Better food variety, nutrition, and security with regenerative farming platforms above & below water and perching over rooftops.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
I first moved to the East Bay over 30 years ago. I've tried to move to other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and even to other countries, but I'm always drawn back here. I now live on the island of Alameda. I've lovingly restored a 122-year-old farmhouse and we've built a small regenerative systems lab in a greenhouse behind it. I also spend a lot of time on the water, and we're converting a riverboat to a regenerative systems showcase where we'll prototype the greenbergs and perching permaculture penthouses. I'm passionate about creating integrated food, waste management and fuel systems that heal the bay and the land while providing our community with fresher, more delicious, and more nutritious food.
We've run 3 Food System Vision Prize events over the past 2 months. The events have helped us refine our vision, deepen our partnerships, and advance our designs and prototypes. Through these events, we've also deepened our relationships with city and community sustainability and climate action leaders in the cities of Alameda and San Leandro, and identified underused industrial sites in both cities where we can expand the implementation of our vision--our urban food system incubators!
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Western Alameda County is the heart of the East Bay -- a vibrant urban area stretching between the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay and a range of hills to the west. This area includes the cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, Newark, Oakland, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and Union City. Western Alameda County is one of the most ethnically- and culturally-diverse urban areas in the world. The majority-Asian city of Fremont has over 40,000 inhabitants from India and the largest concentration of Afghan Americans in the U.S. The majority-Hispanic neighborhood of Fruitvale has large Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan populations. Oakland has a large and bustling Chinatown and nearby neighborhoods with large African American, Korean, and Vietnamese populations. The local food scene reflects this rich diversity and is further enhanced by a deep tradition of innovation and fusion. The restaurants of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto are famous for emphasis on fresh, local, and seasonal foods and Oakland has now become a center for innovative vegan cuisines including restaurants specializing in vegan soul food and vegan barbecue. Whether you feel like Halal Mexican food, Lithuanian cuisine, an Eritrean meal, or a greasy-spoon diner, the East Bay's got you covered! Western Alameda County is also dotted with urban farms and permaculture co-ops, is home to several food access non-profits, and has many weekly farmers markets. It also has a large and rapidly-growing homeless population with over 8,000 people living without permanent shelter. While some neighborhoods have foodie-focused groceries with hundreds of types of fresh produce, other neighborhoods only have corner stores with little to no fresh fruits or vegetables.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
In 2020, our diets consist of roughly 300 inbred and impoverished foods. Our foods--both plants and livestock--have been inbred to maximize yield, but the resulting monocultures and breeds are more vulnerable to diseases because of their genetic uniformity. Most of the fruits and vegetables that we eat are impoverished because they grow in dead soils that require regular addition of chemical fertilizers. The run off from these chemical fertilizers impoverishes our waterways and oceans by triggering processes that lead to dead zones. Most of our fruits and vegetables are also impoverished because they are picked too early and travel an estimated 1,500 miles to reach our plates. While some inhabitants of the East Bay can buy local produce (in some cases, even produce grown in living soils in permaculture farms) many inhabitants cannot afford these foods or live in neighborhoods where these foods are not available. The high cost of living in the East Bay and the growing wealth gap are not only impacting access to food. A rapidly-growing number of our neighbors can no longer afford permanent shelter. There were over 8,000 homeless people in Alameda County in 2019, representing a 42.5% increase from 2017.
In 2020, the San Francisco Bay, once teaming with life, is an underwater desert. For thousands of years, the Ohlone and other indigenous communities came to the East Bay shorelines and feasted on the abundant shellfish. Massive shellmounds--some over 9 meters (30 feet) in height--were the evidence of this long-lasting abundance. Now it costs over a million dollars per acre to make these once-rich waters produce shellfish. Tule marshes along the edge of the Bay, once provided protected nurseries for fish have been mostly replaced with concrete.
In 2020, our far-traveling and over-industrialized food makes us party to ecological devastation around the globe. Since most of this destruction happens far away, it is easy to ignore the impact and be blind to the true cost for us and for all future generations. The cheap palm oil in many processed foods, carries the cost of rainforest destruction and loss of many animal and plant species. Ocean-caught fish rely on trawling nets that destroy underwater habitats and needlessly kill 5 kilograms of whales, sharks, dolphins, turtles, and other ocean creatures for every 1 kilogram of fish. Land-reared livestock create huge demands for food and water, produce greenhouse gases, and pollute waterways.
If we continue with our over-industrialized food system, by 2050, the devastation to natural forest and marine ecosystems will be staggering. Most of the rainforest will be gone and most of the world's oceans and bays will be underwater deserts. Tens of thousands of species will be lost, including thousands of edible species. Diseases will wipe out critical food monocultures. And widening income inequality will leave a growing number in a state of food and housing insecurity.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our food future can be far better than the present -- 5x better taste, 10x more variety, 20x more nutritious, and 100x more secure. Our tastier and more nutritious food can be produced in a way that actively heals the soil and the oceans. Our future food can be genetically diverse and locally grown, reducing the risks associated with disease and with interruptions in trade.
