DR. DICKSON DESPOMMIER spent thirty-eight years as a professor of microbiology and public health in environmental health sciences at Columbia, where he won the Best Teacher award six times. In 2003, he was awarded the American Medical Student Association Golden Apple Award for teaching. He has addressed audiences at leading universities including Harvard and MIT, and he has also been invited to speak at the United Nations. In addition, he has been asked by governments of China, India, Mexico, Jordan, Brazil, Canada, and Korea to work on environmental problems. Despommier lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

 

I was about to give my rehearsal talk at a recent TEDx conference when a rather distinguished looking older woman (another presenter at the same conference) approached me, and with a stern facial expression that one could only interpret as constrained hostility, stared directly into my eyes and confronted me: ”Please stop this foolish crusade advocating for vertical farms in cities. A man with your amount of influence and education should know better”. She stopped just short of poking her index finger deeply into my chest as she ranted. Having finished her tersely delivered directive, she pivoted smartly in military fashion and walked off into the empty darkened auditorium to await her turn at our practice session. I barely had the opportunity to thank her for being so forthright, candid, and above all fearless about expressing her opinion of urban agriculture, and in specific for my role in propagating enthusiasm for it. Remarkably, I resisted following her to her seat and getting into a heated argument/discussion with her about climate change and the demise of agriculture in general. Instead, I went on about the business at hand and gave my eighteen minutes on the virtues of urban agriculture and the role that vertical farming might play in its development. It occurred to me upon much reflection that what she really might have meant to say was that vertical farming will never be able to replace outdoor farming so why bother trying. In her own talk, she spoke passionately of the population explosion and too many mouths to feed, but did not expound even a little as to what she might want do to alleviate the situation. Her primary concern appeared to be about her newly arrived grandchild and the depressing future it and the next few generations of humans will have to face. Very depressing, really. Her message was not dissimilar from that of Al Gore or James Lovelock as to the state of the planet; lots of depressing data and no apparent solutions on the horizon. In all my experience as a public speaker I do not recall ever having expressed the idea that vertical farming should replace all outdoor farming as the only solution to the ills of the world. Nonetheless, I think that was her take on what I was all about. Suffice it to say that since then I have endeavored to give better reasons for insinuating agriculture into the build environment.

Lets begin the argument in favor of urban agriculture by admitting that cities are the main reason we are in such a bad state of affairs with respect to rapid climate change and its deleterious effects on traditional agriculture. In 2011 for example, the United States lost some 110 billion dollars worth of grain crops due to a protracted drought throughout the American Midwest. Unless a miracle happens, it appears almost certain that the state of California will be the next victim of drought in 2014. This could affect virtually every US citizen, with significantly higher food prices and may even affect food availability, as well. Cities only occupy some 2-3 percent of the Earth’s landmass, but emit over seventy percent of the atmospheric carbon dioxide. Nearly fifty percent of us now live in cities. Seven billion people require farmland equivalent in landmass to the size of South America. This calculates out to an astounding 6,890,000 square miles! That means that cities need some 3,440,000 square miles of land to satisfy their daily caloric needs. From 1950s to the present, the Brazilian rainforest has been negatively impacted by encroachment, mainly for the sake of agriculture, sacrificing some 700,000 square miles of hardwood forest for farmland to feed its own growing population. Hm, you might say. Up to this point, the facts I’ve just presented seem to support the outlook forecasted by the doomer gloomers. But the built environment need not shoulder the entire burden of food production for there to be real hope for straightening out the mess we have made for ourselves. If cities produced just ten percent of the ground crops they currently consume, by employing sustainable indoor vertical farms and greenhouses to do so, then nearly half of the damaged portion of the Brazilian rainforest could theoretically be restored (340,000 square miles worth) and a significant amount of carbon would be sequestered as the result. This calculation is based on the fact that indoor farming is carried out year round and is over ninety percent efficient at producing food crops. By the way, outdoor farming is, at best, only fifty percent successful (insect pests, plant diseases, adverse weather conditions) and can only occur at temperatures that consistently average 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Enabling cities to be productive centers for locally grown vegetables, herbs, and fruits, might be all that is needed to turn the corner to a more sustainable future.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that we should work towards the creation of eco-cities that mimic in every way the functions necessary for sustaining an intact ecosystem, using our creative intellects and cutting-edged technologies to get the job done. Primary productivity is an essential feature of all ecosystems, so why not start with this activity as the basis for creating the eco-city? Today, it is easy to do, witness all the new varieties of vertical farms and rooftop greenhouses going up inside the built environment. Generating just ten percent of our farm production within the world’s cities just might be enough needed to slow down our runaway climate regime and give us some much needed time to figure out ways of dealing with rising sea levels, as the climate continues to challenge our quality of life on Planet Earth. 


