Monday, January 3, 2011

Why Buying “Short” Can Be Better Than Buying Local.

Imported food up – Exported food down.
Since the early 1990’s the amount of fresh produce exported by North America has steadily decreased compared to the amount of fresh produce being imported. Now, the typical foodstuff in your dinner has travelled more than 1000 miles to get to you. Based on current trends, this is not likely to change anytime soon.

The basis of “buy local”.
Many consumers do find lower prices as a result of this movement to import, and certainly some gourmands appreciate that exotic items such as mangosteens, star fruit, and dragon fruits can now be easily found and purchased in North American markets. But critics would suggest that so-called energy ‘food-mile’ cost, lack of sufficient inspections, lack of food traceability, fair-trade issues, and child labor, more than offset such benefits. These criticisms lay at the foundation of the “buy local” movement that has taken root in the North American food politic.

But food distribution is the real issue.
While many do find the notion of transporting food from all over the planet onto our dinner plates to be disturbing, that’s only part of the problem. As big (or bigger) an issue is the process of getting it to market.

The long road to you.
Once a “fresh” food item is harvested it begins a long, arduous ordeal to get to your dinner plate. The items are typically packed up by the grower and transported to shipping warehouse. From the shipping warehouse, the produce is sent to a wholesale food distribution terminal outside of your city. There it may be unpacked, repacked and then sold to a retailer. The retailer than packs up the produce and ships it to its distribution warehouse, where it may be unpacked, repacked and sent to the actual retail store where it is unpacked, sometimes repacked and eventually sold to you. This long ordeal will result in as much as 50% of the produce being lost to spoilage or damage along the way, and will take between one week and three weeks  - no matter whether the produce was grown in Malaysia or grown at a farm in your state or province. So much for being “fresh”!
The goal of Lufa Farms is to decrease the length of the distribution chain.

‘Buying short’ is more relevant than ‘buying local’.
The argument that buying local will somehow save significant energy, while not entirely wrong, is focused on the smaller issue – actually, shipping produce from the Southern Hemisphere to North America by boat, for example, is surprisingly efficient. But the real energy usage and waste, once the produce has been grown, lies in the local transport and refrigeration used in the local distribution channel.

How “buying long” hurts us.
In addition to the large carbon footprint left by the long local food distribution system, buying through long channels also forces growers, wholesalers and retailers to make food decisions – choices - that compromise the consumer. How? Simple - every grower, wholesaler and retailer is concerned about ‘yield’. What is the crop yield per acre? And what is the yield to market how much gets sold once the produced damaged or spoiled along the way gets subtracted?

Here are a few examples of choices that hurt the consumer:

(1)   Picking crops earlier. It’s a long way to market and if produce is picked ripe they may arrive way past prime and begin decay. But earlier picking means the fruit or vegetable has not fully produced its final flavor or final nutrient content.

(2)   Using post-harvest treatments to boost yield. Fruit and vegetables are subject to a variety of problems once in the distribution channel. Poor temperature and humidity regulation, poor handling and inattention to packaging often results in the introduction of moulds, bacteria, loss of moisture, and decay. Often, fungicides, insecticides, gases and water conditioning agents are used to treat produce to minimize these problems.

(3)   Increasing use of petroleum-based polyethylene containers. Though comparatively expensive, at some point, the cost of produce damage and loss becomes large enough that it can be economically justifiable to use petroleum-based protective plastic or clamshell containers.

(4)   Selecting cultivars for the wrong reason. The long distribution channel, and the damage caused by it, often results in growers choosing plant cultivars (special varieties of plants) that are tougher, more durable and more market-ready. Essentially, this means that the fruit or vegetable will be tougher, but not necessarily more nutritious or flavorful .

What happened to the idea of growing good-tasting, nutritious food?
Someplace in the development of the North American food chain, the idea of good-tasting, nutritious food has given way to tough, shippable (but cosmetically good-looking) food. Taste and nutrient content no longer govern the choice of foods grown and therefore no longer govern the choice of foods bought.

Buying short is the best way to buy local.
All of these issues disappear when the distribution channel collapses to a simple straight line between the grower and the consumer. No early harvesting. No post-harvest treatments. No petrochemical clamshells. And plant cultivars can be selected for taste and nutrient content.

