Planting the Seeds for Dramatic Changes in Agriculture

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released an important report titled “Climate Change and Land,” which chronicled the impact the agricultural industry is having on climate change. Demonstrating the significance of that report, Alan Sano, a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley of California, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Farmers Don’t Need to Read the Science. We Are Living It.”

But what is most interesting about the IPCC’s report is that they assume that traditional farming practices can be modified to address the crisis we face. Their recommendations are mostly focused on dealing with the fact that “global food production is now thought to be responsible for up to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions.” But there are other issues that make our traditional approach to farming unsustainable.

Those are just some of the reasons why those searching for a sustainable solution are exploring the alternative of hydroponics—specifically with something that has come to be known as “vertical farming.”

Rick LeBlanc identified the additional benefits of vertical farming, including the fact that it “allows us to produce more crops from the same square footage of growing area.” For example, “1 acre of an indoor area offers equivalent production to at least 4-6 acres of outdoor capacity,” while using 70-95 percent less water than traditional farming.

As Danny Danko explains, “hydroponic cultivation — the growing of plants without soil — is a science as ancient as the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon and as modern as a future NASA mission to Mars.” It has even played a role in feeding U.S. troops since World War II.

During World War II, American troops overseas grew vegetables hydroponicaly to ease the burden of transporting perishable food to barren islands in the Pacific Theater and the arid regions of the Middle East…

The military kept growing hydro long after WWII, as Lt. Col. Marcus E. Cooper, Quartermaster, 1st Cavalry Division reported during the Korean War, “While we were in Kumchon we began to receive our first shipments of fresh vegetables. These were airlifted from the hydroponic farms in Japan. We had a standing priority on fresh foods for the hospital, then for the front-line troops. These vegetables were a real morale-builder.”

LeBlanc points out that the biggest downside to vertical farming right now is financial feasibility, due to the high capital costs associated with start-up. But he notes that “the financial situation is changing, however, as the industry matures and technologies improve.” That is where the federal government could play a huge role, similar to what was accomplished with renewable energy by the stimulus package, as described by Michael Grunwald.

Obama promised that he would double renewable power generation during his first term, and he did. In 2008, people had the sense that renewable energy was a tiny industry in the United States. What they forget is it was a tiny dead industry — because these wind and solar projects were essentially financed through tax credits, which required people with tax liability, and everybody had lost money, so nobody needed [the tax credits]. By changing those to a cash grant, it instantly unlocked this industry.

Any so-called “Green New Deal” will need to provide seed money (pun intended) to explore dramatic changes to how we think about agriculture and farming. The potential we’ve already seen from hydroponics and vertical farming could lead us in that direction.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.