By Clara Steiner, University of Exeter
Steiner, C. (2022) ‘In the near future look out for hipsters drinking smoothies from underground farms in Shoreditch’: The framing of urban vertical farming in the UK media. Routes 2(3): 193-202
The contemporary food system is becoming increasingly unsustainable, industrialised and spatially complex. Many are now looking towards metropolitan centres and future food technologies for potential solutions. Urban vertical farming, in which food is grown indoors, without soil and under artificial lighting, is one such technology. Media framings play an influential role in the potential acceptance of new technologies and foodstuffs. To understand how indoor urban agriculture is framed in the UK media, this study uses Applied Thematic Analysis to analyse 50 newspaper articles published between 2010 and 2020. It concludes that whilst promissory narratives dominate, some risk framings are also present. Vertical farming sits precariously between various liminal boundaries, merging framings of local, fresh, and sustainable with ideas of technological progress and efficiency. This paper argues that a new food ‘aesthetic’ referred to as ‘techno-local food’, may be emerging and attempting to gain traction in the future food arena.
The notion that ‘food from doubtful provenance flows into cities from placeless foodscapes’ has anchored itself deep into the human consciousness as the ‘obvious’ means through which food is supplied and consumed in cities (Morgan, 2015: 1385). This has caused numerous ecological and social consequences, requiring a restructuring of the contemporary food system (Campbell, 2009). Moreover, Morgan & Sonnino (2010) have identified five concerning trends: the food price surge in 2007-8, the sharp increase in food security and national security, the looming threat of climate change, and increasing global land conflicts. As a response, urban agricultural activities are now proliferating throughout the Global North, aiming to make food production ‘palpable, tangible and above all visible’ (Morgan, 2015: 1385). Ideas around ‘productive urban landscapes’ have emerged, envisaging urban farming as not just a residual activity but a central part of a city’s function, construction, and design. It recognizes that urban agriculture can contribute to the local economy, food security and urban ecology (Morgan, 2015).
2. Vertical farming
In vertical farms crops are grown indoors on vertical stacks using artificial lighting and soilless growing techniques (Despommier, 2010). Lettuce, herbs, and other microgreens can be grown without pesticides, using less energy, water, and space than traditional agriculture. It can also eradicate food miles and reduce food waste (Benke & Tomkins, 2017).
Interest in vertical farming is growing. The 2020 National Food Strategy stated that the ideal ‘Food-topia would contain […] solar-powered greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables in cities’ (Dimbleby, 2020: 85). However, vertical farming has only recently emerged in UK urban landscapes; hence its future is still contested. A survey in Germany found that 76.8% of respondents were unaware of vertical farming. Over half expressed scepticism, emphasising the ontological uncertainty through which this technology is emerging (Jurkenbeck, et al., 2019). Therefore, as a new disruptive technology, it is highly vulnerable to negative public attitudes.
Mass media plays a critical role in distributing future imaginaries, creating legitimacy, and influencing public discourse around future food technologies (Jansma, et al., 2020, p. 195). Media representations of food related issues and new ‘foodstuffs’ can influence audiences and impact production-consumption networks through their use of words, symbols and meanings (Lockie, 2006). Hereby, impacting its acceptance by the public, urban planners, and policy makers.
To date, urban indoor farming has remained largely absent from geographical discourse, despite its spatial, economic, environmental, and social complexities. To the author’s knowledge, media framings around urban indoor farming has thus far not been examined. This study analyses UK newspapers to address the question:
How is urban indoor agriculture framed in the UK media, and what implications may this have on its future development?
In doing so, it builds insight into the nature of existing framings surrounding urban indoor farming and highlights several implications for public engagement and future development.
The underlying research for this study uses Framing and Applied Thematic Analysis, inspired by Guest et al, (2012). 50 articles published between 2010 and 2020 were extracted from the LexisNexis database. These were analysed using the qualitative coding programme NVivo12. An initial thematic codebook was produced which was optimised in an iterative process, this facilitated the subsequent coding process (see appendix). In this project, a ‘promissory-and-risk’ framework was used. ‘Promissory’ refers to a positive representation or expectation of vertical farming, whilst ‘risk’ includes descriptions of unease or uncertainty. A relevant ethics form was approved prior to data collection and analysis. Sampled newspapers are referenced as follows:
As there is no simple linear relationship between media framings of emerging technologies and audience reaction, media discourse of vertical farming may not directly reflect public perceptions. Despite this, media framings can provide a suitable entry point into understanding public attitudes.
