The End Of Big Ag?
October 5, 2018 9:36 AM   Subscribe

“That same year, Diggers’ Mirth Collective Farm next door also suffered; the farmers managed to earn a small profit—enough to net each farmer the equivalent of $5 an hour. It wasn’t much, but had the farm been structured in a typical hierarchy, the owner would have already paid out the labor and been left to bear the losses alone. “In our case, as bad as it was, no one was in debt,” says Dylan Zeitlyn, one of the founders of the worker-owned farm. “We were more resilient because of [our model]—it could have bankrupted somebody.” The Co-op Farming Model Might Help Save America’s Small Farms (Civil Eats) - Cuba’s Urban Farming Revolution: Creating more self-sufficient cities (Architectural Review) - The road to restoration: smaller, sustainable farms (UN Environment) - Agroecology can free farmers from dependency, manipulated commodity markets, unfair subsidies and food insecurity. It is resisted by giant corporations that profit from the status quo. ( Climate And Capitalism)
posted by The Whelk (59 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I RTFA and I still can’t tell if Havana is food ...independent?

I mean is that possible? Like can major cities be modified through urban farming initiatives to become completely food self-sufficient?
posted by schadenfrau at 10:05 AM on October 5, 2018


Havana's hybrid system is the product of a command economy, basically, wherein the State decides which land parcels are to be used, regardless of ownership, value, etc. Try this in any other city in the world and see how far you get. Throughout human history, the dichotomy between rural and urban spaces is pretty much a constant, with good reason.

Communal farming is a "interesting" (for certain definitions of interesting. See: Soviet Kolkhozi, etc.) idea, but $5/hour for what amounts to fairly strenuous physical labor is unsustainable. It's literally less than minimum wage.
posted by Chrischris at 10:19 AM on October 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


> Havana's hybrid system is the product of a command economy, basically, wherein the State decides which land parcels are to be used, regardless of ownership, value, etc.

As opposed to the American system, where land used is determined by ownership regardless of need, value, etc.

The state sucks, but private ownership sucks more.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:43 AM on October 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


It's theoretically possible, I suppose, for a city to grow its own food, but it would be a challenge.

Dent corn has the highest calorie yield per acre of any row crop, at least of those commonly farmed today. (Potatoes are close, and the highest-performing root crop. I think the highest-yielding perennials are bananas/plantains, but not sure.) The average yield for field corn is 171 bushels/acre (although that's always going up, and probably with effort it could go higher—but we'll stick with typical US farming practices), at 56 pounds per bushel of edible corn, and ~1500 nutritional calories per pound, that's about 14 million calories per acre under cultivation. An active person needs about 1 million calories per year (though at 2k calories/day it's actually only 730k, but we'll assume city-dwellers walk more than us lazy suburban schlubs).

So just as a low bound, absolute minimum, you'd need 1 acre under intensive row-crop-style cultivation for each 15 people, and that assumes zero waste during food preparation and service, etc. Also, hope people figure out how to make hominy, or pellagra is going to be the cool new look next season.

So you could make a start with rooftop gardens. There are supposedly 1200 acres of flat-roofed commercial buildings in New York City. So a start, but not nearly enough. You'd need to open up a lot more land to feed the whole city, with artificial lighting probably.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:45 AM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


So just as a low bound, absolute minimum, you'd need 1 acre under intensive row-crop-style cultivation for each 15M-ish people, and that assumes zero waste during food preparation and service, etc. Also, hope people figure out how to make hominy, or pellagra is going to be the cool new look next season.

No, according to your calculations that 14 people per acre, not 1400. You would need 592,000 acres under cultivation (with the highest KCal yielding monocrop, with negligble waste) to feed NYC. 1200 acres of rooftop corn growing will feed 17K people. So, about 10 high density city blocks worth.
posted by Chrischris at 11:04 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]




To be honest, for a lot of farmers, netting $5/hour would be a step up.

Well great! With those kind of lavish wages, they should have no problem at all living comfortably in NYC or San Fran or any other urban area in the US!
posted by Chrischris at 11:10 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Chrischris: You're correct, I flubbed and swapped a comma for a decimal point in my napkin math. I realized the error, naturally, right after I hit the submit button and tried to correct it, but not quickly enough evidently. Good catch.

