The UN forecasts that by 2050, our global population will exceed 9 billion and that as much as 80% of that population will live in cities.
In order to feed the world using traditional agricultural techniques, an additional one billion hectares of arable land may be required– an amount roughly the size of Canada.
Vertical farming is growing up, and as the technology improves, it may be part of the answer to our growing food question.
What is Vertical Farming?
Largely an urban phenomenon, Vertical Farming is the practice of growing up instead of growing out.
This technique, developed by American Microbiologist Dickson Despommier almost 20 years ago, offers a more space-efficient and cost-effective alternative to some traditional farming methods.
Why is Vertical Farming Cost Effective?
Similar to traditional greenhouses and hydroponic farming, the fact that vertical farming is done indoors makes it beneficial in several ways.
You can Control the Environment
Indoor farming allows for maximum control over environmental factors such as lighting, irrigation, and exposure to insects, making it a form of Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA. This not only reduces the need for pesticides but also reduces the monetary costs, potential health risks and ecological damage associated with using them.
Furthermore, full control over the environment helps maximize yield, making the process more energy efficient and cost-effective by reducing waste.
Repurposes Abandoned Buildings
Vertical Farming is often done in repurposed buildings located in urban areas, such as abandoned factories or warehouses (hence the name “FarmScrapers”). This repurposing makes vertical farming a technique that actually creates productivity from zero by utilizing infrastructure that would otherwise simply occupy space and potentially present public health and safety issues.
Central Location Reduces Transportation Costs
The fact that these converted buildings are usually located in or near city centers has the additional benefit of dramatically reducing transportation costs. Although jobs in trucking and other logistics sectors may be negatively affected in the short term, reducing packaging waste and emissions associated with agricultural production and transport are long term benefits.
AeroFarms Leads by Example
As a preview of what we might expect from future megacities and their increased demand for fresh food, AeroFarms is a collective of four vertical farms in New Jersey with the goal of servicing the ever-expanding New York Metropolitan Area.
Formerly an abandoned steel mill, their headquarters is about 70,000 sq. ft. and is capable of producing up to two million pounds of food a year.
This structure operates using the aeroponics or the process of misting plant roots that grow through a fine organic tissue with a specialized nutrient solution.
Room to Grow
But Vertical Farms cannot grow everything…yet.
Although large Vertical Farms like Aerofarms have the potential to supply growing cities with millions of pounds of food a year, their current technology is limited to producing mainly leafy greens, potatoes, and herbs.
Cereals like rice, corn, and wheat are a crucial component of human nutrition and are also required for raising livestock that provides both meat and dairy products for human consumption. Because traditional farming and agricultural techniques require large amounts of land and water, Vertical Farming is not yet able to accommodate cereals and livestock without presenting health and safety hazards.
Despite its current limitations, Vertical Farming not only offers a sustainable solution to rising costs associated with transportation and traditional farming but also to rising demand as our population and cities expand. As the technology improves, Vertical Farms located in urban centers will continue to reduce emissions and waste and to promote the development of circular economies.