I recently watched the Academy Award nominated documentary, Food, Inc. I was hesitant about watching it, because I already know more than I'd like about the sorry state of our food supply. Another film putting images in my head of slaughterhouses and e-coli poisoning was not going to make me any happier. (And, after all, being happier is something I strive to be.)
But despite my reluctance, the film changed my perception of food and did so without resorting to horrifying images or nauseating statistics. Instead, Food, Inc. walks the viewer through the capitalist structure of the entire food industry and how their pursuit of savings and profit has unintentionally created a system with severe health and environmental consequences.
The cause of our environmental problems can be almost solely put upon the shoulders of the building industry. After all, buildings alone are responsible for nearly half of all carbon emissions and an overwhelming 40 percent of all of our energy goes into our buildings. As an architect, I am partially responsible for this and why we need to change our buildings. I try to stay focused on my own area of expertise (buildings) and try to not talk about the impact of other industries. (After all, who wants to hear about the importance of organic food from an architect!)
But in recent years, the more I've learned about our food supply, I realize how interconnected these industries have become. We cannot solve one without addressing the other problems. Despite the impact of buildings, perhaps the most immediate thing a person can do to help the environment is to give up eating meat. The environmental impacts of meat production are intense:
- 10 people could be fed with the grain that feeds one cow
- The production of a pound of beef requires 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of water
- Before a cow is slaughtered, it will have consumed 284 gallons of oil (through pesticide and embodied energy)
- Every second of every day, one football field of tropical rainforest is destroyed in order to produce 257 hamburgers
The benefits of eating organic and healthy foods go beyond simple personal health. The impact has economic and cultural advantages, which probably explains why urban farming produces $5 of job growth for every dollar spent on food.
During one scene in Food, Inc., an organic farmer discusses how cows are fed corn instead of grass. Corn is cheap, subsidized by the government, and in ample supply. Unfortunately, cows are not able to properly digest corn, demanding a series of hormone injections, bacterial precautions, and other measures too graphic to mention. He goes on to state, "But at no time did anyone simply step back and ask why we can't go back to feeding them grass."
The parallels to our dependence on oil are frightening. In both cases, we have a native crop that was abundant in early industrial America. The government formed subsidies and incentives to encourage the use of both. Inventive chemists found the means to manipulate both commodities into thousands of alternative products (plastic, in the case of oil; fructose, in the case of corn). Our entire economy grew around them and became dependent. As the decades passed, these once cheap resources were no longer affordable, but it was too late.
In the case of both oil and corn, we have spent the last 30 years trying to find any solutions which solve the health and ecological problems, but allow us to continue our addiction. This explains the push for impractical solutions such as "clean coal", corn-based ethanol, and corn-based plastics.
At no time is it ever suggested we just give up oil and corn.
Architects and designers need to care about food for a number of important reasons:
1. Our next generation of American cities cannot survive without farming.
The city of Detroit has been hit with nearly 30% unemployment, a disintegrating manufacturing base, and a corresponding population. What was once the 4th most important city in the United States has, in just fifty years, declined to the point where Detroit could just vanish.
A third of the city of Detroit is now vacant land, leaving the remaining residents dispersed over the 139 square miles. The city was once home to two million people, and now is less than half of that (nearly the same amount as tiny San Francisco). In fact, you could fit Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco within the sprawling limits of Detroit and have space leftover.
Because of this blight, every produce-carrying grocery store has left town. Detroit has become a "food desert" requiring most of its residents to purchase their food from liquor or convenience stores. Imagine the lack of quality and selection you'd face if forced to buy all of your food from a 7-11!
The only hope for Detroit's survival is to embrace urban farming on a large scale, and that is exactly what is slowly happening. On the site of burned down homes are growing small half-acre farms. Larger five and ten acre farms are taking root. Hantz Farms has become the largest land owner in the city teaching residents how to grow their own food. Currently, 15% of all of the food in Detroit is locally grown - if only out of necessity.
Detroit is the canary in the coalmine. Every other Rust Belt city faces the same eventual fate. You can read more about these efforts here.
2. The employment crisis cannot be solved without Urban Farming.
Urban farming turns out to be a great economic catalyst. Urban farming produces $5 of job growth for every dollar spent on food. Best of all, it keeps the money in the hands of the local community where it belongs. Workers of a range of skills can be involved and the start-up costs are minimal.
A city like Detroit only has a four-month growing season. If they start to convert some of those abandoned buildings into make-shift greenhouses, they could extend that season to ten or twelve months.
Imagine the jobs and economy created from converting the thousands of vacant buildings into farm facilities. Picture fields of tomatoes on growing on vacant lots, acres of orchards thriving on former school grounds, trays of healthy mushrooms in damp basements and high-rise vertical farms on the walls of old hotels. The factory assembly lines that once produced cars could easy produce farm equipment (or better yet, wind turbines!).
3. Soon, buildings will produce their own food in the same way that (some) produce their own energy.
Just as we can now easily add solar panels to the roof of any building to produce electricity, so too should we use the building to grow food. Vertical gardens can re-purpose and redesign the facades of buildings. Companies like Vert Landscapes are showing people how to do this easily. Not only does this create food and jobs, but these vertical gardens help insulate and shelter the buildings and absorb carbon dioxide. If a city wishes to meet any carbon reduction goals, the energy savings from green roofs and vertical gardens are vital to achieving them.
New buildings should incorporate these concepts from the design inception. The real opportunity is to retrofit our existing buildings.
James Howard Kunstler, the oft-controversial author of several books, including the brilliant Geography of Nowhere, has an interesting take on it. He once told me he expects everyone will be involved in growing a portion of their own food in the near future. "Not me!" I thought. I hate gardening and dismissed him as a dystopian dreamer. Now I understand what he meant. In the future, out of necessity, we will all have to take part in harvesting our own food. After all, the average item on your grocery store shelf traveled 1800 miles to get there. That is simply not sustainable.
I encourage you to rent the Oscar nominated film that began this thought, Food, Inc.
Readers, have you watched the film, Food, Inc.? Please share with us some of your thoughts about urban farming. Is this trend toward urban farms taking root in your city? Do you buy from your local farmers markets? Do you think our dependence on oil and corn is a problem? What can we do to change these problems? We welcome your comments.