Big news: a new vertical farm just opened in Bedford Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, the current epicenter of vertical farming in the United States. And it’s not just an ordinary vertical farm (if that term can be used at this early stage of this fledgling industry). It’s a really big commercial vertical farm, encompassing some 90,000 sq. ft. of growing space inside a two story-tall, windowless, abandoned warehouse. Called Farmed Here, it is designed to occupy the full extent of the indoor space of that facility – 150,000 sq. ft.! It currently produces oodles of tasty leafy greens (basil, arugula, etc.) and one value-added product, a vinaigrette. What’s more, Farmed Here will eventually employ some 200 people when it finally reaches its full production potential. With that much room to fill up with edible plants, and no outside sunlight to help it along, the energy budget might intimidate faint of heart entrepreneurs, but Farmed Here’s forward-looking CEO, Yolanta Hardej, expects that within just a year from now, her enterprise could be deriving most of its energy needs from composting, generating methane gas. A similar energy scheme will soon be employed by the highly successful vertical farm The Plant, located in the heart of the abandoned stockyards district of Chicago and run by John Edel and colleagues.

One gets the distinct impression, and correctly so, that the “City With Big Shoulders” is about to burst onto the global scene as a major player in urban sustainability, encouraged by a rising number of urban agricultural initiatives. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel has repeatedly endorsed urban agriculture as an integral part of that city’s push for long-term sustainability in several press conferences he has presided over within the past few months. Bloomberg Weekly News in January of 2013 declared that vertical farming would be a sound small business investment for the near future (images.businessweek.com/slideshows/20101105/20-small-businesses-of-the-future#slide20); Yahoo News agrees (http://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/advisor/five-careers-future-031453252.html).

A recent workshop I attended in Berlin, organized and sponsored by a branch of the German government exploring the prospects of federal funding for the developmeynt of vertical farms, attests to the fact that some countries (Korea, Japan, China, Germany) are getting wise to the fact that vertical farms may be the answer to many environmental issues, such as a rising atmospheric temperature and an out-of-control climate regime. Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., several other new vertical farm initiatives have been announced: “Green Girls” in Memphis, Tennessee, and Green Spirit Farms in New Buffalo, Michigan. Gotham Greens, a commercially successful high-tech 2,000 sq ft. greenhouse operation in Brooklyn, just announced that construction of another facility of theirs has begun (20,000 sq ft), and will be located on top of the new Whole Foods supermarket in the Gowanus section of that same borough of New York City. I can only hope that when that new facility achieves maximum production several years from now, but consumer demand for fresh, local produce still exceeds their capacity to provide for everyone in that neighborhood, then perhaps another floor’s worth of greenhouse will be added to Gotham Greens already existing structures, turning them into true vertical farms! This would naturally lead to the emergence of a friendly competition between The Big Apple and The Second City in promoting vertical farming as an integral part of all urban agricultural initiatives. Onward and upward!   


