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François Purseigle
Antoine Poupart
Pierre Compère

François Purseigle
François Purseigle lectures in sociology at the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Toulouse-Institut National Polytechnique. He graduated in agriculture from the ISA Lille and has a doctorate in rural sociology.
From 2006 to 2008, at the Centre de Recherches Politiques de Sciences Po-Paris (CEVIPOF), with Bertrand Hervieu, Nonna Mayer and Jacques Rémy, he undertook a study of the role of farmers in political life. He is currently directing a research programme aimed at identifying and defining "farming firms" (ANR Jeunes chercheurs).
His is an associate researcher at CEVIPOF, a member of the scientific council of the ONVAR (Organisations Nationales de Vulgarisation Agricole et Rurale) and a member of the strategic overview committee of ACTA, a network of farming industry institutes.
His numerous publications include Les Sillons de l'engagement : jeunes agriculteurs et action collective (Paris, L'Harmattan, 2004), and he co-edited Les mondes agricoles en politique (Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2010).

Antoine Poupart
Antoine Poupart graduated as an agronomist from the Institut Nationale Agronomique Paris-Grignon (currently AgroParisTech) (PG03). He is currently head of the Sustainable Agriculture Development department of the InVivo group (Alliance of French Agricultural Cooperatives). Its studies and development of tools and services for the environment and the economy of the environment are aimed at improving the economic valuation of the ecosystemic services rendered by agriculture.

Pierre Compère
Pierre Compère graduated as an agronomist from AgroParisTech (PG03) and currently works for InVivo group (Alliance of French Agricultural Cooperatives).
Involved in the strategic marketing and innovation department, he participates in the development of transversal projects and the group's activities by analysing opportunities and animating innovation process.

Translated from French by David Wharry

The vertical farm: a paroxysmal image of agricultural worlds in mutation [ENG]

Considered by some to be the ideal solution for guaranteeing food security in cities, and imagined by others as disturbingly futurist constructions, vertical farms undoubtedly upset the social representations we all have of the agricultural world and its place in contemporary society. The construction of these fertile towers and agriculture's sudden intrusion into the city appear initially to be fundamental upheavals in the way we conceive not only the city but also agriculture, the farmer and even the country itself. Yet behind these apparent upheavals and irrespective of the hopes they can kindle and their foreseeable limits, vertical farm projects clearly reflect socio-technical evolutions already at work. The vertical farm embodies a paroxsymal image of the mutations underway and encapsulates the contemporary fragmentation of the agricultural world.
 

Agriculture: an urban question

The extension of the dominant urban environment has rendered the distinction between the urban and rural worlds less evident, at least from a cultural and political point of view. The lifestyles and social relations traditionally present in an urban environment are extending into the countryside. Rural, agricultural and urban populations now partly share the same aspirations and uncertainties. Reciprocally, many agricultural activities are often considered controversial by society as a whole, due to the dietary environmental, climatic and energy concerns they have generated. The vertical farm is an embodiment of the "triumph of the city" and an affirmation of the agricultural questions being posed by a planet with 3.4 billion city-dwellers[1]. For a long time apprehended through the prism of the town-country opposition, agriculture is no longer necessarily dominant in the rural world. The countryside is no longer devoted solely to agricultural activities. The farmer's local environment is already no longer necessarily an agricultural environment and, influenced by urbanisation, in some regions agricultural land use appears to be decreasing. Urban and peri-urban agriculture is developing, and the strictest environmental demands are contributing to a redefinition of land use.

The vertical farm is becoming a symbol of a profound modification of agriculture's relationship with the city. In the past, urbanisation merely signified the disappearance of fertile land beneath tarmac and the destruction of animal and plant life. In the future, as it encroaches on the rural environment, the city will not merely be swallowing up agriculture but assimilating it and integrating it into its own image. Agriculture will thus become urban and artificial by freeing itself from the earth itself, whereas the city will become "greener," "fertile," and even (paradoxically) more "natural." Will the city eventually become self-sufficient, to the extent that it will no longer need the countryside to feed itself? In any case, the image of the vertical farm prompts us to already envisage modes of co-existence between cities and an agricultural world already being recomposed.

