Although there are countless differences between people of different nations and continents, ranging from language, skin color, and cultural norms to religious beliefs, architecture, and technological advancement, human beings do have some fundamental needs – the most basic being food and water.
While a large portion of western first-world populations take water and food for granted, either due to their status as an agricultural nation, or their comparative affluence to the rest of the world, a large percentage of the global population deals with insufficient food and water on a daily basis.
The resources of this planet are finite, so finding ways to efficiently use those resources is essential if we are to survive and thrive as a species. Vertical Farming may be that answer!
The Problem on Our Planet
As mentioned, planet Earth has a limited amount of resources, one of which is arable land that is available for agricultural production. Currently, about 80% of the land that is available for agricultural cultivation is already in use, but as our population continues to grow, the amount of land to grow crops on is diminishing. Our global population totals nearly 7.4 billion people, and within the next 40 years, that number is expected to break 10 billion.
Now, let’s take a look at some simple math… if we are already using 80% of the arable land, and our population is going to increase by roughly 33% in the next 4 decades, we will obviously not be able to produce as much food as the global population requires. Malnutrition and starvation are already critical issues in third-world countries, and they will continue to feel the tragic brunt of this lack in the years to come.
What complicates this problem is climate change, which is reducing the amount of usable farmland, and causing more disastrous natural events, leading to devastation in certain parts of the world. This puts further strain on humanitarian aid efforts, food distribution, infrastructure, and other important assets that our global economy and society rely on.
To top this all off, nearly 15% of agricultural land is ruined or utilized inefficiently due to poor management practices. All of this means one thing…we’re headed in a dangerous direction, and an environmentally friendly, efficient, cost-effective, and space-saving approach is essential.
Allow Me to Introduce Vertical Farming
While the name should be rather self-explanatory, vertical farming refers to an agricultural system that relies on skyscraper-like greenhouse to maximize land area for the growth of crops using a natural/artificial light, watering systems, and higher levels of monitoring and control.
As far back as the 1950s, the first versions of such vertical farms were present in the Middle East, where they were called hydroponicums. The concept is quite simple, although it has evolved in a number of different ways since then. Mixed-use skyscrapers have been proposed, which would integrate agricultural activities with more traditional urban activities, utilizing natural sunlight and the excessive amount of existing space (office buildings not being efficiently utilized) for such an endeavor. Imagine the top twenty floors (that receive the most natural sunlight) become greenhouses, while the remainder of the building was used as normal!
One of the most famous names attached to vertical farming is Dickson Despommier, who has been working on the idea for nearly two decades, and his proposition has been called the Despommier skyscraper. As opposed to mixed-use skyscrapers, these would largely be sealed off from the rest of the world, and would be self-sufficient in terms of energy management, including automated watering and artificial lighting systems.
In theory, these skyscrapers would be able to function with limited human interaction, using a fraction of the arable land that an entire field of crops requires, while also reducing “food miles”, i.e., the distance food must travel from producer to consumer. That means a reduction in fossil fuels for long-distance trucking and less carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
The Many Benefits of Vertical Farming
Apart from solving the major land lack issue of farming in the future, vertical farming can also produce food year-round, unlike traditional agriculture. By artificially controlling temperature, light, water, and nutrients, food production can be exponentially increased, utilizing all the seasons of potential growth. Thus far, crops like kale, lettuce, and basil have been found to be the easiest and most efficient to grow under artificial conditions on a large scale, but improvements are being made all the time.
Vertical farming also reduces the need for herbicides, pesticides, and other harsh chemicals that farmers need to use when the crops are exposed to the outside world. Similarly, the devastating loss of crops due to droughts, floods, and other weather-related phenomena can be eliminated with this modern approach to farming.
In terms of its impact on the environment, vertical farming would remove the threat that traditional agriculture poses to nearby species and habitats, thereby preventing extinction and strain on the natural order. The waste products and the organic material generated through this process would also be reusable, making it very efficient.
Finally, in terms of water use, proposed vertical farms could use 95% less water than traditional agriculture to achieve the same results. With water being another finite resource that is under threat on our planet, this one fact alone makes vertical farming an exciting prospect.
This seems too good to be true… what’s the catch?
Yes, there are a few potential downsides to vertical farming, as well as uncertain variables and technological limitations. Heating, powering, and lighting these large skyscraper farms could negate the financial benefits of having them in the city. Major cities’ office space costs are quite high, and if businesses would be losing money on that valuable urban real estate, it may be difficult to convince investors and developers to move in this direction. Light pollution from glass skyscrapers that are artificially lit (oftentimes at night) could also be a major issue in an urban setting.
Furthermore, if those energy needs are met by fossil fuels, then the benefits to environment might also be negated. For plants to grow, carbon dioxide is required, so in a hermetically sealed environment, that carbon dioxide must be provided artificially. Greenhouse growing techniques typically pump in higher than average levels of carbon dioxide to increase photosynthesis rates, but that requires the production of that CO2, often in the form of burning fossil fuels.
Fortunately, the major focus of vertical farms is efficiency, and solutions ranging from anaerobic respirators (generating power from waste products and recycling) to wind and solar power generation are being integrated in these futuristic designs.
The Bottom Line
There are those who would have the world (and their country’s voting populace) to believe that climate change is a myth and that these global crises that are being predicted will never occur. However, the science doesn’t lie, and neither do the numbers.
As our population swells in the coming decades, solutions like vertical farming, even if it isn’t the most financially profitable option, will be essential for the survival and peace of our planet. Fortunately, people are starting to wake up to this reality, which is why the world’s largest vertical farm (able to produce nearly 2 million pounds of vegetables and herbs each year) is being built in Newark, New Jersey.
This is just the beginning; soon, you might have a green skyscraper in the heart of your city too!