Newest Kids On The Block
2/23/2013 9:26:35 PM

With the advent of the first commercial examples of vertical farms now up and running, the vertical farm industry is now officially a reality. Over the last two years, it has emerged into the light of day from its virtual womb, the internet, and has taken its first deep breaths. Vertical farming is now in the earliest stage of its growth and development, a place comparable to all the other industries that preceded it, beginning with the very first ones that appeared on the scene in Manchester, England at the beginning of the industrial revolution.  Like all the others, the vertical farm industry will undoubtedly undergo remarkable evolutionary changes over the next few years, but in a more rapid and streamlined fashion than its immediate predecessor, the high tech greenhouse industry. This is due largely to the advent of sophisticated computer-controlled indoor environments (hydroponic nutrient delivery systems, efficient, spectrum-specific LED grow lights, innovative, energy-saving HVAC systems, etc., and a robust application of automation), and cutting edge manufacturing technologies, witness, over just the last ten years, the rapid advancement of the cell phone, the hybrid car, wind power, and the latest versions of plasma screen TVs. Examples of vertical farms can now be found all over the globe.  Here, then, are the newest kids on the block.

Singapore:

 The island country of Singapore announced last month that a commercial version of a vertical farm was now in operation (Sky Greens – skygreens.appsfly.com). It is a four-story, transparent structure fitted with A-frame growing systems that produce leafy green vegetables. It uses sunlight as a source of energy, and captured rainwater to drive a clever pulley system to move the plants on the grow racks, ensuring an even distribution of sunlight for all the plants.

U.S.A. – Bedford Park:

Farmed Here (www.farmedhere.com) opened in 2013 as a commercial-level VF that is housed in a 90,000 square foot post-industrial building in Bedford Park, IL. It produces three products; arugula, basil, and sweet basil vinaigrette.

Canada – Vancouver:

Local Garden (www.localgarden.com) is a newly constructed two-story tall, 6,000 sq. ft. transparent building located on a parking garage rooftop in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is outfitted with an innovative growing platform system (Verticrop: www.alterrus.ca/verticrop/the-technology/) that produces micro-green salad ingredients, baby spinach, and baby kales.

Japan:

Plant factories - aka vertical farms - have been up and running for at least two years, and some have been operational for a lot longer than that. There are some fifty of these indoor vegetable farms spread out over most of the country (e.g., Nuvege – www.nuvege.com; Angel Farms – www.anglefarms.com). Half of them employ sunlight as the sole energy source for growing crops, while an equal number use some variety of LED grow lights. Most of those using grow lights resemble large, windowless warehouses. All of them produce a wide variety of high yield leafy greens. One Japanese online web site estimates that the plant factory industry will grow by over 70 billion yen over the next 5 years, mostly from private investment, and whose progress is largely driven by consumer demand for healthy, radiation-free food in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown event.

 

It is anticipated that over the next year or two, the number of viable commercial vertical farm operations the world over will increase at a rate commiserate with city dweller’s demand for safer, reasonably priced, locally grown food. At the same time, severe weather patterns around the world continue to increase in frequency, from extreme droughts to massive floods, and the price of oil remains high. As the result, the availability of food, no matter what the crop, has become more and more problematic, as costs related to production and shipping skyrocket.  Thus, it now appears likely that vertical farms of a wide variety will become a common feature of the global urban landscape over the next decade, as a global industrial-level response to our ever-changing climate.  


