It’s a daily miracle that enough food is grown, packaged, transported, & distributed to feed more than 3 billion people in cities worldwide. A massive industrial food complex has been set up to meet the demands of our fast growing, increasingly urban populations. My engineer/inventor grandfather played a role in creating this system, having designed the technology behind the modern grain silo. However, toward the end of his life, he became a passionate environmentalist and expressed to me a concern about his life’s work: the complex systems his generation had set up turned out not to be as healthy for ourselves or the rest of the natural world and too few people comprehend or are involved in the decisions that operate them. The same industrial food complex that keeps us eating cheaply has ravaged the natural landscape of the countryside and compromised the nutrition and food security of almost every community, urban or rural. He said my generation would face the challenge of rethinking some of his generation’s designs.
Let’s figure out how to help cities feed themselves & improve the American diet.
Windowfarming may ultimately provide a way of getting SOME of one’s vegetables at a lower carbon cost than store bought vegetables. In our existing food system, it takes 7-10 calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food when transportation and packaging are taken into account (http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/energy/). That’s all we windowfarmers have to beat to be making progress. But we need to be very transparent about our numbers and how they compare to these numbers. Approximately 20-25 vegetable plants can grow in a 4-column windowfarm in a normal home window. How many calories of food can we produce and how low can we get the fossil fuel use for these hydroponic gardens while keeping them easy to maintain and pleasing to their human roommates? How much control can we get as the end consumers to know exactly where all the components came from and understand their environmental impact?
There may also be a nutritional benefit to windowfarmed vegetables over those bought at a grocery store. Researchers correlate high caloric content responsible for American obesity with the degree of food processing and the distance food has to travel (http://web.mit.edu/newsofice/2009/foodshed.html). My windowfarmed crops TASTE better and seem fresher than food I get at the grocery store. I think that’s because these veggies are still ALIVE.
A retooling of the food system faces several problems related to education & public perception. First, there is a lack of understanding of the value of change, nutrition, how the system works, or how to fix it. We just don’t know as much about where our food comes from and nutrition has gotten to be a very distant complicated topic compared to the way we might have understood it when we all grew our own. Hands-on “constructivist” learning has been shown to be most effective and the Windowfarms Project has people learn in just about the most hands-on constructivist way possible, but its also just fun and pretty. Just steps from the table, Windowfarmers nurture their own food-bearing plants– historically a core human skill– which leads to a better understanding of humans’ nutritional needs and how much the quality of the plants one eats matters. I put a lot of care and attention into ensuring that my plants themselves get the best possible nutrition. When my lettuce is wilty or spotty, I research it’s health and thereby end up learning about my own metabolic processes. Windowfarmers are not back seat observers in conversations about the food system, they are drivers with experience and a personal stake in the matter. However, all this food education might just creep up on them unawares, born out of their passion for gardening, design, or fresh herbs.
OPENNESS & PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
There’s no group for this yet. Start one here.
As Silicon Valley venture capitalists twitter about agriculture being the next big market and governments begin funding new agricultural tech startups (see Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringers FoodNYC plan) we need to be very careful that we are not turning food production into yet another set of proprietary technologies that will aggregate power over another vital life resource in the hands of the few. We have seen what happens when we are not proactive about keeping vital ideas and research in the public domain, e.g. Monsanto or the pharmaceutical industry. We do not blankly advocate opensource everything, but when it comes to resources that are essential to life like food and medicine, absolutely. In a sustainable society, the knowledge about how to grow our own food and provide for ourselves should remain in the hands of individuals as well as in those of the large organizations who produce en masse. Complex automated systems set up on skyscraper rooftops and maintained by only a few specialists, will undoubtedly provide more food, but the knowledge and experience should really be shared with as many folks as possible. We believe that giving folks of all stripes the know-how and ability to grow food for themselves, where it is convenient and accessible in their apartments, will make our food system exponentially stronger and smarter. We are aware that there may be legal battles to be fought here and we have good people on our side, helping us look ahead.