October Walnut Creek Mayor's Message
Oct 02, 2015 08:30PM ● Published by Jennifer Neys
Walnut Creek Mayor, Bob Simmons
by Bob Simmons, Mayor of Walnut Creek
As was the case for most cities, development in the last half of the 20th century had the effect of moving the sources of our food far from our city. Urban agriculture is the growing of food in urban areas. It brings sources of food closer to people who need food, and it often means healthier food. For the last six months, Walnut Creek has been studying adding community gardens to some of its parks. This is important work, but we also need to study how to encourage business to grow food indoors.
The technology around indoor agriculture is changing very rapidly, and the need is great. By 2050, there will be about 9 billion people to feed, with no new land for agriculture, and climate change will cut current yields by 25%. Indoor agriculture has tremendous potential for 21st century agriculture, and it may be our best choice.
One version is the ‘vertical farm’. This can involve new construction or simply the conversion of old, warehouse-type buildings into agricultural production. Some versions involve the growing of vegetables and fish in a system whereby waste from the fish can be converted into fertilizer for the plants. One design involves a three-level structure which can be placed on any large body of water. The top level collects rainwater and solar energy, the second level involves hydroponic agriculture, and the bottom level involves offshore aquaculture.
The indoor agricultural technologies use less land, thereby allowing our existing land to be used for other purposes. Second, they use less water. One estimate is that a head of lettuce grown using aeroponics requires 1% of the water a head of lettuce grown in the field does. This allows outdoor agriculture to focus on tree crops, which are more difficult to grow indoors. Third, crops grown indoors are less likely to be attacked by insects, critters, and field-borne diseases. Fourth, it is more productive. Indoor agriculture can produce crops year-round, thus increasing productivity of the farmed surface by a factor of 4 to 6, depending on the crop. Fifth, it means local jobs and is safer and easier than picking many of the field crops is. Sixth, it can be placed in urban or residential areas, reducing farm-to-table distance. Seventh, it is not subject to climate, whether it’s drought, high winds, or too much rain; therefore, it is more reliable and enhances food security.
Areas where population density is much greater, or land is not as arable, are moving quickly in this direction. There are other reasons why we aren’t moving ahead more quickly. First, the cost of building a structure and the cost of utilities are higher than land-based agriculture. Second, there is a lack of public demand, largely influenced by the lack of awareness of the need for change. This means there is insufficient political support for making the critical investments that are needed. Third, there is a substantial, solid, grounded degree of support for not making any change from the current, land-based approach. As with any new technology, it just takes time for it to be accepted and implemented, and it will probably require some level of public investment if we wish to assure a food-safe future.