Several weeks ago, a remarkable meeting was held on the University of Maryland campus in Hyattsville, Maryland sponsored by the National Science Foundation entitled “Challenges in Vertical Farming”. It was well-organized by Dr. Sanjiv Singh and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. In attendance were over seventy people from a wide number of disciplines that converge on the concept of vertical farming - LED grow lighting, robotics, aeroponics and hydroponics, rooftop greenhouse crop production, agricultural economics to name a few. There were several scientists from national space agencies (USA and Germany) in attendance, and many others from various universities (e.g., U. Arizona, Chiba University, Kyoto University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University). In addition, there were several commercial controlled environment growers (Gotham Greens and AeroFarms) to offer their take on the practicality of growing crops indoors. The theme of the conference was to identify issues that needed to be addressed before commercially viable vertical farms could be contemplated. Sixteen speakers presented their views on numerous subjects over the course of the day. As the conference progressed, it became obvious that many of the perceived impracticalities of vertical farming were already being addressed, and remarkably some had even been resolved. None of the participants in attendance, nor the 200 or so who had logged on to the live feed streaming online, offered the view that vertical farms were impractical and or unrealistic (a common opinion offered by numerous early critics of the concept). To the contrary, everyone who spoke identified numerous technological solutions to bottleneck issues such as efficiency of LED grow lights. Current LEDs are commercially available at only 28% efficiency, but they need to be around 50-60% efficient when considering the economics of operating an indoor farm. One participant offered that he had attended a conference the week before on LED lighting and a physicist attending that same meeting announced that the theoretical efficiency for LED lights is an astounding 100%! We learned also that at least one large internationally recognized leader in LED lighting technology had already invented an LED system that was 50% efficient, but the company was not yet willing to make it commercially available. If true, this would greatly alter the perception on the part of some skeptics of vertical farming that it’s the excessively expensive energy needed by any indoor farm that is standing in the way of commercial development. The second day of the conference was devoted to brainstorming for ideas to address the issues identified the day before. All of the four groups of speakers agreed that efficiency of LED lights needed to be far higher to advance to the commercial stage of the concept. Let's challenge the LED manufacturers to form a consortium and make high efficiency LED grow lighting systems available now! Bring on the urban high rise farming industry!

For a link to the presentations: http://challengesinverticalfarming.org


...but it's a dry heat
8/23/2012 11:18:39 PM

Drought is defined as a period of extreme dryness bracketed by two periods of rain. The length of a drought period can last for a week, a month, or even a year. Some droughts have lasted even longer, witness the 1920-1930s in the American Midwest. During a drought, there are just three choices: move, die, or pray. Praying did not bring on the rain in the 1930s, though many a Midwestern dirt farmer got calloused knees from trying, none the less. Actually, some life forms that cannot move (mostly plants) can go into a form of suspended animation. Desert plants are really good at this (surprise, surprise)! Throughout our brief history of living on earth, droughts have been the single most important environmental issue responsible for determining where we can live. In deserts, water is available, but it is extremely limited in quantity. That is why very few cultures have adapted to this harsh environment.

Every ecosystem can be characterized by knowing just two physical parameters: the annual temperature profile and its precipitation regimen. Freshwater is crucial for all terrestrial life forms. That is why it should be valued above all else as nature’s premier natural resource.

When we begin to alter our world in ways that alter the distribution of freshwater resources, we are asking for trouble. In the United States, there are over seventy five thousand dams that have created lakes, most of which are used as sources of drinking water and irrigation. In most years, this scheme has allowed farmers the luxury of growing crops that, if no irrigation was possible, they would surely fail.  Other farming communities (particularly in the flat, grassy plains states) must rely on underground sources of water for irrigation and drinking water. Regarding surface water, the amount of precipitation that fell in that year will determine the outcome of agriculture in that region. For those agricultural situations that rely only on ground water, annual rainfall does little to help provide enough for extended periods of time. In our Midwest, the Ogallala Reservoir is the primary resource for irrigation water, and its been drawn down to levels that require oil-driven pumps to get enough to allow their crops of wheat and corn to thrive. This year, the price of oil was so high that farmers elected not to irrigate. The result was disastrous.