These urban food systems--the greenbergs on water and the perching permaculture penthouses on land--will produce enough food for all of the citizens of the East Bay by 2050. The greenbergs will help bring the San Francisco Bay back to life, removing toxins and excess nitrogen from the water, spreading native macroalgae spores, and providing protective habitats for small fish. The perching permaculture penthouses will allow us to grow a wider variety of edible plants, rescuing species that were threatened with extinction through rainforest destruction. The perching permaculture penthouses will allow us to grow with less soil and water inputs, and eliminate most of the engineering cost associated with rooftop growing.
These farming systems in the greenbergs and perching permaculture penthouses eliminate the reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels and instead use fast-growing organic materials. These systems are carbon storing and carbon sequestering, and intercept agricultural and consumer food waste and digest it-- eliminating greenhouse gases and producing natural fertilizer and zero-emissions fuel (without the use of toxins or caustic agents).
Food labeling will help us know the full impact that our food has on forests, oceans, greenhouse gases, and air quality. In 2020, organic foods could still rely on pesticides (although usually 30% less than non-organics) and chemical fertilizers. In 2020, there was no way to quantify the fossil fuel inputs or greenhouse gas outputs associated with specific food. The rise of the Regenetarian Diet and associated labeling addressed that, making the full-lifecycle impact of food visible and understandable.
The greenberg and perching permaculture penthouse regenerative farming systems are an integrated part of other broader systems--housing, clothing, fuel, transportation. This holistic and integrated approach will extend to food packaging which will be made from natural materials. The farming systems will also serve our communities, with a portion of the produce being reserved for our needier neighbors, reducing food insecurity and inequality. Greenbergs and perching permaculture penthouses will provide regenerative system design and development training opportunities for East Bay youth as well as local jobs.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In 2020, we thought that the East Bay food scene was pretty amazing. But now, in 2050, we have ten times as many ingredients and they're all grown locally! In 2020, I thought I knew my favorite fruit and favorite vegetable. But it turns out that I hadn't even tasted them yet. In fact, that's been the case for most of us. The majority of the fruits and vegetables that we have available now, were still hiding in the rainforest in 2020. The range of flavors that we get to experience is amazing, and the short distance that our food travels means that it is harvested when ripe and enjoyed by us with the maximum amount of nutrition and taste.
In 2020, I was a vegan and tried to eat local and organic foods whenever possible. That was my best way of minimizing the harm that I was doing to natural ecosystems. I also took pains to avoid any foods containing palm oil, cane sugar, and other products that are responsible for wholesale destruction of natural ecosystems and the associated loss of species. 30 years later, I'm so happy that I'm able to follow a Regenetarian Diet. I'm able to eat foods that help heal natural ecosystems. My food is also certified to have no chemical or fossil fuel inputs through its entire lifecycle. My food is carbon negative and isn't associated with any greenhouse gas emissions, even after food scraps are disposed. The thing that surprised me about the Regenetarian Diet is that I'm now actually eating a small amount of meat. Specifically, I now eat mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops--foods that play a huge role in cleaning the water and healing our oceans and bays.
I'm so happy to see how food access has also improved. It used to be that disadvantaged neighborhoods in the East Bay had more nutrient-deprived, over-processed foods and less access to nutrient-rich and fresh foods. Now those neighborhoods have the best access to fresh foods, because they are better suited for perching permaculture penthouses.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Lower portion of Greenberg inspired by GreenWave's open source design for 3D underwater farms.
Future home of the greenberg and perching permaculture penthouse prototypes. Please see history of earlier prototypes in chronological order below.
1st prototype. Regenerative and circular food system concept animation. May 2019.
1st prototype. My 13-year-old twin daughter building an anaerobic digester from a surplus food container. May 2019.
1st prototype. My other 13-year-old twin daughter and a friend converting a generator to run on low-pressure biogas. May 2019.
1st prototype. An all-electric van to house the 1st food system prototype. May 2019.
1st prototype. Vertical grow setup inside the van. May 2019.
2nd prototype. Sketch for the greenhouse for the improved circular food system setup. June 2019.
2nd prototype. Central section for the green house roof. July 2019.
2nd prototype. Installing the greenhouse roof panels. September 2019.
2nd prototype. Mixing the archaeal enzyme slurry to prime the anaerobic digester. November 2019.
To have a good food future, we need to grow our food in a way that creates no air or water pollution. To have a fabulous food future, we need to grow a greater variety of food and to eat it as soon as it's ripe. We need to dramatically shorten the distance from farm to table. Moving farming into our cities will improve the taste and nutrient density of our food, green our urban landscapes, and improve air quality. Farming where we live means that we will also have to stop using poisonous pesticides on our foods. We can go a step further and use permaculture approaches to naturally fortify the soil, precluding the need for chemical fertilizers as well.