Though, on further thought, that assumes only a single harvest per year. We're starting to see varieties of corn that will allow multiple harvests, and in greenhouses with some artificial lighting and use of waste heat to keep them warm, I think two might be possible per season. So that would get you up to 36k people or so, from the NYC commercial rooftops.

This report on land use and tree cover in NYC suggests that there are about 30,000 acres of land currently covered with "Grass or shrub area that is theoretically available for the establishment of tree canopy." Or, in a pinch, food crops. And that's without cutting down any trees. That's another 900k people.

But if you're willing to bust out the chainsaws and jackhammers and start using all the land currently covered by trees and arguably-useless impervious surfaces (not buildings or roads, but parking lots, plazas and the like), you can get 120,000 acres. At two harvests per year, that's 3.6M people fed. In a city of 8.5 million I'd still be very suspicious of what the hotdog vendors were selling, but it's a hell of a start.

Really, to do it right, you'd really need to raze a couple of city blocks, rather than trying to do it using bits of land here and there. Then you could use tractors and probably cut down on the labor inputs as well.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:12 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Whether a city can grow its own food, well, define "city".

I'm sure most cities could grow more food than they do now. But the population density where they could grow all their own food, is closer to what most people would call "suburbs". And the people in the suburbs probably spend too much time commuting, to farm that much, even if they wanted to.
posted by elizilla at 11:12 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Also, how safe is that food? Lots of city land is pretty polluted.
posted by elizilla at 11:15 AM on October 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah like every community garden they’ve tested in NYC is chock full of lead and arsenic and whatever the hell else.

I don’t know if rooftop hydroponics are a thing, but they seem like a thing?
posted by schadenfrau at 11:24 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


In a recent interview appearing on the Farming Matters website, Million Belay sheds light on how agroecological agriculture is the best model of agriculture for Africa. Belay explains that one of the greatest agroecological initiatives started in 1995 in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, and continues today. It began with four villages and after good results, it was scaled up to 83 villages and finally to the whole Tigray Region. It was recommended to the Ministry of Agriculture to be scaled up at the national level. The project has now expanded to six regions of Ethiopia.

The fact that it was supported with research by the Ethiopian University at Mekele has proved to be critical in convincing decision makers that these practices work and are better for both the farmers and the land.


Conclusion: Undernutrition was prevalent among the girls. Strategies to improve the nutritional status of girls need to go beyond the conventional maternal and child health care programs to reach girls before conception to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. Further, carefully designed longitudinal studies are needed to identify the reasons for poor growth throughout the period of adolescence in this population.
posted by zabuni at 11:26 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


start with rooftop gardens

Yeah, no. Most high yield agriculture requires structural support akin to a single story concrete building. Nothing taller or less structurally supportive will work...or at least you're talking about a very different kind of crop. The production doesn't come anywhere close.

Throughout human history, the dichotomy between rural and urban spaces is pretty much a constant, with good reason.

Yeah, this. Urban agriculture is one of those things that for some reason people think has a nice sizzle to it, but as soon as you look at any of the basics, the logistics fall apart. Can some level of local food production happen in cities? Absolutely. Can it sustain a population? Absolutely not.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 11:37 AM on October 5, 2018 [11 favorites]


Really, to do it right, you'd really need to raze a couple of city blocks, rather than trying to do it using bits of land here and there. Then you could use tractors and probably cut down on the labor inputs as well.


A Manhattan city block goes for about 1 billion dollars. (You might find a few bargains out in Queens or Brooklynn for only 100 Million or so.) There are 400 city blocks (20x20) per square mile in Manhattan. there are 640 acres in one square mile. One city block equals about 1.6 acres. Using your earlier yield inputs, that works out to 652,911 dollars per pound of corn or only 435 dollars per calorie.
posted by Chrischris at 11:38 AM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


Rooftop farms exist, at least in NYC. I haven't checked recently, but Brooklyn Grange at least is still profitable and (due to its urban location) has a lot of revenue streams available which more rural farms lack (most notably, renting out their locations for weddings and parties).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:39 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Included in this UN report is a breakdown of which crops and livestock (even cattle, but not hogs for much longer) are produced in Havana. Notably absent in that breakdown: any cereal crops, which being rather space-inefficient are presumably either grown elsewhere in Cuba, or imported.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 11:48 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


Smaller sustainable farms and agroecology are not the end of "Big Ag." Big Ag is here to stay, thankfully.
posted by lstanley at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


So that would get you up to 36k people or so, from the NYC commercial rooftops.