In early August of this year, as I drove back home from my annual fishing trip out West, I had the “luxury” of surveying the season’s crops from Utah to New Jersey, and all the states in between via US routes 70 and 80. The USGS estimates that 2012 will go down in the record books as a very dry year, perhaps even the driest on record. Last year, Texas was devastated by drought, loosing over 5 billion dollars in crops and livestock. This year, it looks like Texas will take another big hit in crops lost to drought. In the case of the American heartland (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio), I witnessed field after field of what looked like golden wheat that upon closer inspection, turned out to be abandoned cornfields! The soybeans did not look so great, either. No corn or soybeans means no animal feed. President Obama recently declared that the federal government will buy livestock from drought-affected ranchers and set up an inventory of frozen meats to help them get by until the droughts break. What this will mean for the price of food remains to be calculated, but its certain that the consumers in most urban centers will pay a lot more for the basics of what constitutes the American diet; beef, chicken, fish, milk, flour, bread, vegetables and many fruits. A recent estimate of the amount of money this year’s drought has already cost the U.S. farmers is between 18-20 billion dollars. Some 40-50 per cent of the entire country has now been declared a disaster zone, so extensive is this year’s drought. At least indoor farmer’s crops are safe this year, having opted long ago to grow their crops in a more secure, predictable fashion in greenhouses.

Vertical farming promises to expand this approach, so that perhaps in the near future, food prices will not fluctuate with the uncontrollable weather patterns. Dare I remind us all that climate change issues will continue confound and disrupt this already seriously flawed system of outdoor food production. What a different world this would be if we could produce most of what we needed year round in vertical farms located inside cities. I know this sounds a bit preachy, but I think the concept of the vertical farm is the only viable option we have to a long-term solution to the world food crisis. Why, I’ll bet we could even work out a way to produce animal feed this way, too. Who knows, maybe some day soon a Texas billionaire will step up to the plate and start that ball rolling!      


Get the LED Out
1/23/2012 5:49:43 PM

I love to cook, and I really enjoy shopping for the evening meal’s ingredients and then creating it (and eating it, too). I am also a kitchen voyeur. So, the other night, while aimlessly flipping channels, I landed on a popular show on the Cooking Channel (their motto is “Stay Hungry”) called Iron Chef America. Some of you might be familiar with it. I don’t usually like contest shows, but the host was Alton Brown, a renowned chef and a damn funny and clever one, too, I might add. So I gave in and became thoroughly engrossed in the often-frenetic culinary machinations of two highly gifted food alchemists. I might also add that one of my favorite films is the adorable “Ratatouille”. I will watch it in its entirety when every I happen to see it playing on some cable station.

Two iconic iron chefs were selected, Bobby Flay, one of my favorites, and Rick Bayless, one of my other favorites. In my humble opinion, the only chefs comparable to these guys are Jacques Pepin, my current all-time favorite, and Julia Child, in my view the greatest all-round chef of modern times! Flay and Bayless were charged with using buffalo meat as the secret ingredient in as many Mexican/Southwestern style cuisine dishes as they could assemble in one hour. Of course they had lots of help from their highly competent staff of sous chefs. They both used lots of different ingredients derived from a wide variety of crop plants to augment and compliment the meats being prepared. As the show unraveled, amid Flay shout-outs and Bayless’ artful food plating schemes, I began fantasizing that one of the requirements of the contest should be that they had to use only those ingredients that were grown in their own vertical farms attached to their up-scale restaurants in New York and Chicago. In the end, cherubically charming Flay won on a single style point! I had them tied for first.

As I dozed off afterwards, with images of buffaloes jumping one at a time over the fence at the Ted Turner ranch in the Ruby River valley of western Montana, I got to thinking (dreaming) about LED lighting for indoor crops and how much we need to improve the situation before the commercial side of vertical farming becomes a no-brainer with respect to the return on investment side of things. Granted, there are lots of places where energy is never going to be a major factor in deciding whether or not to invest in a vertical farm, for example Iceland, New Zealand, and other parts of the world where geothermal energy is there for the taking. In addition, other areas in which solar energy is begging to be applied to this new agricultural initiative – The Middle East, Australia, the American Southwest - would also be able to employ LEDs as they currently exist and still reap a favorable return on their investment. But for the rest of us, help is needed at the level of improving LED lighting efficiency to encourage more people to get involved in building and operating vertical farms.