Buying short, of course, will likely mean that you will also be buying local. This way you get the best of both – high quality foods, highly traceable foods
and the security of knowing that your purchases boost the sustainability of your community’s food source.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why there aren't more commercial rooftop farms...

If everybody wants them, why don't more exist?
It is a significant social conundrum that so many people see the necessity of growing food within urban spaces and yet there are so few efforts to actually do so on a commercial scale actually exist.

Four years ago, as Mohamed Hage, founder of Lufa Farms, contemplated the creation of the world's first commercial-scale rooftop farm, this was a contradiction he worried about. Why weren't there more rooftop farms? To be sure, there was a lot of talk of such farms - Sky Vegetables, Gotham Greens and other's had announced their intentions to create such enterprises, but by the end of 2009, there still were no actual facilities.

Why it's a good idea - start with the land.
The conventional arguments for rooftop farms are many. First and foremost is the loss of arable land. The easiest commercial development is on flat earth - farm land. As cities expand, the flat spaces of earth are consumed by shopping centers and other commercial develop. Farm land is lost. In the United States, for example,  urban sprawl takes over nearly 400,000 hectares of farmland each year. The population is expanding, land on which to grow food is diminishing - not sustainable, not good. Rooftop farming is a way to take the land back from commercial development.

Food safety and food trust.
Every year there are more and more problems reported concerning food. Listeriosis, e-coli, salmonella, etc. are but a few that regularly emerge in the public food supply. Too, the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, GMO-doctored food and various soil treatments also add risk to the food supply. As more food is being produced outside of North America, the ability to monitor risks is diminished and traceabililty becomes almost impossible. The surest way to be able to trust the food you eat is to know exactly where it comes from and who grows it.

Quality of food.
Today, the tomato you buy in the typical grocery store is not much like the tomato you used to get at a grocery store 20 years ago. Why? Because it's a variety selected to be tough, durable, and decay slowly as a means of surviving the long trip from farm to warehouse to distribution center to retail warehouse to retail store. Moreover, food takes anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks to find its way from the farm to you. During that time, typically, more than half of its nutrient value has disappeared. Rooftop farming means farm-to-tabletop times of hours or a few days. The result is better food, and more nutritious food.

So with so many good reason, why rooftop farms are difficult?
Mohamed Hage found out why. It's not because of the myriad of engineering issues that must be confronted to build a structurally safe and viable farm on a roof. No. It's because government, and the agricultural industry, have an intrinsic bias favoring traditional and conventional farms. Mohamed Hage cites several examples that created obstacles for Lufa Farms' first project. They were encountered in almost every phase of the project.

The first that was encountered were building code specifications. Definitions existed for greenhouses on the ground, but not on building.  The second, obstacle was zoning. In order to put the greenhouse on its office building the area had to be re-zoned as agricultural. Finally, while a variety of local and federal farm financing programs exist, few would recognize the concept of a farm in the city. It was difficult to even find a farm financing agency office within the city! Mohamed and team had to drive almost an hour out of Montreal to meet with one farm financing agency.

What has to happen for the future of urban agriculture...
Based on Mohamed's Lufa Farms experience, if we want more urban farms to emerge, some things will have to change at the municipal, state/provincial, or federal levels.  Among those things include:

  1. Reassessment of certain zoning and tax ordinances to accommodate use of buildings as agricultural space. Incentives would be better yet.
  2. Evaluation of city and national building codes to interpret appropriate codes for hybridized buildings. This is not a simple task but analyzing the codes in advance would go a long way to facilitating urban agriculture.
  3. Developing policy on farm subsidies, crop insurance, and farm financing programs to explicitly consider how they will address rooftop or other urban farming activities.
  4. Rethinking certain aspects of real estate and leasehold law to recognize that farms may be on leased property.
These represent but a few of the obstacles that must be overcome for an urban farm venture within a typical city. As you can see from the image below, they can be solved.

But they won't get solved overnight, but municipalities and other levels of government should start thinking about them now - urban agriculture will only be increasing in the future!