March 5, 2014

Some experts believe vertical farming is a sustainable solutionStandard agricultural practices may no longer be applicable or sustainable with the rate the population is growing. According to a report by the National Association of Home Builders, only 2.6 percent of the land in the U.S. is used for urban development. Crop lands and pastures account for nearly half of U.S. land use. According to The Vertical Farm Project, New York City residents alone eat the equivalent of the amount of food produced over a land mass the size of the state of Virginia.

Some fear that farming doesn’t leave enough space for population growth. What system then can provide more space for living while still producing the food necessary to support life? Some experts believe it’s vertical farming.

Planting upwards 
Vertical farming is an agricultural practice in which food is grown upward on various structures rather than spread horizontally over a field. You can picture it a variety of ways, if that helps you understand. For example, a vertical farm may look like several greenhouses stacked on top of one another. Or it could be a sky scrapper made almost entirely of windows. Ideally, the buildings would be designed with closed-loop agricultural technology, which means that water and nutrients are recycled. Only the produce (and workers) ever leaves the building.

Vertical farms can be designed to grow a variety of crops in an indoor ecosystem or an entire building can be devoted to a single plant.

Impact of vertical farming
Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and head of the Vertical Farm Project Dr. Dickson Despommier believes that the system would not only benefit wealthy countries but could also solve food shortages and hunger internationally.

Some countries simply don’t have the access to traditional agriculture that the U.S. does either because the climate isn’t conducive to farming or there’s not enough space. Vertical farms are created inside buildings that run on an an artificial climate, so temperature would be a non-issue. Not only that, but Despommier believes that constructing vertical farms would create jobs.

In the U.S., this system might breed business. For example, if a vertical farm that specializes in wheat exists in an urban center, bakeries might spring up nearby. The bakers would have easy access to locally-grown ingredients in a futuristic farm-to-table sense.

Potential obstacles
The vertical farm system isn’t without its flaws, according to A Sustainable City. Because the farms are indoors and are insect free, pollination will have to be done by hand. And even if farmers and engineers are able to serve as pollinators, some crops may not take to the conditions. Additionally, while vertical farms may save water, they require an artificial light source making them only semi-sustainable. Producing enough light for plants to perform photosynthesis would be a huge energy drain whereas outdoor farms get that light for free.

The positive side to placing the farms in an urban center is the that farm-to-table experience would be much easier to achieve. Once the bugs are worked out, vertical farming may become the sustainable agricultural option that the world has been looking for. Despommier certainly believes so.

“The world would be a much better place if we had vertical farming,” he said on the Vertical Farm Project website.