5.1 Promissory Framings
Firstly, recurring themes of food insecurity, overpopulation and rapid urbanisation allude to Malthusian narratives of an overburdened planet, framing vertical farms as the techno-cornucopias of the future.
“Financial and environmental pressures on modern agriculture have sparked new interest in vertical farming. With global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, competition for land to grow both food and energy crops will become increasingly fierce.” (Author, G2)
Here, the media is playing with notions of the plagued human condition, alluding to dystopian imaginaries of an overstretched Anthropocene. The year 2050 regularly appears alongside narratives of climate change and overpopulation. This places vertical farming within the broader concept of ‘urban ecological security’, in which technological progress offers solutions to future environmental constraint. The relocation of farms into urban infrastructures is framed as a response to the increasingly precarious food system; a means by which cities can reimagine their existing landscapes and secure their longer-term economic and material reproduction (Hodson & Marvin, 2010).
Second, the reimagined geographies of neglected urban landscapes as spaces of food production is a common frame. For example, “many vertical farms around the world have been built in disused factories, warehouses or even shipping containers” (Guardian, 2019). Examples include Farm Urban located in a “former sugar factory” (Author, G12) and Aerofarms using a “disused disco” (Author, TE5). Here, spaces once marginal to the productive urban landscape are being realigned with renewed economic and social value. As an article in the Independent highlights, with the ability to transgress environmental and spatial boundaries, “low value or disused urban spaces” can be converted into “highly efficient vertical farms” (Author, I4). More utopian visions of skyscrapers acting as urban mega-farms are also present, aligning with notions of eco and smart cities. Hereby, the media present two parallel narratives, one of repurposing existing urban spaces and the other of purpose-built futuristic architectures.
Third, framings of environmental sustainability, such as using less water, energy and pesticides appear frequently, often in the form of numerical values. For example, an article discussing the use of shipping containers in London states it uses “up to 95 per cent less water than traditional agriculture over a fraction of the space” (Author, TE3). The media plays with images of a broken food system, depicting conventional farming as an unsustainable industry, impacting our ecosystems, and contributing to climate change. As a more sensationalist article states:
“it seems ye olde method is no longer plausible because of soil exhaustion, chemical contamination, weather disaster and population pressure.” (Author, ST4)
Vertical farming is framed as better than its traditional counterpart, promising a more ‘closed-loop’ production system through technological advancement.
Articles commonly refer to themes of ‘efficiency’, ‘innovation’, and ‘intensification’, articulating vertical farming within the context of ‘ecological modernisation’. This is a popular business-orientated ideology which argues that environmental sustainability and economic progress can occur simultaneously (Hajer, 1997). The co-founder of Aerofarms states that they “are able to grow with 75 times more productivity versus traditional field farming” (Oshima, I1). This echoes traditional productivist notions of food security; the mantra that purely technological advances will solve problems of future food supply. Vertical farming promises a win-win scenario, offering financial profits whilst reducing environmental pressures. Hereby, the media depicts a promissory narrative for investors, local councils, and national governments, offering a ‘techno-institutional fix for present problems’ (Hajer, 1997: 32).
Finally, the media make use of key aesthetics associated with the ‘quality turn’ in agri-food geographies. By presenting the produce as ‘fresh’, ‘healthy’, and ‘sustainable’, they directly contrast narratives associated with the industrialised food regime (Hill, 2015). It emphasises the relocation of production from ‘placeless’ to local and traceble foodscapes. As an article in the Telegraph states:
“One part of the answer could lie in a shipping container in an east London car park, just moments away from the capital’s business district.” (Author, TE3)
This plays into an emerging cultural-political shift amongst consumers demanding a redesign towards a more transparent food supply chain (Campbell, 2009). However, the contradictory imaginaries of industrial, man-made “shipping containers” as spaces that produce ‘clean’ and ‘fresh’ food may be confusing to the public. Furthermore, the lack of pesticides use is emphasised, with one article stating, “if you keep pests and diseases locked out, there’s no need for pesticides and other toxic chemicals” (Author, TE8). Therefore, we may be witnessing the conceptual emergence of ‘techno-local food’, in which technologically advanced farms provide fresh food to urban communities (Broad, 2020).
