Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Importance of Preserving our Farmland.

The majority of the produce, dairy's, and meat products that line the shelves at our grocers do not come from local sources.  In the summer months our peaches, plums, and corn often originate at its closest from B.C.  Our onions, apples, and pears often originate from Washington, our lettuce and celery from California, our tomatoes, grapefruits and corn from Florida.  Our more exotic fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and avocados can originate from faraway lands in Mexico or the South Americas.  Our meats are often sent to centralized packing plants in east Canada, before they are distributed back.  Other food products such as our cereals come from centralized processing facilities in eastern Canada, and other various countries.  We are only hurting ourselves by sourcing our foods to foreign locations.

When we source our foods from faraway lands, this increases the cost of our food products in a few ways.  Our food needs to be transported somehow from these faraway lands, this transportation does not come cheaply.  Since Canada and the US has dedicated the majority of its time developing their roadway networks this means that the most frequent method of transporting our foods is via semi trailers.   This is problematic these days since the price of our food is directly tied to the price of gas, and guess what...the price of fuel is going up.  If Canada and the US had decided to develop their rail systems better, we could transport our food by rail more, and the price of our food is less connected to its transportation. Rail is a more efficient transportation method as it has its own right of way and doesn't have to deal with other drivers or traffic lights every 5 minutes.  Rail is also less expensive since you only need a few train conductors for every 100 rail cars, where as with semis you need a driver for every two trailers. 

Since our food spends a long time on the road, this also means that you have keep it fresh for the consumer when it arrives at its destination.  This means that food providers have to use preservatives to achieve this goal, these preservatives also cost money thus raising the cost of the food.  Preservatives can come in many forms which include cooler trailers, packaging, natural additives such as salts or smoke, and artificial preservatives.  The use of coolers require large amounts of energy, which in turn requires more fuel to run the semis.  Plastic is used for the majority of our packaging, this is unsustainable as plastic is produced from oil, plastic is not very biodegradable, and plastic requires large amounts of energy to recycle.  Unfortunately the majority of our foods use artificial preservatives since they are the cheapest.  We are basically poisoning ourselves by procuring our foods from distant sources, as these artificial preservatives are toxic to our nervous and immune systems. 

Do you remember the health scares associated with Maple Leaf recalling meat products due to Listeria infections?  The recall of tomatoes due to an outbreak of Salmonella?  Or the recall of beef products due to E. Coli, or Mad Cow Disease.  The point I am trying to make here is that when we centralize all of our food products into one massive plant, we make it easier for larger quantities to be susceptible to spoilage.  All of the products at these centralized processing plants touch the same hands, or piece of machinery.  This means that when one infected product is introduced to the system, it is hard to prevent the rest of the products from becoming contaminated as well.  Just like that all of the food that you located in one factory becomes inedible.  You can prevent this by encouraging local farming and processing.  With a more decentralized system, you protect more of the food sources.  If one factory becomes tainted, this does not mean your entire supply has become useless.  Your other locations were not exposed to the one bad product and can still distribute its products safely.

By obtaining the foods that line our grocers shelves locally we only stand to benefit.  We help our wallets as our food prices are lower.  You may argue that is not the case since prices at your local farmers markets are higher than at your grocer, however this may be due to local farmers not receiving deals from our grocery stores.  Our farmers in these cases have to transport, package and sell their products themselves.  When an individual farmer must carry all of the cost burdens themselves, they must adjust the price to ensure a profit.
By encouraging local farming you retain jobs, since you are now producing your own food you are also creating jobs in your area. 

When you centralize all the farming into one area you place a larger strain on the water supplies and soil in that area.  California is having troubles with water right now and needs to ship water in for their agriculture.  When you spread the farming out, and allow all of the lands to share the burden equally you reduce the risk of depleting one area and its neighbours of its resources.  You avoid drying up rivers, and making soils infertile.  By having large swaths of agriculture in one location, you also make larger amounts of your food supplies susceptible to bacteria, fungus, pests or other invasive plants, as the infections do not have to travel far to obtain their next target.  You also have to apply more herbicides, pesticides and fungicides in order to ensure that the crop will actually survive.  This only serves to increase your crop prices and the health risks to the consumer.

In the event of a political, terrorist or environmental turmoil that may cause borders to be closed, when you have your own food supply this would become less of a problem.  When the country that you currently obtain your food from closes its doors, what do you do?  You would have to source your food from other countries.  By sourcing food sources from other countries you could potentially increase the costs of your foods since you are putting a strain on the food supplies in that country.  If other countries were not willing to provide your new food supply, or it simply is not cost efficient you would have to start farming yourself.  This would especially become more problematic if it would occur right during the winter months, if you do not have the proper infrastructure in place to do you own farming at the drop of a hat, or if you have no farming land since you have allowed the suburbia's to annex it. 

One of the problems with building and living in the suburbs is that it encroaches onto our arable land.  It requires money and resources to develop the residential properties and roads, and if we decide that we need to reverse our expansion one day, it will require resources and money to remove the construction.  Once we pave over arable land with asphalt and houses we could potentially eliminate that lands future fertility, we are essentially making it impossible for us to have farm land.

 An example of a vertical farm design.

Cities should consider developing vertical farms as the future of farming.  As shown in the photo above a vertical farm is basically a skyscraper made specifically for crops.  The benefits of these can be great compared to traditional acreage farms.  Since they do not have a large surface footprint they can be placed inside cities.  This would exponentially cut your transportation costs since your products are already at your destination.  You could also build the skyscraper so that the podium of the building is the grocery store, essentially eliminating any transportation costs.  Since you your crops already reside within a building it is easier to produce a collection and packaging system consisting of elevators, chutes and conveyors also reducing the costs needed to normally transport the products to a separate processing plant.  Since your products are enclosed inside a building you can help protect them from harmful weather such as flooding, lack of rain and high winds. You can also help ensure that pests such as mice, birds and insects do not find their way to your crops, and thus can spend less money on the harmful pesticides.  However you can also make sure that vital organisms such as earthworms are still present. Since your crops are not sprawled out upon vast fields, it is also easier to regulate the health of your crops.  You could even install cameras on every floor to produce a centralized surveillance of the crops health. All of these factors would ensure that your crops have a higher success rate.  It is easier and cheaper to install watering systems in a vertical environment instead of across sprawling fields, since you can get gravity to do the majority of your work.  Since your crops are also inside, through ingenious building designs you can produce different climates for every floor, thus allowing you to produce some of the more exotic produce locally.  You could incorporate features into the vertical farm to collect all of your water needs from the rain, and you ensure that the crops on every floor are getting enough sunlight. 

An example of an urban farm in the middle of a city.

Cities are generally a Celsius or two warmer due to the heat coming off of over a million residents, buildings and vehicles.  This makes it easier to grow crops since warmer weathers generally make better conditions for plants.  Urban centers also increase the chance of rain, as opposed to rural lands.  Farmers could instead of conventional rural farming, take advantage of "Urban Farming."  There are often abandoned properties, parking lots, and even backyards that citizens do not utilize.  Farmers could convert these into "Urban Farms," the farmers could pay rent for the land or could strike up profit or produce sharing deals with the owners of the land.  Since you are again already inside of the municipality your transportation costs are drastically reduced; you do not need to transport your produce from remote rural locations.  Urban farms and vertical farms allow those individuals that are interested in agriculture to do so without leaving the comforts of an urban center.

Cities could also help by installing fruit bearing plants in their urban parks.  Instead of the decorative trees and bushes most municipalities install, they could be producing food to sell to its residents.  Municipalities could be making money off of the trees that they would plant anyways.

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