Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blog Action Day 2011

Vertical farm design by Gordon Graff

Blog Action Day is an annual event that unites the world's bloggers in posting about an issue of global importance on the same day (Sunday, October 16). It’s an opportunity to witness the power of participatory journalism marshaled toward a common cause. The aim is to raise awareness and trigger a worldwide discussion.

This is my third Blog Action Day: For 2010 the issue was Water; in 2009 it was Climate Change.

This year Blog Action Day coincides with World Food Day, a time that focuses the world’s attention on food, something we all have in common. The charge to bloggers worldwide is to talk about food. I’ve chosen to address food and architecture.

The ties between food and architecture are rich and varied. For example, both are commonly associated with culture and place. They are equally coupled with aesthetics, presentation, and intention as forms of artistic expression. Both engage our senses and bring us together as communities. In their most glorious forms, they represent humanity at its best. That being said, I would miss the point of World Food Day by blogging contentedly about how analogous culinary flair is to design panache.

For much of the world’s population, simply having enough food to eat is a desperate struggle. Famine in the Horn of Africa has reached catastrophic proportions. Drought-induced and compounded by war, corruption, and problems with food distribution, the crisis threatens the lives of more than 13 million people in the region.

Hunger is also a reality for huge numbers in developed countries, including the United States. Food insecurity for the vulnerable segments of our citizenry is universally regarded as a major threat to social stability and prosperity. Eradicating hunger is and will increasingly be a fundamental challenge as our future unfolds.

This challenge is incomprehensibly complex. Population growth, peak-oil, the industrialization of agriculture, and the wild weather that is a byproduct of global warming have all contributed to the problem. Viewed from the peak-oil perspective alone, dystopian seers like James Howard Kunstler believe today’s petroleum-fueled agribusiness is on the precipice of collapse and that our society is destined for violent upheaval. Food that must travel thousands of miles to reach our dinner tables simply isn’t sustainable.

Is there a solution? Can architecture and design make a difference?

I don’t have an immediate answer. Clearly, the means by which food is produced and distributed must change. I do agree with Kunstler and others like the organization Food First that the future lies with local agri-food systems rather than with industrialized agriculture. Sufficient production and equitable distribution of food will be the key, but how will this be achieved in a world of dwindling resources?

According to Food First every country on earth (with the possible minor exceptions of some city-states) has sufficient agricultural capacity to feed its own people.(1) Certainly, this must be true in the U.S. if Food First believes it is possible everywhere else. Its claim is based upon a “bottom up” approach to solving world hunger wherein subsistence farming is the focus.

Keeping food production local minimizes reliance upon factory farming and the embodied energy inherent in processing and transporting food vast distances. Keeping things local is also consistent with the locavore movement’s interest in purchasing food close to where it is grown and keeping the environment as clean as possible. Organic, community farms that raise varied crops for local sale are tremendously popular here in Eugene.

However, it’s hard to imagine that small, local farms will produce enough food to sustain the huge population of the world’s larger cities. Vertical farming in skyscrapers as envisioned by some also seems a stretch because of the additional energy needed for artificial lighting, heating, and irrigation. This could outweigh the benefit of positioning vertical farms close to where the food is to be eaten. Regardless, architects and engineers may prove creative enough to overcome the challenges associated with cost-effective vertical farming.(2)

By itself, keeping it local is not the panacea. Local farming will not eliminate drought or erase intractable tribal disputes. The problem cannot be distilled as discrete issues accompanied by simple solutions. As is the case with so many of the other problems we are confronting, the answers will not be found by following the straight line of reductionist thinking. Rather, multivalent and integrated ideas are necessary.

How architects contribute to assuring access to food for all may ultimately boil down to how the design community deals with the daunting suite of issues surrounding the problem. Architects are on the vanguard of sustainability. We’re eco-conscious advocates for energy-efficient buildings, compact communities, and reduced reliance upon the automobile. Architects are also adept at collaboration, coordinating diverse project teams, looking at the big picture, and thinking outside the box. These skills will be the key to how architects play a part in feeding humanity.

The relationship between food and architecture is destined to become even more multifaceted. Architects will move to the frontline of the battle against world hunger. I predict that if the battle is to be won, design will have played a part.

(1) Food First believes the "free trade" economic order associated with such institutions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank prevent this from happening. At the other end of the spectrum, the World Bank itself claims to be part of the solution to hunger, claiming that the best way for countries to succeed in breaking the cycle of poverty and hunger is to build export-led economies that will give them the financial means to buy foodstuffs on the world market.

(2) Proponents argue that “vertical farming” is legitimate because the cultivation of plant and animal life within skyscrapers will produce less embedded energy and toxicity than plant and animal life produced on natural landscapes. Moreover, they claim that natural landscapes are too toxic for natural, agricultural production, despite the ecological and environmental costs of extracting materials to build skyscrapers for the purpose of agricultural production.

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