I have seen the future of food production and I’m not sure I like it. Our soil is in deep trouble such that, according to one UN report, there are only 60 harvests left. We are going to have to find new and better ways to grow our food.
One response to this crisis is to set up vertical farms - trays of crops grown on vast mobile shelves in huge, digitally enabled greenhouse structures, devoid of human contact. People are kept out and the plants are grown in little or no earth, fed nutrients by smart systems and tended by robotics to minimise the risk of disease. This approach is gaining traction to the extent that Ikea is investing millions of pounds trialling such a system in Dubai.
Alternatives to current farming methods are needed because of the rate at which our soil is being degraded. 95% of food production relies on soil - and the quality of the soil determines the quality of our food. Soil that is rich in nutrients contributes to food which can nourish the body. But across the globe soils are becoming so barren that whole communities are being forced to move. This is not a new problem and the dust bowl of 1930’s America, caused in part by agricultural devastation, led Roosevelt to declare that “a nation which destroys its soil destroys itself”. The rate of soil degradation caused by current farming practices has lent a new urgency to his words.
Industrial farming methods also contribute to global warming. Intensive agriculture requires around 12 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food by comparison with organic methods which take 6 calories of fossil fuel energy for the same result, and small scale farming where only one calorie of fossil fuel is needed to produce one calorie of food. In terms of the target to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050 food production is clearly a major factor.
Furthermore, 30 to 50 billion tons of top soil are being lost every year – the equivalent of 15 football pitches every minute - and when this is set alongside the realisation that it takes 1000 years for 10cm of soil to form, the scale of the problem is laid bare. Soil is needed as a carbon sink and yet the rate at which land is being ploughed up is causing the release of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Adding all this to the fact that the global population is set to rise to 8.3 billion by 2030 requiring 50% more food and 30% more water, it is clear that new approaches to food production are urgently needed.
My disillusion at the highly technical solution of vertical farming to the huge and complex problems that we face is underpinned by a sense that as human beings, our connection with the land is - in the literal sense of the word - vital. Even though more than half the world’s population now lives in an urban setting, it is through our contact with the natural world that we understand ourselves as living beings, part of the web of life. If this connection is lost we lose our understanding of the need to care for the planet.
But there is hope. At a conference on 'Soil Matters' which took place in June in Morvern on the west coast of Scotland (organised by the Andrew Raven Trust) vertical farming was just one of the solutions that was discussed.
We heard about the role of urban green spaces as carbon sinks. 60% of London, for example, is green space, and many other cities across the world have large areas of parkland and gardens. These areas must be retained because they play an important part. In New York it has been found, encouragingly, that new soils are forming. We heard about different methods for enriching the soil, for example through the addition of charcoal which builds soil structure, aids water retention and helps fight disease. Different methods of animal grazing are being trialled whereby animals are moved around between enclosures more frequently allowing the soil time to recover. The role of peat in sequestering carbon is now understood and there are increasing efforts to stop harvesting it and rather to retain, protect and restore peat bogs. And carbon markets are being developed to reward soil improvement and carbon storage.
Alongside such measures there is growing understanding of what needs to be done to preserve and enrich the soil. But we need to listen - and act now.
Vertical farming certainly offers one way forward, one that we should be grateful for given the scale of the challenge. But if we acknowledge the crisis now and change our food production methods as part of a global response to climate breakdown and the crisis of soil, we will be able to continue with low tech, community-based methods alongside high tech solutions. Both are needed. As with everything, one size does not fit all. Instead a diverse panoply of initiatives is required, and required now.
In the words of the native American Chief Seattle “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.” We need to look after it.