Monday, December 13, 2010


The ever increasing recognition of local food movements as one of the ways for saving the planet, has focused attention for bringing about sustainable food production without adversely affecting the environment. The basis of local food movement is to assure the consumers, especially in an urban environment, about the safety and nutritional quality of food when produced near their settlements and the global effect it will have in reducing greenhouse emission significantly. Springing up of innumerable farmers' markets near many urban centers is another off shoot of the desire for foods raised with least chemical substances, in a way different from the so called "industrialized" foods churned out by large scale technology intensive commercial food producers. Organic foods which are supposed to be produced with no chemical inputs at any stage are also increasingly being favored by people who can afford to pay higher prices for such foods.

There are many versions of urban ventures, trying their hand at cultivation that include terrace top gardens, roof farming, school gardens, corporate gardening, community gardening etc and there are shining examples of success in many areas though they are still far and few to make any impact on a country-wide scale anywhere in the world. There are many advantages in involving urbanites in some facets of agriculture as most of them have no clue regarding the logistics of agriculture, presently the main burden of supplying food resting on their rural cousins who toil hard against all odds to feed the former. The risks inherent in agriculture, especially in a country like India where most of the farmers have small holdings with low land productivity, are tremendous and success or failure depends on many external factors beyond their control. Under such a situation can the urbanites take care of a part of their food needs from within the city area rather than getting them from far away places in the farm belt?

There is an increasing trend of urban migration when rural unemployed and under employed aspire to move to urban areas hoping for better income opportunities and improved life quality. In India the urban population is estimated at around 330 million, about 30% of total population of the country and the remaining folks numbering more than 770 million produce adequate foods to meet, besides their own need, the food requirement of the urban population. That means the surplus production from these farmers will have to be about 30% of their farm out put which ensures regular income through sale to the urban consumers. In the US 2% of the population plough the land to produce enough food to feed the entire nation and this is possible because of the mega size of the agricultural farms and mega agricultural technologies deployed by them. It is a paradox that this country of plenty is now turning away from industrialized foods, plunging into the unknown area of urban farming because of perceived fear of the safety o! foods they currently consume!

There is no unanimity regarding the issue of food adequacy in the year 2030 or 2050 if the population grows at the current rate. While some hold the view that there would be sufficient food for every body that can be produced from the available land, others are skeptical about the same, calling for drastic change in the current agricultural practices. Though Genetic Modification Technology is touted as as the "wonder tool" for the future, there is little evidence on hand that this can happen, given the present ground reality. Probably GM technology may at best reduce the waste due to pre-harvest and post-harvest losses presently estimated at 20-30% in many food grain producing countries. Ready accessibility to available food is another dimension of the problem which no technology, how ever revolutionary it may be, can over come. It is in this context that some futurologists are suggesting multi-level cultivation in urban areas for meeting at least a part of the food needs of the citizens there.

Vertical farming involves use of multi-story buildings and green house technology to increase several fold production of food from limited urban lands. At present green house technology is widely used for commercial production of crops like strawberry, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, some high value herbs and spices and has proven its viability beyond any doubt. Countries like Japan, Scandinavia, New Zealand, the US and Canada have thriving green house industries and their products have found universal acceptance. But use of buildings with several floors is a new concept and unless tested one may not be able to conclude about its practicality. According to the proponents of vertical farming, practically almost every food can be raised under appropriate controlled atmosphere conditions including fish, piggery and poultry, only exception being large live stock animals. According to tentative estimates a building with a million square meter built up area can support a population of about 50000 people and such built-up area can be created by building sky-scrappers of 30-100 flours depending on the ground area available. It is also contented that even meeting 50% of the needs of the urban population from such high rise structures, will spare huge tracts of land, presently almost degraded because of modern farming practices,for eco-reconstruction within a few years and restoration of productivity.

Challenges are many fold as practically no data exists to day regarding the scientific basis for design of such facilities which call for synergistic innovative efforts by multi disciplinary specialists in areas like hydro-biology, civil engineering, plant biotechnology, waste management, environmental science, power engineering etc. Whether one calls such monstrous production centers Farm scrappers, Vertical farms or Sky Farms, the feasibility will have to be established before depending on such a solution for meeting future food needs of mankind.


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