So… how would it play out if we could use the Iron Chef America format to showcase the latest in LED lighting, turning it into a lighting “throw-down”, in which anyone with an improved LED lighting system for making green plants grow faster and better using less energy than the currently commercially available LEDs could participate. Of course, the time frame would be longer than an hour; weeks to months would be more appropriate, depending upon the crops selected. In addition to the standard leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, lettuce), root vegetables, vine crops, grains, and bush berries might be a good mix of crops to challenge any lighting scheme/growing system. All crops would be maintained under a standardized hydroponic configuration, save for the lighting. To insure fairness of growing conditions, a grand master/iron chef-like personality             with indoor farming experience would be placed in charge. Rules and such would be drawn up by a blue-ribbon committee, and the contest would be well-advertized. High-end celebrity chefs, and green foodie Hollywood stars might decide to back such a venture. The Discovery Channel might pick up the show, calling it: “Let There Be Light”. At the end of the show, large cash prizes (millions of dollars; Mr. Buffett, are you listening?) would be awarded in each crop category to the group that showed a significant improvement in the ratio of grams of biomass produced per kilowatt of electricity used. The actual crops could be donated to worthy causes as food donations under the slogan, “Up With Food”! 

The companies that could really make a difference here are Phillips, Siemens, and General Electric. They have all invested heavily in LED technologies, and great strides have been made in just over the last few yeas in terms of efficiency and specificity for what the plants need. More work is needed, however. They are all on the verge of setting the vertical farming/indoor agriculture industries free from economic burdens related to energy use. My plea is for them to keep on truckin’ and stay hungry, so that the two billion people who go to bed that way each day will eventually have something better to look forward to!


Growing Concerns
12/1/2011 5:36:12 PM

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has just released its 2011 assessment of the state of the world‘s agriculture and it is not a pretty picture. In fact, its down right grim:

ROME (AP): December 1, 2011 — The United Nations has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet's land resources, finding in a report Monday that a quarter of all land is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world's growing population is to be fed.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet the needs of the world's expected 9 billion-strong population. That amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of beef and other livestock.

But as it is, most available land is already being farmed, and in ways that often decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water.

That means that to meet the world's future food needs, a major "sustainable intensification" of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, the FAO said in "State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture."

Things appear to be getting worse and worse, as year after year, the climate continues to change at an accelerating rate, and adverse weather events continue to increase as the result of that acceleration, despoiling huge tracts of arable land and rendering them unusable for the foreseeable future. How much more of this environmental insult must we endure before the world’s agricultural communities stop what they are doing and adopt new methods for growing most of our soil-based crops? Of course, I am referring to vertical farming.

I have been advocating for some years now for all the richest countries to pool a small fraction of their trillions of dollars of resources (ten billion would do the job nicely) and support the establishment of a global urban-based agriculture that takes advantage of the fact that we can easily grow most of what we need inside controlled environment structures. In fact, The Republic of Korea is already ahead of the rest of the world in this regard, having established a vertical farm and nearby seed bank in March of 2011. Successful commercial ventures in Japan (Nuvege), have shown that this method of food production can be highly profitable. A few other vertical farms have been established in other places, but there needs to be a much large investment in this kind of farming if we are to stave off a world food crisis that may already be starting.

In the developed world, trying to save traditional agriculture by allowing large argo-businesses to have their way with the soil has done nothing more than to allow these companies to reap more profits, as food prices increase due to the increase in the price of oil. We need a national policy shift to give a voice to the consumers who continue to demand safe, health food choices that are available year round. This can only be achieved by production schemes that employ high tech greenhouse methods – hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics.  Locating large-scale indoor farms next to the largest urban centers solves many problems that now plague the current food system – harvesting before the produce is ripe, shipping and handling, food spoilage – at every step of the food chain from farm to table.

