11. New Wrinkles in Urban Food-Growing

(Note:  in case anyone is wondering, I was out of town for over a week;  hence a hiatus.  Now I’m home again and back in harness.)

When I think of urban/ suburban food production, I think of growing fruit trees on front lawns, tomatoes in back yards, corn in community gardens, strawberries in a berry tower on a sunny terrace or patio, and just about any vegetable and many fruits on any flat rooftop.  I’ll be writing about all these things before I’m done, since all these efforts put together would add very substantially to the world’s arable area, and thus enable production of a lot more food.  But a couple of weeks ago I read about two higher-tech methods of growing food in cities:  brand-new apartment-sized “Farm Boxes” and repurposed shipping containers.

The Farm Boxes are small, maybe about a cubic foot in size.  Fitted with bright yet energy-efficient LED lights and meant to be filled with preseeded pads and water in a reservoir, they can grow fresh greens (lettuce, arugula, bok choy and beets) all year even in quite small apartments and with almost no tending once they’re set up.  Creators Ruwan Subasinghe and Alex Weiss hope that if people can snip just what vegetables they need as they need them, this will both add to their enjoyment of fresh produce and minimize waste.  And I would add that use of such devices would increase the amount of produce grown.

The other initiative involves the retrofitting of 350-square-foot shipping containers with lights and a whole tiered hydroponic set-up;  they can be parked in any urban industrial site.  Where the Farm Boxes are intended for individuals’ personal use, the newest scheme for shipping containers, brainchild of Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother) and Tobias Peggs, aims to get ten agro-entrepreneurs started in growing food on an abandoned Pfizer plant in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn;  they would grow greens and herbs for sale to local groceries and restaurants starting next year.  Due to the efficiencies of hydroponic towers, they could produce two acres’ worth of vegetables per container per year, with 80% less water than field agriculture, though with considerably higher energy use.

In fact, there are feasibility concerns with both these ideas.  The Farm Boxes will cost $350 each, plus $25 for five of the plant pads (of 16-25 plants each) which are to be grown in them;  this would likely make them unaffordable for many of the people who live in inner-city (and mostly low-income) “food deserts” — the very people who arguably need them most.  The shipping containers have considerable start-up costs, and high energy costs (and possible carbon footprints) for lighting and climate control.  There are also real questions as to whether they would be profitable — or contribute significantly to feeding the world — if greens and herbs are all they grow, as is the current plan.

I would opine, however, that every effort to add to the production of food is worth considering.  For while it does not seem to me that either of these initiatives by itself  will greatly alleviate world or even urban hunger, each could, if it works out, add its bit to the amount of food in the world.  It makes both these ideas worth the effort of trying out.

Louise”Gentle Bee” Quigley

 

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