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Rooftop Farming an Environmental Nightmare

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

By: Jörg Breuning

Companies spend millions of dollars on creating rooftop farms to demonstrate how "green" they are. There is no doubt advertising with living green is a good idea because it makes the customers believe that the company practices environmental leadership.

However, the reality looks very differently.

Recently a food company started a huge campaign promoting their rooftop farm (and their green leadership) by opening a 17,000 square foot rooftop farm on the East Coast.They were optimistic that they could grow 10,000 pounds of produce during the short growing season. This is approximately 25% over the average vegetable and berry crop yields estimated for New England on the ground during a good year, based on traditional irrigated farmland.

Since environmental conditions on rooftops are more extreme, achieving this goal seems ambitious and will require higher amounts of water and fertilizer. With more moisture in green roof soil the main benefit of green roofs (stormwater retention) is sacrificed and the run-off will most likely now contain more nutrients than in the run-off from traditional farms. Nutrients are already the number one pollutant in our waterways.

Based on these harsh environmental conditions growing crops on rooftops will be more labor intensive.

A 17,000 square foot rooftop farm requires approximately 300 tons of engineered growing media (soil) or 672,000 pounds in order to grow an average of 8,000 pounds of produce a year. In other words, it takes more than 80 years to grow the equivalent crop weight that was transported up onto the roof in the first place. This does not include the tons of water, fertilizer or structural support for the building that has to be shipped to the city and hoisted up on to the roof to start and maintain the garden.

Roof top farms ultimately increase the shipping (costs) of goods into cities. Shipping produce from a farm located on the ground is cheaper and more efficient because everything necessary to sustain the farm is already at hand. The food from rooftop farms is being transported a shorter distance creating a false sense of environmental responsibility. When in reality, the amount of materials essential to implement and maintain a rooftop farm outweighs the good in this situation.

Consider this: every person consumes 200-400 pounds of produce in a year (Profiling Food Consumption in America in 2000, Agricultural Fact Book) and an average of 8,000 pounds feeds around 20-40 people and requires at least one full-time, skilled farmer.

On a traditional field, one farmer can easily manage a 10-20 times larger area with a higher yield per acre using organic principals, which are not even discussed with most roof top farms.

Buyers of food from companies with rooftop farms are misled by advertising and are paying more for their goods while supporting a trend known as Greenwashing.

Jörg Breuning welcomes people who want to learn from decades of green roof experience - askjorg@greenrooftechnology.com

 


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