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The French go bananas for vertical farming...

The great humorist S.J. Perelman once reflected that “a farm is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.”

Oh dear. Of course, he was born in 1904 and therefore a bearer of old prejudices, had he been alive today he may have been forced to eat his words – possibly literally, because as scientifically improbable as it may sound – the future of farming is here, and it comes in the shape of a banana. Or an Urbanana.

No it’s not slang for an inner-city grandmother, nor is it a verbal mangling of the word banana by some adorable two year old with a wonky palate. It is instead a wonderful Portmanteau word devised by the French architectural company SOA to describe their latest project – a vertical banana farm in the heart of Paris.

As HYDROMAG readers will no doubt be aware, the idea of vertical farming isn’t exactly new – it could be argued it’s been floating around since that great visionary King Nebuchadnezzar II first commissioned a hanging garden in Babylon. And the concept of mass agricultural production in built-up urban landscapes was dreamt by futurists and science fiction writers as long ago as the 1950s. But with the UN predicting the world’s population could increase to 10.6 billion by 2050, and fears over climate change, there is a growing clamour for someone – anyone – to act, and act fast. With overcrowded populaces set to fight over every scrap of land and CO2 spewing, long-haul goods transportation increasingly frowned upon, it’s been left to private firms such as SOA to find a solution. Finally the technology exists to realise the dream. The fool and his wife might now be safe to stay in the city.

“Urbanana is home to some six floors of plants, yielding 146 tonnes of fruit a year. The glass structure is designed to adapt to the urban environment, and can be ‘dropped’ into residential spaces of differing dimensions.”

Squeezed between two Haussmannian buildings in Champs Elysées, Urbanana is home to some six floors of plants, yielding 146 tonnes of fruit a year. The glass structure is designed to adapt to the urban environment, and can be “dropped” into residential spaces of differing dimensions. The crop production operates using chain rotation, with potted banana plants moving on a conveyor to ensure an even distribution of light and airflow. Apart from a harvesting and waste handling area at ground level, a restaurant and exhibition rooms; each floor is entirely transparent, allowing light, both natural and artificial, to filter through the whole building.

So is it time for old Farmer Giles to hang up his scythe and attach a hose to the exhaust pipe of his tractor? Probably not quite yet. For as impressive as Urbanana is, the reality of urban farm skyscrapers replacing conventional farming is still a way off. And the reason boils down to simple economics. Firstly prime real estate in the centre of cities such as Paris tends not to be too cheap, but secondly, and importantly; artificial light requires electricity – and plenty of it. Although Urbanana’s design lets in an ample supply of natural light, the artificial variety is still crucial for enabling year-round production. The added costs of providing this light can be prohibitively expensive.

So how about using green energy you may ask? An experiment conducted in 2008 by Dr. Ted Caplow, of non-profit group New York Sun Works, attempted to gauge the effectiveness of using purely renewable energy to power a floating hydroponics greenhouse (moored in Manhattan). He found that to generate sufficient electricity using solar panels, in order to power an exclusively indoor farm, you need a space approximately 20 times larger than the area being lit.

SOA recognises that mass production of bananas using Urbanana’s blueprint is something of a pipe dream, instead describing the Champs Elysées structure more as a “Banana Embassy”. Here they explore and develop all aspects of the fruit – from using the skins to make bank notes, utilising the fruit’s essence to create cosmetic and therapeutic products, to educating visitors about banana history. So while SOA have provided us an impressive glimpse of what modern farming technology is capable of, the current cost limitations render Urbanana an educational resource and cultural centre rather than as an immediate alternative to current farm food production methods. Until the consumer is prepared to pay a premium for his fruit and vegetables, Farmer Giles’ job is safe… at least temporarily.

 

This article was originally published in Issue 001 of HYDROMAG (September – October 2012).

 

 

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