Destabilisation of family and property-based architectures

Vertical farm projects even put into question the notion of the "farm" itself, at the very time when new forms of social organisation of production are emerging[2].
Although family-based agriculture is still dominant, it is now taking more abstract legal forms. This progressive abstraction is a sign of the constantly increasing dissociation between agricultural work and farmland as a working asset on the one hand, and as property management and capital on the other. Often nowadays, the only family-based aspect of farming enterprises is their property management, ensuring income for shareholders from the same family. Thus generations having retired from active work can continue to receive income and rent. In these cases, land ownership is not shared out cadastrally into individually-owned plots but in shares that are exchanged or sold vertically between members of the same family. In many cases, the capital thus amassed by successive generations is large enough to enable these companies to diversify and transcend all forms of collective organisation of production and commercialisation and become major players on national and international markets. These vertically structured companies, within which there can be three generations drawing income from the same capital, are developing in many regions in Europe. Although these enterprises can now take the form of jointly owned agricultural land covering several thousands of hectares, others are already genuine factories combining livestock rearing and processing activities in a single management unit and even in one place. Vertical integration, the verticality of legal tangles and/or the concentration in a restricted space of new forms of social organisation of agricultural production are foreshadowing the emergence of vertical farms.

Redefinition of the social and professional statuses of an agricultural population with diverse roles and skills

Within the vertical farm's multiple storeys, there will also be multiple agricultural professions. The vertical farm is a good example of the overlapping of roles and the diversification of sources of income now sought by many agricultural enterprises. Now more than ever, farmers no longer identify themselves with a single activity. They can be in charge of growing, of a retail outlet, or manager or employee of the company in which they have a share[3]. Perhaps more than any other activity, agriculture enables an interlocking of professional categories and a multiplicity of roles within the entreprise. From the production spaces on the upper floors, the management offices on the middle levels to the farm shop on the ground floor, the vertical farm reflects the many combinations of roles of the agricultural entrepreneur.

The vertical farm also poses the question of the coexistence of different populations engaged in agricultural activities in a single place. It illustrates agriculture's capacity to create social cohesion and integrate a diverse clientele. Rural areas will not be able to face up to the process of urban exclusion and precarity on their own. Numerous agriculture-based social rehabilitation projects are already underway in towns and cities in Europe and the United States. Vertical farm projects could further these rehabilitation initiatives by providing a breeding ground for employment and enabling the acquisition of a wide range of skills in a single location.


 A "zero-pollution" solution for agricultures under duress?

Would an agriculture under duress, which we are and will be asking to produce ever more and better to respond to food and energy challenges, an agriculture which now seems to be reaching its limits in terms of intensification and respect for the environment, an agriculture in need of innovations radically departing from the "conventional" paradigm, be the ideal terrain for the creation of vertical farms?

By their very "nature," open-field agricultures, whether low polluting, organic or ecologically intensive[4], generate negative externalities that no optimisation of production modes could reduce below a certain threshold dictated by regional variations, climatic vagaries, and still ill-controlled chemical and biological balances of the air and soil. The vertical farm, with its capacity to produce soillesly, protected from the weather, with no direct contact with surface or subterranean water, in short, without any direct physical contact with ecosystems subject to agricultural pollution, would thus seem to be an ideal solution. It becomes an ecosystem with as many equations as unknown factors, and in which, thanks to hydroponic and aeroponic procedures, all potential pollution is avoided. One thus creates a hopefully infallible filter between its anthropic ecosystem and "natural" ecosystems by the control of all production factors and by freeing them from all environmental parameters. Is the vertical farm the culmination or at least the "next stage" in a modernisation process that will have paradoxically found the answer to its excessive artificiality in the supreme artificialisation?

A vertical farm is not merely a stack of agricultural plots. It is also and above all a building, whose materials and functioning can, without major future technological advances, have far more impact on the environment during its life cycle than its open-field equivalent for similar crops. Therefore, for the time being, only open-field growing methods with the highest potential impacts on the environment seem best suited for vertical farm production. Vertical farms would thus be capable of hosting an agriculture that is soilless, ultra-intensive and low polluting. They would be particularly well-adapted to productions with high added value, some of whose environmental factors and impacts are more difficult to control in the open air, such as organic agriculture[5]. These involve few pollutants but high resource consumption: one cannot recreate all the physical and chemical processes of the air and earth, but one has to "feed" this disconnected and therefore non-self-maintaining "ecosystem."