5.2 Risk framings
Despite several promissory narratives the UK media also presents some adjoining risk framings. First, the theme of financial risk frequently resurfaces. As an article states: “even a 1930s block in a not-quite-gentrified area such as Deptford comes at a considerable cost” (Author, TE10). Here, the narrative of reinventing urban spaces is limited by the high rent costs prevalent in metropolitan centres. Second, some articles question its high energy use and overall impact on future food supplies. For example, “leafy greens […] only make up a portion of our daily calorie needs” (Author, TE8).
Third, in regard to perceptions of the food itself, some articles are less optimistic about its public acceptance. The removal of rural imagery could result in resistance from members of alternative food movements:
“Another step “away from nature”, further removing ourselves from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, might not be popular with some sectors of the green contingent” (Author, I3)
Therefore, despite its sustainable, local, and pesticide-free framings, it sits uneasily within alternative food discourses, particularly those orientated towards organic and urban ecological movements. For example, a spokesperson for Growing Underground, states that “We can’t get organic status because the produce is not grown in soil” (Dreng, G6). Reference to the lack of sunlight, with phrases such as “artificial lighting” (Author, G11) are also present. This is important as the ‘incompatibilities stemming from norms and concepts of what real agriculture looks like’ act as influential imaginaries in relation to future food technologies (Specht, et al., 2016: 767).
Fourth, the spaces in which these farms are emerging challenge the normative formation of the city and the cultural logic of food systems. Thus, the media occasionally frames urban vertical farming as ‘out of place’. For example, a journalist visiting Growing Underground writes:
“Descending a rattling lift-shaft to a brick dungeon 100ft below the A3 is not what one typically identifies with the word farm” (Author, O1).
As more ‘orthodox’ forms of urban agriculture are already perceived as ‘out of place’, the notion of growing food in a “brick dungeon” may add another uncomfortable dimension, potentially resulting in further public uncertainty (Nielson & Rickards, 2017). However, whether this demonstrates a promissory or risk framing largely depends on personal socio-cultural beliefs. While some may be less accepting, others may regard this as an exciting opportunity for urban futures.
Almost all articles in the UK media frame vertical farming in a positive light, hereby potentially legitimising its future. Common promissory narratives include ‘urban ecological security’, technological progress, environmental sustainability, urban regeneration, and securing a fresh, local, and consistent food supply. Risk framings are mentioned less, typically referring to energy use, rent costs, and unnatural production methods. Vertical farming allows the food system to exploit the continuous metamorphosis of the city, as the constant expansion and retreat of capital, infrastructure, and ‘productivity’ leaves behind an abundance of disused spaces (Harvey, 2000).
Vertical farming proposes a new food ‘aesthetic’, threatening to disrupt the traditional binaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food, merging framings of local, sustainable, and quality food, with ideas of technology and efficiency. The ‘techno-local food’ concept attempts to carve a space in the future for vertical farming, making this an exciting time for urban food geographies (Broad, 2020). Whilst contradictions and confusion between these intersections are apparent, the overall sentiment is one of excitement, curiosity, and positivity. As the media supplies ‘emotional heuristics’ used by the public to evaluate new food technologies, the predominantly promissory narratives could have a positive impact on its future acceptance, legitimisation, and investment (Painter, et al., 2020). Further research could build upon the novel concept ‘techno-local food’, examining where it fits within broader discourses of urban agriculture and the alternative food movements.
Firstly I would like to thank everyone at Farm Urban in Liverpool for being so welcoming and letting me explore your fascinating underground farm. I enjoyed spending my summer 2020 there and it definitley ignited my curiosity for this project. Thank you to my family and friends for the endless support and words of encouragement. Finally I would like to say thank you to Catherine Butler for advising me throughout this dissertation, particularly during the crazy, unpredictable and bizarre times we have had.
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