George and the beanstalk: vege myths and legends?

In which intensive vertical vege farming, 30 stories pie-in-the-sky, is dismissed as magical thinking by a bright green man

Unlike pork, apparently, and mushrooms, and back bench MPs, vegetables will not survive on this regime: feed ‘em shit, and keep ‘em in the dark.

So says George Monbiot, the bright green man. And I don’t want to dispute him. It would be the Pythonesque fish-slapping dance. I would be the [wo]man with the kipper. Or maybe, a small carrot.

I spend much of my time confronting one aspect of denial [writes Monbiot]: the virulent repudiation of environmental constraints by those who admit no challenge to their vision of the world. But it pains me to report that denial and wishful thinking are almost as common on the other side of the argument. I find myself at odds with other greens almost as often as I find myself fighting our common enemies. I’ve had bruising battles over a long series of miracle solutions supported by my friends: liquid biofuels(1), hydrogen cars and planes(2), biochar plantations(3,4), solar electricity in the UK(5), scrappage payments(6), feed-in tariffs(7). But no green delusion is as crazy as the one I am about to explain.

He calls it “Despommier’s dumb idea”. He points, with incredulity, to feature coverage in or on the New York Times, Time magazine, Scientific American, the BBC, CNN, Discovery Channel, NBC,, and The Huffington Post, plus a supportive piece by a different author in the Guardian (Monbiot himself was writing in the Guardian).

And now, Pundit, for something completely different …

Despommier is marvellously named: “of the apple trees”. His “dumb idea” is this: urban vertical food farming. High-rise food-producing greenhouses, feeding whole cities within the confines of the city limits:

It has been estimated that it will require approximately 300 square feet of intensively farmed indoor space to produce enough food to support a single individual living in an extra-terrestrial environment (eg, on a space station or a colony on the moon or Mars). Working within the framework of these calculations, one vertical farm with an architectural footprint of one square city block and rising up to 30 stories (approximately 3 million square feet) could provide enough nutrition (2,000 calories/day/person) to comfortably accommodate the needs of 10,000 people. … The vertical farm is a theoretical construct whose time has arrived …

His references, to being in orbit, might be quite apt. Monbiot, anyway, is grumpily convinced this is crazy science-fiction stuff, and he has a record of being right.

Turns out though, the New York Times, particularly, was less breathless than might have been implied. In fact, it had some of the same objections as Monbiot himself, including a reality check from Despommier. Monbiot says: “The real issue is scarcely mentioned in his essays on the subject: light”. But maybe, this is a concept, not intended by anyone including its author, at this stage, to be taken quite so literally. It throws up challenges, for architecture and horticulture to try to solve; meantime, it’s a thought experiment.

Although it did remind me, again, of one writer’s actual experiment: Manny Howard, who tried to establish a ‘farm’ to feed himself for a month, in his Brooklyn backyard. He found that Nature didn’t co-operate; food growing isn't for amateurs. Which is exactly Monbiot’s point, who's all about grounding his theories, and his response to others’ theories, in the real environmental world.

So why am I wasting your time? Well, I want to believe, and do believe, there’s a  kernel of truth in it. Even if the futuristic idea turns out to be a total loser, it’s well-meant, and ought to be tackled by others more grounded: urban planners.

I hate sad stunted city gardens. I find them a waste of space: neither use nor ornament. I would turn them into allotments. I’d have green roofs, as a design feature, on apartment and office buildings. Despommier started with that same idea, but found it too small scale. And they would need to be planted intensively, vertically, but not unnaturally.

Truly, I don’t underestimate the difficulties, or suggest it as a panacea. I doubt, confined to land or spaces with no better economic or social uses, it could feed a city well, or at all. A quick Google on "Havana" shows estimates ranging, unhelpfully, from “more than 50 percent” to 90 percent of fresh produce grown within the city limits. I wonder who'd plant and tend the vegetables, would they be vandalised or stolen, and so on. Would it help make us more resilient, or would we be setting ourselves up for another potato famine?

Monbiot again:

In my grouchier moments I feel that only those who grow some of their own food should write about food production. Horticulture, with its endlessly varied constraints and disappointments, is an excellent corrective to wishful thinking.

Well, I do. Though I don’t find it helps me out with the wishful thinking all that much.