Multi-functional open-field agricultures, producing goods and services

Yet the ideal of the vertical farm, combining both intensification and drastic reduction of agricultural pollution, is part of a vision in which agriculture is mono-functional, engaged solely in the production of material goods (principally food products) and whose externalities are largely negative: water pollution, atmospheric pollutant emissions, odours, etc. But this paradigm, reducing agriculture solely to its role as producer of foodstuffs and involving limiting "collateral damage" as much as possible, now seems obsolete because it is incomplete. The research synthesised in the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment[6] casts new light on this question by highlighting the range of environmental services rendered by ecosystems, including of course agricultural ecosystems. The ecosystemic services rendered by the agricultural production and management of "green" assets, stem systematically from the physical links between agriculture and the territory where it is practiced: carbon storage, flood regulation, water production, disease regulation, biodiversity maintenance, landscape aesthetics, etc. These ecosytemic services are necessarily highly territorialised and organically linked to a territory, and therefore usually disappear as soon as one disssociates agriculture from the soil and a region. To confine agricultural production to vertical farms, to deprive oneself of its symbiotic link with the earth and a region, would definitely limit pollution, but would also involve giving up these benefits and regarding the rural environment merely as a recreational and conservation zone (giving nature back its freedom), while agricultural activity in the city would in turn be restricted merely to production. If one regards the vertical farm as a complete alternative to soil-based agriculture, one deprives oneself of the vital yet immaterial services rendered by a mult-functional agriculture that is part of a "natural " yet anthropized ecosystem. The direct link with the earth is therefore a prerequisite of a multi-functional agriculture. To regard the vertical farm and its soilless production as an alternative to soil-based agriculture is to disregard the major importance of the ecoystemic services potentially rendered by agriculture, of which society has an increasingly imperious need as climatic change and the erosion of biodiversity continues.
 

Managing the diversity of possibly virtuous models

The controversies that have shaken the agricultural world, such as those prompted by genetically modified organisms, immediately prompt us to reflect on the social acceptability of these new types of agriculture. Although one can easily envisage plant production in these structures, is this true of livestock and poultry rearing, given growing concerns and demands for animal well-being? And of course there are the foreseeable health risks posed by concentrations of animals and/or plants in cities (zoonoses, allergies, etc.). Alongside the environmental health question, the disconnection the vertical farm poses between the product and the region where it is traditionally grown also poses the question of the description and characterisation of the organoleptic and cultural qualities of the agricultural products produced in these buildings. And will those who work in these vertical farms definitely become urban agricultural factory workers or will they remain farmers? What social status should these individuals have? This subject is especially sensitive in a country like France, whose national history is inextricably linked with that of its peasantry, and because the French are still very attached to the idea of traditional family agriculture, which is perceived as reassuring by more and more consumers questioning the "globalized agri-food system" due to health scares[7]. Will vertical farms win the confidence of the consumer and will they play a role in the desired re-territorialisation of agriculture?

Although they are probably not a panacea, we can still place great hopes in vertical farms. They should enable a considerable increase in agricultural production by avoiding constraints linked to the availability of "traditional" agricultural plots. Furthermore, as discussed above, these farms could have many environmental virtues, providing one targets crops with the highest potential environmental impacts. For crops with potentially moderate and increasingly controlled impact such as wheat, which obviously requires large growing areas, only major technological advances in the eco-conception of architecture could render the vertical farm "competitive" with the field.

One therefore quickly realises the vertical farm's advantages, rather than regarding it as a substitute for territorialised, earth-based agriculture, to reflect on how these diverse forms of agriculture can coexist and complement one another in already very varied agricultural worlds. Just as the development of agriculture in all regions of the world now seems vital if we are to respond to food and environmental challenges, one also has to devise and promote production methods most liable to favour diversity, in function of local situations, instead of opposing them. Vertical farms can provide solutions for local food supply problems and as a production method adapted to crops that are problematic in the open field. As a futuristic and emblematic image of the agricultural mutations now underway, the vertical farm prompts us to think about the near and more distant future in order to address the challenges of the present. By crystallising this reflection, the vertical farm encourages us to seek responses to the challenges of the 21st century in the diversification of agriculture, by emphasising its multi-functionality and the polyvalence of farmers, rather than in the uniformisation of the agricultural enterprise and production methods.

1. United Nations, 2010, World Population Prospects, the 2010 Revision.
2. Bertrand HERVIEU and François PURSEIGLE, 2012, Les fermes du monde : un kaléidoscope, Cahier DEMETER.
3. Bertrand HERVIEU and François PURSEIGLE, 2011, Des agricultures avec des agriculteurs : une nécessité pour l'Europe, in Projet, no. 321, pp. 60–69.
4. Bertrand HERVIEU and François PURSEIGLE, 2009, Les mondes agricoles dans la société française, in Administration, revue de l'administration territoriale de l'État, no. 223, pp. 81–85.
5. Michel GRIFFON, 2010, Pour une agriculture écologiquement intensive, édition de L'Aube.
6. This production method generates major nitrate leakage when it is practiced in the open field.
7. "The evaluation of ecosystems for this millenium is an international programme designed to respond to the need of decision makers and the public for scientific information regarding the consequences of the changes to which ecosystems are subjected for human well-being and the possibilities of reacting to these changes." (http://www.maweb.com)
8. MORGAN K., MARSDEN T., MURDOCH J. Networks, Conventions and Regions: theorizing "Worlds of Food", in Place, Power and Provenance in the Food Chain (Oxford University Press, 2006) pp. 7-25.{jcomments on}

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