But how do you get the combines up that high?
posted by pwnguin at 12:01 PM on October 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Chrischris: Throughout human history, the dichotomy between rural and urban spaces is pretty much a constant, with good reason.

I'm pretty sure this is an incorrect statement. Before the age of fossil fuels==cheap transport, every mile you could save transporting food was a big gain. The economic activity and political power of the biggest and richest cities - a Rome, say, or a Nanking - would've pushed most agriculture out and pulled food in over long distances, but most small cities all over the world have had plenty of backyard gardens and chicken coops and people collecting the waste for fertilizer and the rest of it. This was especially true during times when populations and economies were shrinking via periodic plagues and famines.
posted by clawsoon at 12:56 PM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


What lstanley says. You are not going to replace the corn, soy, wheat, cattle, swine and poultry operations that anchor our macronutrient capacity with anything that isn't "Big" without creating profound food cost inflation, perpetual food insecurity for the poor and working class, and material outright famine risk (i.e., non-poor people can starve too).
posted by MattD at 12:58 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


I've found one of the passages that inspired my previous comment in the thread, from The Structures of Everyday Life:
Moreover, even the large towns continued to engage in rural activites up to the eighteenth century. They therefore housed shepherds, gamekeepers, agricultural works and vine-growers (even in Paris). Every town generally owned a surrounding area of gardens and orchards inside and outside its walls, and fields farther away, sometimes with rotation crops, as in Frankfurt-am-Main, Worms, Basle and Munich. In the middle ages, the noise of the flail could be heard right up to the Rathaus in Ulm, Augsburg or Nuremberg. Pigs were reared in freedom in the the streets....

As for the innumerable small towns, they could barely be distinguished from country life....

If the town did not completely surrender the monopoly of crops or stockraising to the countryside, conversely the countryside did not give up all its 'industrial' activities in favour of nearby towns.
posted by clawsoon at 1:13 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Whether a city can grow its own food, well, define "city".

Whether a city can grow its own food, well, define "food".

Why would a farmer grow inexpensive tomatoes when he or she could instead farm a more profitable crop like honeycrisp apples ($3 a pound)? Or something nicely addictive, like tobacco? Without a command economy of some kind, rational actors will always select what is most profitable for them, regardless of the needs of the community.
posted by SPrintF at 1:35 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


But how do you get the combines up that high?

Take them apart and carry them up the stairs, probably. You're gonna need a lot of beers for your friends afterwards...


Anyway, it doesn't make much sense to plant row crops in urban areas; at least in the US there is a lot of land outside of cities, and moving dried grain around is pretty damn efficient (most of it goes by rail, some even by barge or ship, until it's processed into food of some sort) so it makes total sense to grow it out in rural areas and transport it. This is one of those areas where the market actually has found a pretty efficient solution, and it'd be bonkers to force some other model on it when it works so well.

Actually in general, the market has been pretty good at maximizing agricultural yields, and the history of command economies in the 20th century isn't nearly so good. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where you might want to apply a corrective stick to the head of the mule once in a while, but don't shoot the mule—it's still moving in the right direction.

IMO, the most obvious place to apply that command-economy stick isn't row crops, it's livestock; the meat industry externalizes vast costs on the rest of the economy, which brings down the price of meat and increases consumption of it, and beyond the externalized pollution and CO2, meat is a poor use of grain, and doesn't seem to be especially healthy for people to eat in large quantities anyway. It's lose-lose-lose, for everyone except the people who profit from raising livestock and selling meat. So that's the stupendous market failure, not the lack of greenhouses on Manhattan office buildings.

But since we're apparently unable to fix giant, obvious market failures like that, there's probably nothing wrong with urban farming of truck crops and produce; growing it closer to the point of consumption reduces fuel-inefficient truck transport and, in the case of very perishable crops, probably reduces a lot of waste. It seems like you might be able to make that into a net win.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:36 PM on October 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think, in discussions like this, we let "perfect be the enemy of good", or "good enough" as I like to think of it. If say, half of the land currently given to lawns in the US were transformed to small food gardens, we could easily supplement our diets with locally grown, fresh food. Permaculture where it makes sense, with fruit trees, fruiting vines, and other zone-appropriate plantings can greatly reduce the work needed to sustain such gardens. Backyard chickens allowed to free-range need very little in the way of supplemental food, and provide fresh protein in the form of eggs, and give back manure to the garden, and bedding+manure to the compost. We've gardened like this for over 15 years, and in a good year, eat about 70% of our fresh vegetables (for the year) from our garden. We haven't bought apples, berries, or pears for years. Same with dried beans. So no, you can't grow all the calories/nutrition needed from urban agriculture, but you can supplement quite successfully (and tasty too!).
posted by dbmcd at 1:39 PM on October 5, 2018 [7 favorites]