Elections are just around the corner, yet I have heard very little about the food crisis and potential solutions from either side of the aisle. What’s up with that??? Come on America. Lets face up to the situation and solve this problem. Guaranteed that if we do, then lots of other problems will disappear, as well!    


Robert Shope was a highly respected virologist who discovered, among other things, the causative agent of warts, the Shope papilloma virus. He also worked on parasitic worms, and in particular Metastrongylus, a parasitic lung worm often found in farm-raised swine. Pigs get infected by ingesting the embryonated eggs found in fecally-contaminated soil. Shope demonstrated that these long-lived, environmentally resistant ova were capable of harboring swine influenza virus, serving as its “Trojan Horse”. This finding led him to speculate that Metastrongylus might play a role in the transmission of the virus from pig to pig, and perhaps even to people, as well. Swine flu is a life-threatening respiratory infection, so knowing how it is maintained in the environment was an important step in the design of public health programs to limit its spread. The fact that Metastrongylus is found everywhere that pigs are raised is a testament to its simple strategy for transmission. As it turned out, this parasite was not responsible for transmitting swine flu, but Shope’s studies did re-enforce the fact that fecal contamination of pig farms was impossible to control.  

Shope was feisty and notorious for his tell-it-like-it-is attitude and “to hell with social protocol”. His laboratory was located at the prestigious Rockefeller University in New York City on the third floor of Theobald Smith Hall. But despite being recognized as a venerable charter member of that “ivory tower” of science, he was compelled to plainly announce to the world his findings regarding the transmission of his now favorite virus, swine flu. Shope created a rather rude saying in bold, easy-to-read lettering and posted it prominently above the entrance to his lab for all visitors to see (much to the chagrin of university officials leading tours of that famous institution, I might add). It read:

The Earth Is Covered With A Thin Layer of Shit

In principle, the World Health Organization agrees with Shope. They state flatly that over half of the world’s farms still use untreated animal waste as fertilizer, and most of it is of human origin. Feces are easy to get and cost nothing. It is also a very good fertilizer! But this creates a real problem, because like the pig parasite story, this unsanitary practice results in the transmission of many fecally-transmitted infectious diseases of humans, as well: a wide variety of dysentery-causing microbes, geo-helminths (intestinal worm parasites that include Ascaris lumbricoides, Trichuris trichiura, Strongyloides stercoralis, and hookworm), and several life-threatening water-borne parasites, the most serious of which is schistosomiasis. These two groups of fecally-transmitted worms infect some 2 billion individuals, and cause serious illness in millions of children, world-wide. Hookworm, alone, infects some 1 billion people. To acquire hookworms, all one has to do is walk around barefoot on ground that is contaminated with human feces that contain the eggs of these parasites. The simple act of swimming in fecally-contaminated fresh water exposes people to the schistosomes. In both of these cases, the parasite does the rest by penetrating our unbroken skin.

Farming facilitates the spread of these parasites, albeit unbeknownst to the farmer. Other microbial infections of animal origin regularly piggy-back on fresh produce, causing outbreaks of serious diseases such as listeriosis, salmonella, and E. coli strain 0157.  The prevention of all of these health risks is to isolate our crops from outside sources of fecal contamination. Indoor controlled environment agriculture is the answer. The more we become victimized by preventable outbreaks of food-borne or water-borne illnesses, the easier it is to convince the public as to the value of creating another way of raising food.

Less developed countries are the most affected by these parasites. Eliminate these parasites and the world would be quite a different place. Literacy rates would go up, infant mortality rates would plummet, and the economic picture would go from grim to self-sustainable.  Eventually, birth rates would also drop, and people would now be able to afford so-called “luxury” items like TVs, homes, and cars.

The vertical farm movement is now well underway, and with it the emergence of a new era in food safety and security, whose mantra is avoidance rather than treatment of easily preventable infectious diseases. Millions of lives and billions of health care dollars will be saved when finally everyone can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits grown under controlled conditions designed specifically to prevent the spread of these insidious microbial infections. Talk about a good return on investment!   


