reduce the Environmental Impact of Food Production and Enhance Consumer Health?" Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 69 (4): 582-591; P. Desrochers and H. Shimizu. 2012. The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet. http://www.globavore.org , Public Affairs; L. Bergström, H. Kirchmann and G. Thorvaldsson. 2008. "Widespread Opinions about Organic Agriculture - Are They Supported by Scientific Evidence?" In H. Kirchmann and L. Bergström (eds). Organic Crop Production - Ambitions and Limitations. Springer, pp. 1-12; and C. Smith-Spangler et al. 2012. "Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review." Annals of Internal Medicine 157 (5): 348-366.
5 B. Constant. 1815. Principles of Politics Applicable to all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). Chapter Four: On Privileges and Prohibitions http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/861/109045/2279752 on 2013-03-10
6 D.V Marino, T. R. Mahato, J. W. Druitt, L. Leigh, G. Lin, R. M. Russell and F. N. Tubiello. 1999. “The Agricultural Biome of Biosphere 2: Structure, Composition and Function.” Ecological Engineering 13: 199-234
7 For a discussion of such initiatives in the American context, see among others L. J. Lawson. 2005. City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. University of California Press. For a few additional international cases, see P. Desrochers and H. Shimizu. 2012. The Locavore’s Dilemma. In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet. http://www.globavore.org, PublicAffairs.
8 CBC News. 2014. “Parking Lot Greenhouse Goes Bankrupt in Vancouver. Alterrus Opened North America's First 'Vertical Farm' Just over One Year Ago.” (January 24) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/parking-lot-greenhouse-goes-bankrupt-in-vancouver-1.2510245