Certainly replacing Big Ag is a pipe dream, even if you think it's a good idea (and all in all, with a lot of caveats, I'm pretty okay with it), but there is no reason to ignore the exciting possibilities of urban farming for supplementing or even adding back in fresh vegetables in people's diets. Sure, it's insane to think about replacing the vast, incomprehensible quantities of corn and wheat grown in the plains of the US with rooftop gardens and hydroponics nonsense, it's perfectly reasonable to try and create smaller and more gardens. Several restaurants and a company function on that principle in Duluth, heavily (in some cases purely) supplying themselves from urban farms and local meat producers. These work on small, intensely managed plots near the location and then a large number of small, usually house lot sized plots of other foods. There's one across the street from me, actually. The eateries that run off of these things are a little more expensive than equivalent meals at a fast food joint ($10-15 for a meal instead of $7-10), but actually made from things that are not terrible. Those prices would fall if they received anything like the massive governmental aid to Big Ag.

These have the benefit of being cheap, quick to put up, and don't require expansive infrastructure to maintain like rooftop gardens or hydroponic systems.

It's also just kinda dumb to look at a problem and possible solution, and then point out why it can never work because it won't work in NYC. NYC is not every city, it's actually pretty unusual, as people from there are quick to point out in other cases. Land prices are radically different in every city, and the Urban/Rural divide is not as clear as people think. There is plenty of in-city farming that occurs in KC, for example, and in many places where 'rural' is more an adjective for selling a lifestyle house to someone than it is an actual descriptor of population.

I really do want to pursue this idea, as any contact more people can have with their food systems, even if fleeting, should hopefully help the american diet improve. Fresh food in our culture shouldn't be seen as a rich people thing, it doesn't have to be.
posted by neonrev at 1:42 PM on October 5, 2018 [10 favorites]


Yeah it seems odd to use the example of our largest and densest city on being 100% food independence versus creating a more flexible, diverse food economy to supplement and enrich the current one.

Plus, knock on effects! Even if rooftop gardens won’t feed the city alone, they do provide cooling effects, pollination points, air filtration - and the more conversion of blacktop and concrete into soil the better we’ll be able to deal with the more frequent and inevitable flooding.we could also do with more subsidies toward rare or heritage breeds (again big Ag gets SO MUCH MONEY , imagine even a slight amount given projects like cooperatives or suburban farming inatives)

Prioritizing community and cooperative agriculture within and without the city is a net good, money stays in local communities for one thing, we just aren’t thinking big enough. There’s a pilot program in my neighborhood for super cheap produce for seniors from local farms - it’s great but it’s kind of hassle and underadveftized and nit big enough. Why not a community board wide CSA? Why not say ...bury the BQE and put native woodland on top? How about a program to turn empty exurbs back into productive land, either as local food sources or rewinding? Our composting system is pretty good but considering the size of the city and the amount of produce it goes though at points of production, it could be much, much bigger.

And that’s just talking about New York City, where this is difficult ...lawns across the country are just sitting there. You’re not going to replace the cereal and bread industries, but you could make a dent in decentralizing, diversifying, and decarbonizing other food sources.
posted by The Whelk at 1:59 PM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]


Why would a farmer grow inexpensive tomatoes when he or she could instead farm a more profitable crop like honeycrisp apples ($3 a pound)? Or something nicely addictive, like tobacco? Without a command economy of some kind, rational actors will always select what is most profitable for them, regardless of the needs of the community.

Well for one thing apples are a long, long lead time item. It's 6-10 years before it even starts producing fruit and then probably another 10-15 years before it's producing enough to cover the costs of maintenance and to cover all the years where it wasn't growing apples. If you can sit around for 15-20 years with effectively no income it's a rational choice. Tobacco is a labor and capital intensive product as well with lots of specialized skills needed. Most of the high price foods are the same way, lots of labor and capital costs pushing the price up so in the end the farmer doesn't make much more than before. And lot of them, like apples, don't keep very long either so if the price isn't there you're just out of money for the year.

