It’s no secret that our global industrial food system is unsustainable. By one estimate, every $1 spent on a food item results in $2.27 in health, environmental, and economic costs.
On the plus side, growing awareness of the problem has given impetus to social movements calling for the creation of a more sustainable future. According to author and activist Michael Pollan, one of the best, most environmentally friendly ways of achieving sustainability is by growing our own food. Urban farming proponents such as Britta Riley have touted innovative ways to grow food in everyday items such as plastic bottles for years.
On a larger scale, advocates of “vertical farming” — in which technologies like artificial lighting are leveraged to allow food growing indoors on vertical surfaces — claim it can guarantee a global food supply, even as populations grow and climates change. Now tech companies are trying to commercialize this dream by making vertical farming technologies available as household consumer goods.
For my part, I was simply curious to see if these advances would allow a white-collar city dweller such as myself to actually attain some meaningful degree of food self-sufficiency. It’s worth noting I didn’t come into this experiment with any romanticized notions of gardening: I volunteered and worked on a university-run organic farm back when I was studying for my Ph.D., and the experience left me with no desire to try again. In the end, the promise of technology sold me — specifically, an “AI-powered indoor grow box” I found online, which claimed its nutrient solutions and lighting system could make it possible for anyone to grow fresh vegetables year-round.
The advertising copy was beautifully written: “We bring the ‘plant factory’ straight to your home! Compared with traditional farming methods, this planter grows 50% faster, produces 80 times more, reduces water usage by 95%, and increases nutritional content.” It cost 1,000 yuan ($145) and took a tech-savvy student on our research team half an hour to assemble.
Once the equipment was ready to go, I needed to decide what to plant. Knowing full well how hard farm work could be, I opted for two kinds of easy-to-grow lettuce. Once the seeds had germinated, I transplanted them from their box to the planter, where they took less than a month to reach maturity. The planter made sure they got the needed light; all I had to do was spend five minutes a day adding a little nutrient solution and water. On Aug. 1, I reaped my harvest.
A collage of images shows the planting process. Photo from Li Xueshi and edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone
I put the raw veggies right into a salad. It didn’t taste right. Indeed, something seemed to have gone terribly wrong. I decided to boil the rest and add them to a soup. But if they hadn’t taken me a month to grow, I would have tossed it all out.
As a form of symbolic consumption, high-tech planters are well marketed to take advantage of the bucolic yearnings of naïve, idealistic city residents. But they offer much less in the way of practical value. Based on my experience, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to buy one. Other than a satisfied sense of curiosity, the only rewards are a month’s busywork and some unpalatable veggies.
Then there’s the issue of lighting. Indoor planters are extremely bright, similar to office fluorescent lamps, and they have to stay on 14 hours a day for over a month — not ideal for a cramped apartment living space, especially as light pollution is associated with headaches, anxiety, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. It can even suppress melatonin production, possibly increasing the risk of cancer.
More broadly, despite the claims of advocates, food scientists and reporters are doubtful that urbanites farming in their apartments — or even larger vertical farms — can solve the current food system’s problems. For instance, U.S.-based scientist Stan Cox has argued that excessive energy consumption and limited variety hinder the scalability of vertical farms, making them an unfeasible route to urban food self-sufficiency.
Other scholars worry vertical farming’s highly technical requirements will result in the exclusion of large numbers of ordinary farmers — to the benefit of financial capital. In other words, vertical farms will only maintain and strengthen the power structure of capital within our food system.
We can’t rely entirely on technology if we want to build a sustainable food system. Rather, we need to regard the problem holistically, as it incorporates technology, nature, social relations, and value sets. A sustainable food system should be beneficial to plants, animals, microorganisms, soil, water, and air; it should contribute to species variety as a way of building resilience; and farmers and consumers alike should be able to fully participate, thus allowing the technology to serve everyone and not just capital. All of this will require us to rethinking our values, activating social forces, and affecting a major policy shift, not just individual consumers buying small planters.
The author’s planter (left) and a piece of lettuce. Courtesy of Li Xueshi
In the meantime, there’s a much simpler and more effective way to increase sustainability: reducing waste.
Developed and developing nations alike waste about 30% to 40% of their food. There are various factors underlying the wastefulness of the current food system: Some are purely technological; others are sociological, such as cultural norms of over-ordering. Generally speaking, however, in developed nations, the majority of this loss takes place in retail, food service, and at home, whereas in developing countries food waste primarily occurs on farms and during the freight process. That means it’s vital to improve the food system’s infrastructure and farm storage capacity.
There might come a time when the environment has deteriorated enough — perhaps due to excessive heavy metal buildup in the soil — that we have no choice but to turn to planters for growing our own vegetables. But I’m speaking from experience when I say I don’t think anyone should be looking forward to that day.
The author would like to thank Zhang Jialin for his contributions to this project.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Images of the author’s planter. Courtesy of Li Xueshi)