Vertical Farming – The Food System of the Future?

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Photo: Curbed SF, via SOA Architects via NYT

The 7 billionth person on earth was recently born. Population explosion is expected to continue, and it’s obvious the resources to maintain us are not adequate.

Demographers are predicting 9 billion people will occupy the planet by 2050, mostly in urban areas. One big question is how to feed them all. Urban areas are already the most difficult place to get fresh, local food.

The size of cultivated land feeding the world is currently about the size of Brazil. There is not that much more arable land available to serve billions more residents.

Vertical farming goals

One solution on the drawing board is vertical farming. Glass skyscrapers of hydroponically crops grown under elaborate lighting and heating systems are expected to serve hundreds of thousands of urban residents.

A controlled environment like this would:

  • eliminate the need for pesticides
  • allow natural predators to be introduced
  • eliminate soil erosion
  • eliminate runoff – water and pesticides
  • reduce transportation costs and carbon emissions
  • reduce spoilage
  • allow year round production

Sounds ideal? I don’t think so. I have a lot of questions.

6 Concerns about vertical farming

Vertical gardens: cool idea, but is it really sustainable? There is a small greenhouse at the Amundsen-Scott Research Station in Antarctica that provides about one salad per person a day. The estimated cost of the vegetables they produce is about $50/pound, due to the necessary heating and lighting. That’s an extreme example, but I think it makes my point. Would renewable energy be financially viable? My research shows that a solar array would need more room than the actual skyscraper! (photo: Chris Jacobs courtesy the New York Times, via Curbed SF)

1) In the estimate of current arable land, has it been taken into consideration that much of that is for meat? How much of that land is actually for food that is to be produced vertically?

2) Vertical farming produces fruits, grains and vegetables. What about meat and dairy? How is that to be supplied?

3) Are locally appropriate crops to be grown? We should be eating what is in season in our locale for optimum health. In a controlled environment, just as shopping at a supermarket, we would not grow or eat locally. Mangos have no place in a Manhattan garden, for instance.

4) What is the cost of light and heat? Would that make the price of the food out of reach for the people it is supposed to serve?

5) Wouldn’t the cost of building a glass and steel skyscraper (billions, I imagine!) drive the price of food up as well?

6) Is the nutritional value of hydroponically grown food as high quality food grown in healthy soil?

Alternatives to vertical urban farming

I don’t think vertical farming is a good idea, but I do have some possible alternatives and solutions to the problem of feeding billions more people.

Erect single story greenhouses on existing rooftops in urban areas. There are already rooftop farms that are very successful. A greenhouse would extend the season, and year round production could be possible in some areas.

Add greenhouses on the outsides of existing skyscrapers, so the plants get adequate light. The need for new construction and expensive lighting is eliminated, keeping the purchase price reasonable.

Cultural solutions: eating habits and local economies

Change people’s eating habits to reduce or eliminate meat and include more plant-based meals. It takes 16 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of meat. By eating a vegetarian diet, the land we have would produce more food for more people. A lot of land is also planted with corn and soy to be used as fillers in processed food. Eating a diet of whole foods would eliminate the need for fillers, and edible crops could be grown.

Create a local economy and get people to eat, purchase and trade locally. Before you could buy food in a supermarket (yes, there was a time!), you had to trade your goods for goods you did not produce. For a truly sustainable economy, we need to go back to this idea. We need to decentralize and focus our lives close to home.

Reducing the growth of the upward curve of the world’s population trend line is the bottom line. This is the source of the problem. I wrote about this on my own blog – The Planet is Overpopulated.

Vertical farming, to me, is almost science fiction. It’s so far removed from nature, it’s a fantasy and far from where we need to be moving to be self-sufficient.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.