Grain and corns not so much, there will be lots of rational actors that can and will grow them in a non-command situation. The problem is actually the opposite, in a non-command environment the crops will tend towards the easy things to grow and store, like wheat, corn, barley, since they can always be stored sold later and are not labor and capital intensive, so much so that they tend to all over produce and drive the prices down to subsistence levels for the farmers.
posted by jmauro at 2:07 PM on October 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


Good points about capital, jmauro. I'd add that the high capital requirements, long lead times, and a high number of independent producers also lead to boom and bust cycles in agriculture in the absence of supply management. The price of pigs goes up, so everybody starts raising pigs on their farm, and when they all bring them to market the price crashes. Lather, rinse, repeat. That's another major driver of agricultural consolidation.
posted by clawsoon at 2:13 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think I've read an 'End of Big Ag?' article twice a year for the last ten years. I won't hold my breath.
posted by windowbr8r at 2:15 PM on October 5, 2018


lawns across the country are just sitting there.

Regardless of desire, lawns across the country are owned by people, not farmers.
posted by lstanley at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Are farmers not people, or are people not farmers?
posted by clawsoon at 2:37 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


You know what I am saying.
posted by lstanley at 2:49 PM on October 5, 2018


> Regardless of desire, lawns across the country are owned by people [who prefer lawns], not farmers.

Which is a collosal misallocation of resources that would only happen in a society that irrationally fetishizes the idea of privately owned land.

Given the choice between the private land ownership and sustainable land use, I’ll take sustainable land use every time.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:57 PM on October 5, 2018


Reasonbly Everything Happens: Most high yield agriculture requires structural support akin to a single story concrete building. Nothing taller or less structurally supportive will work...or at least you're talking about a very different kind of crop. The production doesn't come anywhere close.

This is not true. With composite soil mixtures and a roof that supports a live load of 100 PSF, you can easily get soil 12~16" deep, and deeper if you use high-performance soil mixtures with aggregate such as perlite. The structural support is not an engineering challenge in of itself -- floors of buildings support 100+ PSF no problem. The concern is that most existing roofs are not designed for that level of structural support.
posted by suedehead at 2:59 PM on October 5, 2018


and yeah, urban farming’s not the greatest idea, and yeah, the people who’ve glommed onto it are often insane, and yeah, urban farming’s probably not coming to manhattan (or even hoboken) anytime soon, but it might be a worthwhile thing to implement — not a panacea, just a worthwhile thing — in, say, pasadena.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 3:00 PM on October 5, 2018


What people want to do with those lawns can and does change over time though. That's been the case in a not insignificant number of areas in my city, where plenty of people with lawn have become a lot more farmer-y than they were 20 years ago. That's a change in culture driven by a bunch of things, but a command economy is not one of them.
posted by deadwax at 3:03 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


What will bring urban gardening back, I would think, will be a rise in the price of transportation.

IIRC, a lawn was one of the classic examples in Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class: You're creating something which looks almost like a cow pasture, except without cows and in a way which makes it clear that you have plenty of leisure time on your hands with which to do useless activities. Being able to create a simulacrum of productivity without being productive is an important status symbol.
posted by clawsoon at 3:15 PM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


Also, gardening is hard work. My family raised almost all the carbs and veggies we needed (three big gardens of potatoes, carrots, beans, corn, etc.), and it was a lot of physical work. Much easier - now that I've grown up - to work a desk job and let poor people thousands of miles away do all the backbreaking labour for me.
posted by clawsoon at 3:28 PM on October 5, 2018


Much easier - now that I've grown up - to work a desk job and let poor people thousands of miles away do all the backbreaking labour for me.

YMMV, plenty of people like at least a bit of it. Without some level of hard labour in my life I go a bit funny.
posted by deadwax at 3:58 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


and yeah, urban farming’s not the greatest idea, and yeah, the people who’ve glommed onto it are often insane, and yeah, urban farming’s probably not coming to manhattan (or even hoboken) anytime soon, but it might be a worthwhile thing to implement — not a panacea, just a worthwhile thing — in, say, pasadena.

