With almost eight billion people to feed, traditional agriculture is taking a toll on the planet. Luckily, new technologies in urban farming are changing the game. Now, food can be grown locally in places where it was previously impossible, without soil or light.
It’s no secret that some agricultural practices have a detrimental impact on the Earth. From the colossal amount of water needed, pollution caused, energy use, and destruction of natural habitats, it’s clear we need some new solutions.
By 2050, the world’s population is set to increase to 10 billion from the current 7.6 billion. On top of that, it’s estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will be city dwellers. Cities attract humans like magnets, and humans need to eat.
With so many more mouths to feed agricultural yields are going to have to catch up. This combined with problems like water shortages and decreasing fossil fuels is a recipe for global starvation.
When we think of cities, we imagine every inch packed densely — high-rises that block out the light, smoggy air thick with exhaust fumes. When compared to farm-fresh rural living, cities appear environmentally irresponsible, unhealthy, and polluted. However, these ideas have been shaken up by forward-thinking concepts like urban farming.
The urban farming movement continues to grow and evolve as social entrepreneurs develop new technologies that enable food to be grown in the most unlikely places. Vertical farms are springing up everywhere from rooftops to office lobbies to World War II air raid shelters.
Here we take a look at why and how local agriculture is becoming an integral part of urban living.
What are the Benefits of Urban Farming?
Urban farming and vertical farming are innovative solutions that are starting to gain traction all over the world.
City farming enables more people to eat as “local” as possible. By growing food closer to those who will eat it, “food miles”, or the long distance transportation needed, is substantially decreased. When food doesn’t need to be transported, a lot of plastic packaging can be cut out of the equation, too.
Urban farming also makes it easier for urban populations to get the freshest food possible and encourages us to eat in season. An apple that is in season and grown locally offers us the healthiest version with the most nutrients. Urban farming also nourishes local economies rather than multinationals and corporate giants.
An added bonus is that in cities where it’s unlikely that you’ll know your neighbors, urban farming harnesses community interaction and connections.
Interacting with nature also helps people to reconnect to the Earth. Numerous studies have shown that being exposed to plants can have a positive effect on our mental health. As hippy-dippy as it sounds, when people have a greater appreciation for nature and understand where their food comes from, they are more likely to want to safeguard the environment. Urban farming helps to eliminate the disconnect that comes with having access to a supermarket where you can get everything from quinoa to dragon fruits at any given time of the year.
Urban Farm Tech Overcomes Problems
Before I declare urban farming a food revolution, let’s address the countless problems that are probably swirling around in the back of your mind.
Land in cities is usually expensive and limited. How could there possibly be space for a ten-acre cabbage farm in Manhattan when most people can hardly find a square meter of living space?
Then there’s the fact that with skyscrapers comes shade. How can plants photosynthesize without sunlight?
With the right technology in place, these key concerns for urban farming can be overcome.
How Do Urban Farms and Vertical Farms Work?
Urban farms can be as simple as a small community vegetable patch or roof garden or as complex as an indoor vertical farm.
Vertical farms were developed especially for urban settings. They are planned out to maximize three-dimensional space for growing as many crops as possible.
These futuristic farms usually contain rows tined with plants rooted in soil, nutrient-enriched water, or even air. These rows are stacked up high and each tier is equipped with UV lighting that simulates real sunlight. These innovations allow farmers to bypass all the issues unpredictable weather causes and tailor conditions to maximize crop yield.
Here are some examples of the most impressive Urban Farms out there:
1. Sky Greens, Lim Chu Kang area, Singapore
Sky Greens is an urban farm in Singapore, one of the most densely populated nations in the world.
With little space for agriculture, Sky Greens is a vertical farm aimed to grow more food in less space. This plant skyscraper employs equipment that holds up to 32 trays on a tall, narrow A-frame structure, The plants rotate slowly, as if on a Ferris wheel to ensure each tray gets enough sunlight exposure. Since 2012, Sky Greens has successfully delivered lettuce, spinach, and a variety of Asian greens to the markets of Singapore every day.
2. The Urban Farm at Pasona Tokyo Headquarters
Another innovative urban farm at Pasona Tokyo Headquarters is integrated into a nine-story corporate office space. The office has a total of 43,000 square feet of green space and houses 200 species of fruits and vegetables. Here you’ll find tomatoes vines dangling above conference tables in meeting rooms partitioned by passion fruit trees. The main lobby even features a rice paddy and broccoli field.
The crops are equipped with HEFL, fluorescent and LED lights and an automated irrigation system. Intelligent climate control monitors humidity, temperature, and the breeze to perfectly harmonize human comfort and optimal growing conditions.
All the plants are maintained and harvested by Pasona employees on their lunch breaks and served in the company cafeteria.
These are only two examples out of hundreds of urban farms functioning all over the world. You can find urban-farms in Brooklyn, London, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Montreal, Seattle, and countless other cities.
The Technology that Makes Urban Farms a Reality
As mentioned, urban farming innovation allows plants to grow without soil or natural light. The technology behind this is called hydroponics.
Hydroponics uses nutrients dissolved in water and blocks of sponge-like material where the roots can grow. This is combined with low-energy artificial LED lights. Studies have shown that plants grown using hydroponics use less water and provide significantly higher yields.
Although it sounds complicated, hydroponic units are set to enter mainstream use. You can even buy your own portable hydroponic system in IKEA.
Aquaponics is an urban farming technology that combines raising crops without soil (though hydroponics) with aquaculture in one integrated system.
For example, Urban Organics, an urban farm in St.Paul, grows kale, Swiss chard, cilantro, and parsley and then recycles the water used to raise Arctic char and Atlantic salmon. Aquaponics is a closed-loop system. The system allows fish waste to organically fertilize plants, and plants to clean and filter water for the fish.
Microbes (nitrifying bacteria) also play a role in aquaponics. They convert ammonia from the fish waste into nitrates. Nitrates are a form of nitrogen that supports plant growth.
Water waste is further limited as any excess water that drains out of planters is caught in the fish tanks.
Internet-of-Things and Urban Farming
Internet-of-Things tech is providing real-time monitoring of urban farming systems. This will enable farmers to reduce waste and enhance productivity as they will be able to monitor their urban farms more accurately.
IoT-based smart farming uses systems that monitor light, humidity, temperature, and soil using sensors. These systems alert automated irrigation or fertilizer systems to apply the quantities needed.
IoT based systems are also used in smart-greenhouses to regulate climate according to the plant’s requirements. This prevents waste of resources and allows for more efficient water usage in urban farms.
The IoT system can be connected to a cloud server so that all information can be accessed remotely. The cloud server also enables data processing and lets farmers control actions. This eliminates the need for constant manual monitoring and limits the need for manual intervention.
IoT farming will help urban farms to produce more sustainable food and provides a cost-effective solution for urban farming.
Urban farms have the potential to change our agricultural landscape. Cities need to get smarter if we want to tackle the environmental and social problems we are currently facing.
Urban farming methods such as vertical farming hold the potential to improve the way we produce and consume food. Urban farming makes eating local, nutritious, sustainable food a reality for those living in cities.
It must be said that urban farming isn’t a magical solution for sustainability. Continuing to develop and expand on these innovative farming technologies is going to play an integral role in feeding the ever-expanding population of our planet.