However, there are several challenges faced by urban farming:
1. Urban farming often has difficulty competing for scarce land.
2. Urban soils are often depleted or contaminated so large amounts of soil must be transported into the city.
3. There is competition for food waste and surplus biomass between composting activities to renew the soil and anaerobic digestion activities to produce power (i.e. for vertical grow) or heat (i.e. to create biochar that also plays a critical role in rebuilding soil).
Through prototyping, collaborating, and integrating open source designs, we are developing a set of urban regenerative food systems that can overcome these challenges and produce the highest volume of food at the lowest cost while healing natural ecosystems.
Perching Permaculture Penthouses
Rooftops have long been identified as prime spots for urban farming. However, conventional rooftop farms create structural and drainage challenges because of a large quantity of heavy and damp soil distributing its weight across the roof. The perching permaculture penthouse design dramatically lowers the cost of rooftop urban farming while significantly reducing the risk of damage to the building underneath.
1. Rather than resting on the roof, the perching permaculture penthouse is built on bridge-life trusses that distribute the weight to the exterior walls of the building.
2. The entire structure is built of timber bamboos, because they are the fastest-growing plants on earth, are relatively lightweight, and have a weight-to-strength ratio near that of steel.
3. The bamboo floor will use offset half bamboos to route water to past the edge of the roofline or into the existing gutter or roof drainage system.
4. The bamboo frame overhead will be covered with a double or triple layer of heat-trapping film. Eventually this film will be made from a natural plastic-like material derived from prickly pear or another fast-growing, soil-healing plant.
5. The plants will be grown using the "super soil in socks" system developed by Alegria Farms, which dramatically reduces the overall soil weight and the amount of water needed.
6. These perching hothouse greenhouses will be used to grow not only the fruits and vegetables that we enjoy in the East Bay today, but also fruits and vegetables from the world's rainforests--especially those that are in danger of extinction because of industrial-agriculture-driven rainforest destruction.
Like an iceberg, that has a small portion above water, and a larger mass under water, a greenberg has a small grow platform or greenhouse above water and a much larger vertical grow area that is submerged.
1. The pontoons for the greenberg will have a structure of steam-shaped timber bamboo using the techniques from Taiwan for ocean-worthy bamboo boats. If needed, tule reed bundles will be lashed to these bamboo structures to provide additional buoyancy. Tule reeds are used by the indigenous people of the San Francisco Bay to make canoes and rafts.
2. The above water plants can be in the open air or in a small greenhouse. Since it will be cooler on the bay, there will not be any attempt to grow tropical plants above water.
3. Some of the greenbergs can also be used to grow plants that have their roots hanging in salt water. For instance, Agrisea has developed rice that grows in salt water.
4. The plants and shellfish grown below water will use a modified version of the Greenwave vertical underwater farm design. The design will need to be modified, because the greenbergs are mobile.
5. The greenbergs will be moveable so that they can be repositioned to intercept nitrogen runoff or deployed to parts of the bay that most need the water filtering (performed by the shellfish) and nitrogen reduction (performed by the seaweed and kelp).
6. The greenbergs' underwater plants solve the challenge of biomass competition between composting and anaerobic digestion because they produce a volume of biomass that can more than satisfy both demands.
7. Initially, the plants and shellfish growing underwater may not be suitable for human consumption. They will be composted and anaerobically digested during this period while they are actively cleaning up the Bay.
8. Some greenbergs will act as carbon sinks while providing the materials for the next generation of greenbergs and perching permaculture penthouses. Specifically, a greenberg that grows timber bamboo above water and kelp below water would be extremely efficient at carbon storage and sequestration. Timber bamboos are the fastest growing plants on earth and sequester 3 times the carbon by weight as trees. Kelps are the 2nd faster growing plants on earth and sequester 5 times the carbon by weight as trees.
Currently there is no way to determine the full-lifecycle chemical and fossil fuel inputs for the food that we purchase, or to know the total greenhouse gas emissions related to its cultivation, harvesting, transport, and processing. The destruction of ancient natural ecosystems and loss of species related to certain foods is also invisible to us as consumers. More people are becoming aware of the harmful impact of our current food systems. As we develop food systems that heal natural ecosystems, many of us will adopt a Regenetarian Diet--only eating foods that have a positive impact on soil, water, and air.
1. Food tracking and verified digital reporting will let us know which foods are certified "regenetarian."
2. Regenetarian foods will not ignore any externalities or adjacencies. For instance, any farm equipment or automation has to be zero emissions. Food transport, handling, and processing also has to be carbon neutral or negative. Farms cannot produce any toxic runoff.
3. While many of us have assumed that plant-based diets were the most friendly to the earth, there are certain animals that play a role in healing ecosystems. Mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops will be early meats that are options for a regeneratian diet.
4. Policies need to also align with the imperative to reverse the damage to our "commons"--the natural forest and ocean ecosystems that should be preserved for us and all future generations. Towards these ends, farming subsidies should only be given to regenerative farming operations.