The Urban Homestead
is in Pasadena. They say they grow 7,000 pounds of food a year an a 1/10 acre. (~4,000 sf)
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:01 PM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Urban Homestead is in Pasadena. They say they grow 7,000 pounds of food a year an a 1/10 acre. (~4,000 sf)

So enough to feed three-and-a-half Americans?
posted by clawsoon at 4:03 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Man you sure got me, somebody said it might work in Pasadena and I knew of an example in Pasadena.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:07 PM on October 5, 2018


It came out snarkier than I intended, apologies. It does give a sense of scale, though, I hope.
posted by clawsoon at 4:08 PM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


The answer to NYC's agriculture problem used to be Long Island. Potatoes. Cauliflower. Ducks. Roses. Wine. Most of it put on the train and sent to the city. Then it became cheaper to fly roses in from Colombia than to grow them on Long Island. Long Island growers are some of the smartest growers in the country, however; they have to be, because land costs are so high they can't grow low-profit crops. I remember trying to help growers with Perilla, which they sold to Japanese restaurants in the city for sushi. With micro-greens. Long Island growers turned heavily to Agro-tainment, with U-pick pumpkins, corn mazes, butterfly tents, crappy fruit wines for tourists to supplement the income from high-quality wine. To survive, however, they needed to hire a lot of illegal immigrants, or foreign workers on work permits. The economy of Long Island agriculture became baroque; growers sold poinsettias to Wal-mart at below the cost of growing them because they were a late-season crop that kept the permanent workers employed in a slow time. If we Extension people advised them to spray their crop to control a disease, they'd say they couldn't; they were already losing money.

I always watch what happens on Long Island because it tells you what will happen I the rest of the country in 20 years.
posted by acrasis at 4:36 PM on October 5, 2018 [9 favorites]


Ban cars in NYC. Turn the streets into farmland. It won't feed everybody, but it's about 90,000 acres of farmland.
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:06 PM on October 5, 2018


FWIW, during WWII "the US Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 20 million victory gardens were planted. Fruit and vegetables harvested in these home and community plots was estimated to be 9-10 million tons, an amount equal to all commercial production of fresh vegetables."

I'm not sure where these numbers are coming from or whether to trust them, though
posted by dilettante at 6:20 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Turn the streets into farmland. It won't feed everybody, but it's about 90,000 acres of farmland.

...which thousands of people will have to walk through and across and trample down every day because the streets are lined with the buildings that they live and work in. buildings that are very tall and so tend to block out sun that growing things need to, well, grow.
posted by halation at 6:23 PM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


It does give a sense of scale, though, I hope.

It does, but I look at that scale of 3.5 people on a tenth of an acre and am pretty impressed. I've walked past a few hundred urban homes with that spare this morning in Saturday errands, even at half the competence of people who blog about it, households growing for themselves at that scale grow a hell of a lot of food in aggregate.
posted by deadwax at 6:27 PM on October 5, 2018


I mean, one of the co-founders of permaculture has just released a book about it.

So yes, I have the sense of scale, but I'm not sure what's wrong with it. Not everything is about NYC.
posted by deadwax at 6:32 PM on October 5, 2018


...which thousands of people will have to walk through and across and trample down every day because the streets are lined with the buildings that they live and work in. buildings that are very tall and so tend to block out sun that growing things need to, well, grow.

Good point about the buildings. As far as walking I was picturing the actual streets. Sidewalks and crosswalks could still exist. I'm sure there's a bunch of logistical things that would make it not work. My point was that there's a lot of space in dense urban areas that we don't think about because they're kind of invisible to us. Half of new york city is roads.
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:42 PM on October 5, 2018


And, again, there is at least one successful rooftop farm in NYC with land in two boroughs. If you can make a profit there, you can do it anywhere.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Without a command economy of some kind, rational actors will always select what is most profitable for them, regardless of the needs of the community.

With a strong enough command economy, growing food for the entire population of New York inside the city limits would be trivial.

Spirulina, except for some minor limitations, is perfect nutritionally. According to my sources, six liters of Spirulena water will supply the nutritional needs for one adult. If we increase that to ten liters to allow for wastage and redundancy, then the entire population of New York can be fed using 85,000 cubic meters. Even tripling that size to allow for machinery, we can knock down the Empire State building, and feed the entire population in a multi-level hydroponics structure filling the vacated space.

