Words by Professor Joel Cuello, Ph.D.
Image modified from Martin Sanchez/Unsplash
The speed with which the coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, Europe and North America metastasized into a full-blown global pandemic — catching many world governments by surprise and with little preparation — underscores just how our world today is highly interconnected and how, in order to contain and stem the surging pandemic, temporary disconnection from the physically-networked world by cities, regions and even entire nations has become an urgent imperative.
With confirmed coronavirus cases globally now exceeding 370,000 and the number of deaths surpassing 16,000, many world cities have become throbbing epicenters of the surging pandemic. Accordingly, various countries, states and cities have enforced lockdown or stay-at-home orders with drastic measures including banning public gatherings, restricting restaurants to take-out and delivery only, and closing schools, bars, theaters, casinos and indoor shopping malls, among others.
Such orders, or their looming possibility, has consequently intensified the panic-buying urges of consumers for food and household essentials particularly in North America and Western Europe, giving occasions for daily photos of empty grocery-store shelves splashed ubiquitously from across news networks to social media platforms. The availability of food in North America and Western Europe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, remains generally secure, at least in the near term of the pandemic.
New York City, for instance, normally has food supply amounting to approximately 8.6 million tonnnes (19 billion pounds) annually as purveyed by a network of regional and national food distributors, which then is sold at about 42,000 outlets across the city’s five boroughs, according to a 2016 study sponsored by the city.
Over half of the outlets are made up of approximately 24,000 restaurants, bars and cafes through which consumers access almost 40 percent of the city’s food by volume annually. The rest of the outlets are chain supermarkets, bodegas and online grocery stores. The study reported that the city’s annual food supply feeds over 8.6 million city residents, over 60 million tourists plus daily commuters in the hundreds of thousands from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
With millions of tourists and commuters now staying away from the city, however, and with the city’s hotels at just 49 percent occupancy for the week ending March 14, an excess of food supply is readily available for diversion into the city’s grocery stores and other retailers to meet the surge in demand by local residents. In the case of Germany, the country imports food that accounts for nearly 8 percent of its US$1.3 Trillion imported goods in 2018. Germany procures from abroad about 3 million tonnes of fresh vegetables annually — with cucumbers and tomatoes accounting for 40 percent of the import volume — at a value of around 3.5 billion Euros, mainly from the Netherlands and Spain. Indeed, approximately 30 percent of the 2.6 million tonnes of exported Dutch-grown fresh vegetables goes to Germany.
Meanwhile, approximately 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s food and food ingredients are imported. The U.K. imports approximately 2.4 million tonnes of fresh vegetables each year from Spain (33 percent), the Netherlands (28 percent), France (10 percent) and from various parts the world (29 percent).
Access to Food
Although the sources and sourcing of food in North America and Western Europe are currently generally secure, what might soon become a prodigious concern is that their workers in the production, distribution and retail segments of the food supply chain may eventually succumb to coronavirus infection. In such events, coupled with the potential for lockdown bureaucracies to slow down the flow of cargo between countries and between cities, severe delays in delivery — or real delivery shortages — could well become an actual possibility.
Local Vertical Farms
The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns have laid bare, if fortuitously, the crucial importance of partial local food production in or around world cities in the context of urban resilience. The following salient features of vertical farms have become especially significant toward buttressing a city’s resilience in the event of a pandemic lockdown:
(1) Local — production of safe and fresh produce can take place within the lockdown zone, obviating the hurdles and perils of going in and out of the red zone;
(2) Automation-Amenability — impact of severe labor shortage which can be expected as the pandemic surges as well as direct physical contact between workers and fresh produce can be significantly minimized or eliminated;
(3) Controlled-Environment — infection risks to both workers and crops are significantly reduced through clean and controlled operations;
(4) Modular Option — crops may be grown in modular production units, such as shipping containers, which may be conveniently transported to neighborhoods located either farther away or in areas of stricter isolation; and,
(5) Reliability — Dependability and consistency of high-yield and high-quality harvests throughout the year is virtually guaranteed independently of season and external climate conditions.
Fortunately for New York City, even as it sources most of its fresh vegetables from California and Arizona, the New York greater area now serves as host to the highest concentration in the United States of commercial urban vertical farms — including Aerofarms, Bowery Farming, Bright Farms, Farm.One, Square Roots and Gotham Greens, among others — that operate as controlled-environment farms year-round and independently of the variable effects of climate and geography. While conventional outdoor farming can produce three vegetable harvests per year, some of these vertical farms can achieve up to 30 harvests annually.
New York City and other world cities could certainly use more vertical farms.
Indeed, the urban planning and design of every world city should incorporate vertical farms, in and/or around it, not only for promoting food security — but for fostering disaster resilience as well. During a pandemic when a temporary period of social distancing between cities and nations becomes critically necessary, vertical farms can serve as helping outposts of resilience for cities and regions on lockdown as they brave the onslaught of the pandemic until it runs its course and duly dissipates — at which time the enfeebled ties of cooperation between cities, states and nations across the globe can once again be mended and made even stronger than before. Thus, not only locally, but in fact also globally, vertical farms can serve as helping vanguards of protection for all of our communities.
Dr. Joel L. Cuello is Vice Chair of the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) and Professor of Biosystems Engineering at The University of Arizona. In addition to conducting research and designs on vertical farming and cell-based bioreactors, he also teaches “Integrated Engineered Solutions in the Food-Water-Energy Nexus” and “Globalization, Sustainability & Innovation.” Email firstname.lastname@example.org.