Where is Culture situated in Vertical Farming?

On March 13, 2014 by Hayley Brown

What are some of the cultural shortcomings or barriers associated with vertical farm systems?  Can we overcome these barriers?


Ignoring the technical and economic barriers that currently make vertical farming infeasible, let’s imagine that this type of agriculture actually proliferated as the principle means of food production.  Imagine we now live in a world, where all our food is grown vertically in the hearts of urban centers.  What would this look like from a cultural lens?

Vertical farming is a radical innovation and wide scale adoption of this type agriculture would have serious sociocultural implications.  The shift from rural field-based agriculture to urban indoor-farming would affect the livelihoods of millions of farm laborers and it would also affect the way in which we think about and consume food.  In thinking about what a future dominated by vertical farming would look like we must consider several stakeholders.  Farmers, consumers, retailers, agricultural-related service providers, landowners, states, and international organizations will all be significantly affected if vertical farming were to take hold.   Moving food production indoors and to urban settings would cause a major migration of farm-based workers to cities, and we would most likely see a decline or even extinction in rural farm culture.  Traditional farm workers would have their lives uprooted as they would be forced abandon everything they know about growing crops and learn the ins and outs of a completely different form of food production.  The farmers themselves are not the only workers affected, agricultural landowners, food distributors, and food service providers would all have to seek out other forms of employment as well, as their services would no longer be needed.

An image of city dwellers at their local farmers market
An image of city dwellers at their local farmers market

We must consider the consumer as well.  Food is an integral part of all cultures and different people consume different foods based off their ethnic backgrounds or cultural identities.  If vertical farms were to proliferate, what types of crops would they grow? We know sunlight is an issue and certain types of produce are simply not feasible to grow indoors, therefore certain fruits and vegetables could quite literally go extinct.  Would a vertical greenhouse in New York City realistically grow an exotic fruits native to a particular region in Thailand? The answer is most likely no.  But then how would Thai people living in New York City be able to consume the foods they are culturally accustomed to and hold dearly? The answer to this is that they would not be able to, especially since vertical farming aims to eliminate the shipping and trade of agricultural products – thus even importing culturally specific foods would be out of the question.

Ethnic pockets within urban areas would no longer be able to identify with their traditional cuisine or consume the foods they are culturally accustomed to.   Vertical farms would grow the same varieties of produce (the varieties that are most economically and technically feasible in indoor artificial settings) and this would inhibit all differing ethnic groups from consuming the foods they are accustomed to and prefer. Moreover, vertical farming would essentially eliminate the geographic specificity of food.  Eventually, humans would forget where various types of food originally came from because to them it all comes from these urban-based skyscrapers, and food would lose its cultural specificity and meaning.

If society were to ‘go vertical’ and completely abandon field-based farming practices, thousands of years of agricultural progress and innovation would be erased and replaced with technology.  Vertical farming does not represent progress in the linear progression of farming; rather, it is a complete deviation from this trajectory, a completely new form of ‘energy’ production in its own right.  I think that a total shift to vertical farming would create a devaluation of food and produce more specifically.  What gives food value and meaning is the idea behind its production.  With every food we consume we imagine where it came from and appreciate the labor it took to produce. If foods can no longer be associated with labor or the regions from which they derive a critical aspect of every culture, food traditions, will likely diminish.

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