Yes, yes, I know some people have some issues with the taste. But given enough incentive, the people of New York can be fed this way.

But naturally we can't do that. Because Capitalism. But I'm pretty sure that's how they feed people in the Expanse novels.
posted by happyroach at 11:48 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


It’s really great to keep talking about NYC despite the fact that none of the links mention it more than passing and we should just continue to conjure on what would a new york city argiculture be like despite several mentions on how it’s unique and not typical and not relevant to the topics discussed.
posted by The Whelk at 1:02 AM on October 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Yeah, for real, New York City, and in general all of the largest, most expensive and most densely populated cities in the US are pretty emphatically not the subject of anything being discussed by anyone serious, here or elsewhere. The food system problems involved in feeding the people who live there (and specifically not the people who commute into it to work there) are and have been the subject of many a FPP, and go much, much deeper than where the farms are. Trying to shoe-horn it into this is about as nuts as trying to talk subway system development in rural Montana, it does not matter, like at all.
posted by neonrev at 5:27 AM on October 6, 2018


New York is definitely an outlier in the US, the only other city that even comes close in density is SF. Certainly not analogous to Havana.

The best places for urban agriculture in the US are probably sprawling, warmish, wet southern cities; Houston might be too sprawling, but Atlanta or Charlotte maybe?

Anyone have any idea how much informal agriculture is going on right now in cities, particularly in the south? How prevalent are informal arrangements like vegetable gardens and gray market produce swaps? DC has a ton of community gardens, for instance.

Throughout human history, the dichotomy between rural and urban spaces is pretty much a constant, with good reason.
As pointed out above, this is simply not true.

dent corn . . .
It is high calorie per acre and grows in nice uniform vertical formations, but it's one of those green revolution solutions that comes with a million other problems. For me a big part of the appeal of many of the less utopian sustainable urban farming initiatives (aquaponics in Bangladesh e.g.) is that they move people away from low-nutrient cereal crops by necessity.

This topic is hard. I feel like it's very difficult for Americans in particular to abstractly discuss non-profit agriculture, semi-command economies, or farm subsidies; we've got some kind of Jeffersonian cultural baggage that always starts getting everyone het up, plus a healthy dose of birthright/Manifest Destiny BS. Not a topic you want to bring up with my farming relatives in the midwest.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:40 AM on October 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


I mean sure maybe dense megacities aren’t ideal, but to say they’re not typical seems to ignore where a majority of the population actually lives, and where even more people will live in the future. So game out whatever you want for Montana, but it’s not going to be particularly practical. And people are naturally going to want to talk about the actual reality of the present and the near future, rather than a perfectly spherical cow or whatever.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:25 AM on October 6, 2018


Well, it's not as though those sprawling southern cities are going to be habitable 50 years from now, so it's kind of pointless to try to do urban agriculture with them. New York may be too far south, but as the farmlands turn into desert, people will flee there and be willing to eat anything once they're hungry enough. And the nacient megapoli of places like Juno will need food in areas unsuitable for agriculture. So, spirulina grown in hydroponics towers, supplemented by harvesting ocean jellyfish will likely be the most practical solution in the medium term. I know people are in love with the idea of farming gardens on top of buildings or in parks, but that's not going to meet the food needed in the future.
posted by happyroach at 11:16 AM on October 6, 2018


According to my sources, six liters of Spirulena water will supply the nutritional needs for one adult. If we increase that to ten liters to allow for wastage and redundancy, then the entire population of New York can be fed using 85,000 cubic meters. Even tripling that size to allow for machinery, we can knock down the Empire State building, and feed the entire population in a multi-level hydroponics structure filling the vacated space.

I suspect your sources were really saying something different than you thought. According to this article, a 1 meter square tank can produce "2 kg of dried spirulina a year." Dried spirulena is 20 kcal/7g or on the order of 6000 kcal for the 1 meter square tank. If we assume that you can get away with a 33 cm depth in the tank (the article didn't say) that means a cubic meter gives you around 18000 kcal/year, and allowing 1000/day (which is basically starvation-level), you need around 20 cubic meters per person. That's 20,000 liters, which is over three orders of magnitude more than 6.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:11 PM on October 8, 2018


“How to feed ten billion people”, a ~5min video from The Financial Times of little vignettes and interviews about farming technology at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.
posted by XMLicious at 6:25 AM on October 16, 2018


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