By 2050, the world’s population will have increased by 3 billion people, requiring an additional chunk of arable land the size of Brazil in order to grow enough food. Add to that the potential loss of coastal property from rising sea levels, crop loss from drastic weather related incidents, and the need to reforest large swaths of land to sequester CO2. What we’re left with is a global mess that could be helped by a new agricultural technique – vertical farming. Located in an urban setting, the vertical farm is a win-win idea that automates the production of food in a more sustainable manner, by reducing waste, pollution and carbon emissions.
By the time 2050 rolls around, 80% of the world’s population will dwell in an urban setting. With more and more people focused on healthy, organic food bought locally, the demand is even greater to bring food production closer to the city. Vertical farms are not meant to eliminate traditional rural farming, but merely to reduce the strain put on the land and allow some of it to return to nature and forest. For every indoor acre farmed, 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could return to their natural ecological state, which in most cases is hardwood forest.
Local and urban vertical farms have many eco-benefits for both the surrounding region and the planet. Vertical farms will rely solely on hydroponic organic farming techniques, which means no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and no pollution injected into waterways. Vertical farms will be highly efficient and densely built, eliminating heavy machinery and farming equipment responsible for a significant amount of agricultural emissions. Water for irrigation will likely come from treated rainwater, grey or blackwater. And water use can be significantly reduced by recycling water and through the efficient use and reuse of water inside the farm.
Located in the city center, shipping and its associated environmental impact will be practically eliminated. Crops themselves will be monitored closely and provided with the exact growing conditions necessary to each species, thereby improving yields. Indoor controlled growth eliminates crop loss due to weather and natural disasters such as flood, drought or hurricanes. On top of that, a boom of urban, green-tech jobs will become available for growers, researchers, technicians, vendors and more.
In order to create such a high tech growing machine, a number of sustainable technologies will be integrated into one building. All of these technologies are currently available, but not all have been combined into one site yet. Gray and blackwater, along with rainwater will be treated for irrigation use, which will be combined with water recovery systems to collect unused water for use in aeroponic and hydroponic growing. Environmental conditions will be tightly controlled for each crop, maximizing growth, while minimizing the use of water and nutrients. Waste from plants will be either composted for fertilizer or will be combined with animal waste and used as a fuel within the building. Energy will be generated from renewable resources like the sun and wind, while energy efficient building technologies will minimize energy needs. Ideally the building could create more energy than it needs and feed the excess back onto the grid.
Crop production would become a year round activity and makes one acre of indoor growing area equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more. Inside the farm will grow and care for all sorts of edibles, like vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, poultry, fish, pigs. A leading researcher on vertical farms, Dickson Despommier from Columbia University, estimates one vertical farm is enough to feed 50,000 people.
While some may argue that treating the farm like an industrialized factory is moving too far away from nature, the concept has too many benefits to be ignored. Both people and the planet would benefit by such treatment of agriculture and location of some farms in closer proximity to the city centers. Vertical farms could never replace traditional agriculture, but it would certainly take the pressure off the arable land to produce all the food we will need and hopefully eliminate the need to resort to genetically modified crops, strife over water, or food shortages.