Woes of Contemporary Agriculture
10/11/2011 11:27:39 AM

Not only is farm-to-fork distance a carboon footprint issue, but also may contribute to food-borne disease. See this piece for more- 

Long road from farm to fork worsens food outbreaks


Unintended Consequences
9/19/2011 5:46:14 PM

Weeds (wild plant life) are the farmer’s public enemy number one. Weeds invade farms and eat up the nutrients in fertilizers and suck up the water from irrigation schemes, compromising yields of corn, soybeans, potatoes, and our other cash crops, too. As the result, profits go down and the farmer pulls his hair out wondering what to do next.  Since the invention of agriculture, farmers had no one to turn to for help. That is, up until 1960s. Then along came the agricultural chemical industry and the picture changed, almost overnight. Herbicides galore (mostly glyphosate and related compounds) rolled out of the R&D labs and onto the tilled land. Yields went up and so did profits. All this change was just too good. Like anything that is too good to be true, it usually is, especially in the long run. Everyone forgot about (or never knew about, or ignored) the fundamental concept of evolution, and kept on spraying. As year after year rolled by, it was discovered that more and more herbicide was needed to do the same job as compared to the first time they were employed. The weeds were winning back the farm, and winning big time. It became apparent that this approach could not go on without major changes in weed management strategies.

In 1970, there were no wild plant species known to be resistant to glyphosate. By 2010, nearly 350 different species of wild plants had become resistant (Science News, July 2, 2011). Weeds were not going to sit there and take it, were they? Of course not. How did this unforeseen consequence of herbicide use happen? It’s a fundamental trait of all living things that random mutations occur at a rather predictable rate. Eventually, given the right situation, it is inevitable that there will be a mutant plant that can withstand increased levels of any given herbicide. They will then replace all the ones that were killed off, and thus the farmer finds himself back at square one. (Our pathogenic microbes have done the same thing regarding the use of antibiotics.) Using higher doses of herbicides the next year solved the weed problem, but only temporarily, and so it went until the weeds were at the same level of resistance as the cash crops. Humans are gifted in creating new problems in attempting to solve old ones. Unintended consequences is now a stock phrase aimed at the introduction of new technologies, no matter what the technology in question.

So what has been the agrochemical industry’s response to weed resistance to herbicides? Answer: genetic modification of crops to resist higher and higher levels of glyphosate. Hmm..., that sounds like the old paradigm. Eventually, the weeds will catch on to this new wrinkle too, and the rest is, well, you guessed it. And that’s not all. Do we know what will happen to all that herbicide when it rains? Sure. It ends up in our estuaries, altering their ecological characteristics beyond recognition. There are ample studies already published on this aspect, and fish tend to be the most sensitive indicator group to the negative effects glyphosate can have on wildlife (e.g., birth defects, endocrine disruption, adverse effects on gene expression). And do we know for sure whether or not it is safe for us to eat produce containing higher levels of herbicides? At the current levels of exposure, glyphosate appears to have caused no detectable increases in certain human diseases (cancers, respiratory distress syndromes, etc.). But what about significantly increased exposure levels? Those “studies” have been done yet. I for one, do not want the consumer public to be the “guinea pig” for that data. We have had enough historical experience with uncontrolled levels of agrochemicals (DDT, malathione, atrazine, etc.) to predict that nothing sustainable will come from the use of higher and higher levels of anything, be it pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Did I mention atrazine? This particular herbicide has caused more havoc with wildlife (particularly with amphibians) than any other endocrine disruptor. So much so, that its use is now banned throughout Europe. But we still allow its use here in the U.S.. Why? “More studies are needed. “Really? Well, no, but…

So, what can we do? I favor growing most of our plant crops indoors, eliminating completely the use of herbicides and pesticides. No more agricultural runoff. Year-round crop production. No more food miles. Healthy produce available next door to where we live, in our cities. What’s not to like?