Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Greenhouse Debate

Lately we've been studying about globalization, the type of integration that allows New Englanders to enjoy Mexican tomatoes in January. What about the type of globalization that allows New Englanders to grow these warm-climate fruits in the dark depths of winter? We've studied vertical and horizontal integration - but this can be considered as a sort of temporal integration. A year-round supply of locally grown tomatoes seems impossible, until we consider the greenhouse option. Of course, there is a lot to consider here.
  Stacy Cramp for the New York Times
The drawbacks of such a system are easy to see. Energy use is the biggest issue with greenhouses. Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine uses an amount of energy in 32 minutes that would equal the amount used by an American household in 1 year. Greenhouses are much more prolific, generating 700 metric tons per hectare to the field's 34. However, even this difference is not enough to offset operation costs. It is estimated that $1.25 million must be initially invested per hectare - excluding operation and harvest costs. When asked whether shipping tomatoes from Mexico to Maine is greener than his locally grown greenhouse tomatoes, the chief executive of Backyard farms put it simply: "We're redder." Clearly there's some information we've been spared here. I also can't help but question what we're doing to the land under these greenhouses, and if it's truly healthy. These aren't small greenhouses you can walk through in five minutes, Backyard Farms' building is the size of 32 football fields. A greenhouse in Leamington, Ontario, a world leader in greenhouse produce, covers roughly 1600 acres.
So how do the greenhouses justify themselves? They have some pretty convincing points. A greenhouse can keep income and jobs local year-round. The risk of weather-related crop damage is eliminated. Backyard Farms also boasts heat blankets, rainwater harvesting, biodegradable supports, recyclable packaging, etc. They've also brought in bees to do their pollinating, and wasps to keep the pests at bay. Greenhouse farming is also a much more traceable process, which is important for food safety concerns. It is a controlled and isolated environment (less contamination) and the tomatoes can usually be traced back specifically. This is the type of control, however, that would be appealing to large corporations. I believe it's only a matter of time before these greenhouses become exploited by the CR4 to be able to control more of the market. This is an example of horizontal integration, in that a company can have ownership over more types of food production. We can also see this as vertical integration. If Heinz can start growing tomatoes year-round right next to where it makes ketchup in Pittsburgh, this cuts enormous costs for them and increases production by a tremendous margin.
Stacey Cramp for The New York Times
A 2005 study found that there has been a 600 percent increase in North American greenhouse tomato area from the early 1990s to 2003. Consumer taste is mostly to blame for this enormous increase. Society has become so used to out-of-season produce, it demands it. Not only is it generally expected to have fresh, bright red tomatoes year round, but we also want to be able to choose which variety to purchase as well. Greenhouses allow growers to experiment with different types of produce because of the quick turnover time. Even within the tomato industry, new trends seem to enter the stores every few months. Recently it has been on-the-vine, next up are "cocktail tomatoes." An article in the New York Times likened these to "Tomato McNuggets" - an analogy that is very close to the roots of this trend. We're seeing McDonadization in yet another sector of society. We have variety, convenience, and nutrition in a neat little package - one that a corporation has designed for your business and its profits. Once again, we fall into the trap of romanticizing this illusion of choice and diversity.
From the research I've done, I'm convinced greenhouses are taking us down a slippery slope. The costs outweigh the benefits, and I feel that the current issues will only become larger and more complex in the coming years. I can wait until late summer for authentic tomatoes.
What do you think?


  1. Amanda,

    Thanks for your article. You raise some good questions. I am involved in the greenhouse industry, and think daily of the impact of this technology on farming, and consumption.

    In your conclusion, you state the costs outweight the benefits.

    It would be interesting to see how or if your opinion would change with a little more research of the cost of operation of a greenhouse vs that of field, expressed as a factor of yield. You didn't provide any detail to further support your statement - your energy consumption stat was only compared against a household's use.

    Perhaps a greenhouse in Maine isn't the most efficient example, but what about the "globalization" of this kind of technology in areas where there is no fertile soil to grow a crop - seasonally or year round? Would that still be a slippery slope? Or could this be an untapped resource to combat the inequities of the global food system?

    As for authentic tomatoes, what does that mean to you? What drives you to purchase a tomato? I'm a tomato lover as well as it sounds like you are.

    Is it nutritional content? You didn't really get into any nutritional comparisons. I think, especially since you choose to site the NY Times that identified greenhouse tomatoes with McDonald's, this would be valuable insight (not to McD's but non greenhouse grown tomatoes as most anyone who grows fruits or vegetables,either in greenhouses or fields certainly believes they offer a much healthier alternative to processed foods).

    Is it price per pound? You didn't touch on this either. Cost to the consumer can have vailidity.

    What about flavor, texture, and appearance? That's it for me, and I fall into the majority as consumer research identifies this as the #1 reason why people buy tomatoes. You didn't comment on whether or not greenhouse tomatoes offer a better product than the alternative.

    I have found that consumers make repeat purchases with their taste buds. The greenhouse sector has grown as fast as it has because it continues to deliver on the flavor proposition, with a growing diversity of profiles.

