From: Building Green
Published February 9, 2009 08:59 AM

Integrate Food Production and Green Building

There are a lot of problems with our existing food production system. Consider: the average mouthful of food has traveled 1,500 miles before reaching our plate, losing nutrition and flavor while consuming an incredible amount of energy. Agribusiness has created vast monocultures of grains, corn, and soybeans that, directly or indirectly deliver the majority of our caloric uptake-from highly processed, corn-syrup-sweetened, polyunsaturated junk food to feedlot-fattened, antibiotic-fortified fast-food burgers. A large percentage of the vegetables and fruit we eat-usually the healthiest part of our diet-come from deserts in California that are irrigated with Colorado River water that is among the most overextended and energy-intensive water anywhere. The mammoth, centralized operations that produce our food, especially meat and poultry, mean that single contamination events put huge numbers of people at risk and results in tremendous waste-in the fall of 2007, over 20 million pounds of beef had to be destroyed as a result of E. coli contamination.

If Americans were healthy and truly nourished by this food system, then it would be easier to ignore all of these problems. But we’re not. Many of us, including a disproportionate number of the poor, are ironically both malnourished and obese, from unhealthy fats and empty starches and sugars. We need a new model of food production.


Green building is a wonderful synthesis of diverse issues-everything from energy efficiency and water conservation to salvaged materials, healthier living, and reduced automobile dependence. Green building could also play a role in producing healthier food closer to home-even in urban and suburban areas. In suburbia, we can garden our backyards as our grandparents did with their Victory Gardens during World War II, when up to 40% of our vegetables were home-grown. In cities, we can work together as communities to create productive gardens out of abandoned and unused vacant lots, which account for an average of 15% of our urban landscapes. On land that may be contaminated, we can follow the model of City Farm in Chicago and use a layer of clay to isolate that contaminated substrate from a rich, compost-based soil for growing crops.

Other strategies for local food production are much newer, higher-tech, and less familiar. The nation’s 4.8 million commercial buildings have about 1,400 square miles of nearly flat roof—an area the size of Rhode Island. On those roofs with adequate structural support and good solar exposure, green roofs or rooftop greenhouses can be constructed and planted with edible crops. New hydroponic greenhouses can achieve significantly greater yields than soil-based greenhouses, yet with far less weight. A hybrid system called aquaponics merges aquaculture (fish production) with hydroponics, such that the waste from the fish fertilize the plants-providing an integrated, balanced system in which the only inputs are fish food, sunlight, and enough water to replace that which evaporates.

In our article “Growing Food Locally: Integrating Agriculture into the Built Environment” (see EBN,Feb. 2009), we examine this vital issue of local food, drawing from dozens of examples around the country where food production is successfully being integrated into the built environment. As the green building movement evolves, this should be one of the considerations. Along with keeping us comfortable and healthy, emitting no net carbon emissions, and minimizing other environmental impacts, green buildings of the future can also help to nourish us. In an increasingly urbanized world, our buildings and the landscapes around them should become a part of our agricultural system.

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