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Vertical Farming and Buying Local Help Reduce Foods Carbon Foot Print - February 22, 2015

 

Do you know where your food comes from? While kids sometimes say “the grocery store,” adults tend to lean towards a more accurate answer, “a farm.” But just because your produce comes from a farm, it does not mean that farm was here in the U.S., or even in North America. 

On average, produce travels around 1,500 miles from the field it was grown to the dinner table. This distance traveled can be shorter, or longer, depending on what kind of produce you buy, and during what season. For example, during the cold winter months here in the U.S., we ship in blueberries, tomatoes and other produce from warmer locales such as Mexico or Peru for consumption. Even if it is the right season for certain fruits and vegetables, it can still be a long trek from field to table. Pineapples are grown year round in Hawaii, however if we buy a pineapple from Hawaii on the Delmarva peninsula, it means it traveled upwards of 4,500 miles just to get here. All of this traveling and moving of produce unfortunately adds to the degradation of the environment.

The long trek to get food from farm fields to our dinner tables usually involves multiple planes, trucks, trains and other modes of transportation that use up fuel and add greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. They also have to keep produce fresh during transportation which could mean constant refrigeration, freezing, bagging and packaging, or the addition of certain chemicals, all of which add to the energy consumption needed to move produce. Food can also become infected, rot or spoil before reaching the consumer, which increases the amount of food wasted and added to landfills. 

So how can we help combat this problem? The biggest way that consumers can help to decrease the distance food needs to travel is to buy local goods. Buying from local farms and co-ops can greatly reduce the distance food needs to travel from farm to table, can help out your local communities and neighbors, and allows you to buy fresher produce. Buying local does have its draw backs, as sometimes your favorite fruit or vegetable cannot grow in your local climate or may only be available during a short growing season. However, with the advent and adoption of vertical farming, the limitations of local farms and co-ops might be dwindling. 

Vertical farming has become increasingly popular in major urban areas, both nationally and globally. In cities like Chicago, New York and London, where undeveloped areas for new farms is limited, vertical farming provides the opportunity to turn abandoned buildings or lots into viable farming areas. Vertical farming, a sub-section of green infrastructure, utilizes the multi-storied nature of urban buildings to house growing areas on multiple floors instead of over a large area, like a typical farm. The idea is to grow “up”, instead of out. 

Overall, green infrastructure is a building technique that emphasizes using systems and processes found in nature to help improve modern infrastructure, especially in urban and developed areas. Vertical farming does this by including closed-loop systems, hydro and aeroponics, and other techniques to help grow produce faster and in larger quantities, in urban and developed areas. 

Closed-loop systems are often used in conjuncture with hydroponics to help increase productivity and decrease maintenance in vertical farms. For example, vegetables and other produce can be grown on thin beds with their roots completely submerged in water. The plants get their nutrients from the water, which is constantly pumped between the produce beds and large tanks full of fish, typically Tilapia. The byproducts produced by the Tilapia are absorbed by the plants to help grow, while the plants help to keep the fish tanks clean. Eventually, both the produce and the Tilapia can be sold at market.

 These closed-loop systems help to reduce the amount of water used for growing produce and can help grow more produce. Due to the accelerated growth of the produce and the controlled conditions inside the building, vertical farms can have many more crop turns, sometimes up near 20 turns per year, compared to traditional farms, which usually have around 2 to 3 turns per year. 

Vertical farms also have other benefits compared to traditional farms. Because they are inside, in controlled conditions, vertical farms often use little to no harmful pesticides or fungicides. They also use special nutrient blends in the water that help the plants grow, and because the water is re-used and recycled within the system, these nutrients do not run off into local waterways. Vertical farms also do not need to fallow, which means they can grow produce year round as opposed to waiting for the fields to regain their fertility or planting cover crops. Because vertical farms can be put in high population urban areas, the produce does not need to travel as far, which helps reduce the cost of the produce and allows more people access to healthy food. Vertical farms can also be co-opted by schools and local gardening groups so that students and citizens who live in cities can get their hands dirty and learn about farming, plants and business. 

Cutting back on our consumption of imported produce, buying local produce and vertical farming are just a few ways to help reduce the carbon foot print of food and help support our local communities. 

 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 


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