    Last, I would caution you to not discount the importance of food safety. The ability to trace back to the source a problem as serious as salmonella can save many lives. This initiative is mandated to all sizes of growing entities, not just big corporations.

    I suppose I really didn't get what the current issues are that will become larger and more complex - maybe you can expand here? Horizontal or vertical integration? Really, isn't this in any industry? Is that the focus of the class?

  2. You say Tomato, I say Tomatoe, lets all just get along. :)

  3. Thanks for your comment! You make a really valid argument. In my defense, I'm no greenhouse expert. What I am trying to do here is expose some of the current issues in the debate on greenhouse produce.
    Firstly, energy use in a greenhouse far exceeds the energy use of a field. Lighting and heating a glass building 24 hours a day, 365 days a year constitutes a far greater price than seasonal field growing. The average pre-harvest costs in California fields is $3100, as opposed to a greenhouse's $1-2 million.
    I see your point in areas with infertile land. Here, the benefits would far outweigh the cost. The constant import of fresh goods becomes a costly endeavor, and so greenhouse production becomes a feasible option.
    Authenticity to me is a tomato grown where nature intended, when nature intended. This yields a fruit with optimum nutrition, taste, and texture. In my opinion, there is something very artificial about greenhouse produce. In this regard, I would rather have tomatoes the old-fashioned way.
    By growing tomatoes seasonally, we generate more nutritious, quality fruit - and at lower prices. I am by no means condoning the shipment of Mexican tomatoes in January. I feel this is quite inefficient in terms of energy use. Consumers might be willing to pay more, but I feel that we are not fully educated on the ecological impacts of these choices.
    As for food safety - if greenhouses are the best way to ensure quality goods - what does this say about the way we field-grow produce? I think this exposes an enormous need for better monitoring of field-grown produce. If we are so quick to see greenhouses as a quick fix for food safety regulation, clearly there are problems with the traditional way we grow food that need to be addressed.
    My motivation for tying in the integration theme is to relate this to a class topic. I do not believe that this is the main focus of my post, nor do I want it to be the dominating tone. Really, I just found it interesting how this debate could be related to an overarching theme in the food system. It is generally understood that the food system is becoming increasingly complex every year, and I see greenhouse production getting tied into the mix. Once it becomes a part of the system, it becomes very difficult to retrace our steps to either simplify the industry or elucidate an potential complications that may arise.

  4. Anonymous – Greenhouse Expert
    In my architecture class we are designing vertical greenhouses. These vertical greenhouses seem to be the latest craze in architecture schools and magazines. I don’t know of any operational sky scraper vertical greenhouses. Do you know of any and do you believe that the vertical greenhouse is a viable system for growing produce and nourishing future generations? Professor Despommier at Columbia university is spearheading research projects and has a website,

  5. Hey Amanda. I was wondering if the problems you listed about greenhouses applied to smaller scale examples?

  6. What if these greenhouses could be supported by using biomass and wind for energy, continue to grow in clean, low risk for contamination environments, use recirculation of water to reduce runoff and waste, implement biological pest, and disease control to reduce chemical dependancy, and still have produce available year round? All of these can be done at some cost that continues to fall with the improvements in technology.
    Certainly large scale operations benefit from the "economies of scale" and smaller "family farm" growers have great difficulty competing but that is the reality in any industy.
    There should always be outdoor farms and we should continue to "gently" try and reduce the environmental impacts of those as well. We don't want to put them out of business unnecessarily. However, you cannot keep animal and bird intrusions (contamination) out of thousands of acres. There will always be that risk.
    There will also always be small personal gardens; but not everyone wants to grow their own food and you'll never feed the world that way.
    You claim to be "no greenhouse expert" but have no problem chastising the industry as a "slippery slope". Greenhouses won't replace outdoor growing or gardening. They only offer alternatives to the consumer. Without the end consumer's willingness to pay for any product, the business will either change or fail. If tomato eaters won't pay the premium, the greenhouse will either reduce costs, or close. MARKET DEMAND DRIVES THE WORLD.
    In closing, all industries and business are being forced by our leaders to find "green" alternatives. While the motives seems highly political on the surface (and may be!)the end result could possibly be a cleaner, less damaged environment. (Anyone want to buy some "carbon credits"?) Weather or not our country can afford these technologies remains to be seen. Government subsidies (stimilus) are only yours and my tax dollars and there is only so many of those as well. We need a few "environmental Edisons" to lead the way. Are you out there?

  7. An interesting technology I learned about recently here in Troy that is both simple and effective is that of the high tunnel. It doesn't use any energy to run other than the sun. Basically it's a simple plastic structure that forms a tunnel over crops and keeps the ground warm so crops can be grown for much more of the year. It is becoming really widespread in our region of the country.

  8. Grennhouses are not closed loop for water use. Spent nutrient solutions are discharged to local streams and are highly polluting. Sturgeon Creek in Leamington has nutrient levels akin to those found in raw sewage! This is a cost that is borne by all.