The world population continues to grow with ever-increasing urbanization predicted to reach 80 percent by 2050. The U.N. predicts that human population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. This increasing population is also growing richer — and hungrier.
To feed this population using traditional farming practices, much more land would need to be brought under cultivation. But, already much farmland around the world has been degraded from poor management practices, and lands remaining available for food production are decreasing from the effects of erosion, salt buildup and pollution.
As you read this today, tens of millions of children are going to bed hungry, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimating the number of hungry in 2018 at 812 million or approximately one out of 9 people.
Something needs to change. Food production needs to get more efficient, more equitable and more environmentally minded. Moreover, food production should follow the population to the cities, or as Dickson Despommier, a forerunner of this movement, simply states: “Put the food where the people live.”
Indoor farming through controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) will be an important component towards establishing local food systems that can address this pending crisis in global food insecurity. CEA, simply put, is using smart, sustainable farming practices inside of high-tech greenhouses. This is nothing new, and these modern greenhouses are an established technology and can be found around the world. In fact, much of the lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in the EU come from CEA in the Netherlands and Spain.
These greenhouses have incredible benefits compared to traditional farming: They use less water because they are protected from the sun and wind, they use fewer pesticides because insects and disease can be kept outside, and there is less waste because production can be matched exactly to consumer demands.
If hydroponics or other soil-less practices are used, the farmer does not need to use tractors for tilling, plowing and reaping, so the oil bills and energy consumption are lower. In addition, the fertilizer usage is reduced, and all the fertilizer the farmer uses is consumed by the plants, thereby reducing nutrient-rich runoff that can pollute watersheds. Known as eutrophication, this nutrient pollution is a huge problem for coastal communities in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico and has impacted fisheries, recreational activities and livelihoods around the world.
However, CEA greenhouses can occupy a lot of space. So, the next logical evolution is stacking these modern greenhouses, one atop the other.
Vertical farming, as greenhouses stacking is called, has additional benefits. Reducing the footprint means that more food can be grown in a smaller area and therefore can be brought closer to the people eating that food. As populations move toward the cities, it makes sense for the food to follow.
Part of the vision of vertical farms is the reconnection of the producer and the consumer plus the restructuring of food value chains to become more transparent and responsive to the needs and wants of the people.
An added benefit of farming inside of skyscrapers is the option of having mixed-use buildings. When combined with a wholesale market, the skyscraper can not only produce the food but get it to the consumer faster. Less time in storage, less transportation and less handling means fresher produce and reduced need for postharvest treatments like irradiation and chemical fumigation.
There are still some daunting challenges as well as some encouraging recent developments.
Unleashing the innovative power of American small businesses has jump-started the transition to modern farming, and the public desire for local, healthy food is an economic engine driving the industry toward change. In fact, there are currently so many vertical farm startups that a shortage of qualified workers is now the main hurdle to accelerating the establishment of new indoor farms. On one hand this is a challenge to the industry, but on the other it presents an enormous opportunity for job creation in urban areas if an inclusive, enabling environment is codeveloped with the vertical farms to provide vocational training and career advancement prospects.
On a technical level, there is a significant energy demand needed for pumping water, maintaining good environmental conditions like temperature and humidity, and powering the grow lights to keep producing year-round. However, with smart buildings wired on intelligent platforms, the energy consumption can be monitored and controlled to maximize efficiency — and by tying into other green enterprises like photovoltaic and biogas generation, this energy demand is decreasing day by day. In fact, with the new innovations in LED lighting technology, the power demand has been reduced tenfold in the last few years.
The next evolution of farming has already begun, and big players are already involved. In fact, the National Grange wrote a letter to Congress with their support to public-private funding mechanisms to accelerate the modernization of agriculture, specifically highlighting the potential of vertical farming. With this type of buy-in from large agribusinesses, national and international agricultural organizations, funded with innovative financial mechanisms, and driven by the innovative spirit and technological power only found in the U.S., vertical farming will feed tomorrow’s children with healthy, safe food; protect the environment while being resistant to environmental shocks; and spur economic growth in the process.
For a detailed look at one such startup, see the centerfold story on Skyscraper Farm.
• Austin Stankus, an integrated farming specialist, is chief science officer at Skyscraper Farm LLC.
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