In a world of increasing food insecurity, experts are eagerly looking for the best way to feed the expanding population. Why not look up?
- Published On February 16, 2018
Do you know where your food comes from?
Even if you cannot pinpoint a specific location, your finger would most likely not point in the direction of a towering skyscraper in your city’s business district, a decidedly bizarre place for the growth of vegetables. However, what if it was argued that growing crops in tall city buildings is not only conceivable, but is a superior way to produce our food? Although it may not sound possible, food production of this type does exist thanks to something called vertical farming.
What is a Vertical Farm?
In simple terms, a vertical farm refers to a place, generally an empty skyscraper, warehouse or shipping container, where food is grown without natural light or soil. Generally, vertical farms compensate for some outdoor conditions using something called hydroponics. Hydroponics allow for growth by providing plants with the nutrients they need through a water solvent, instead of through soil. In a vertical farm, carefully controlled artificial light mimics the role of the sun and factors such as temperature and humidity are also tightly supervised. It's a complex operation, but proponents of vertical farming argue that the vertical farm's worth becomes clear when its societal and environmental impacts are assessed.
The Advantages of Vertical Farming
The world is quickly urbanizing - in some countries, nearly 100% of the population lives in urban areas. This number represents a larger global trend towards urbanization that is expected to continue, with several countries having a high urbanization rate of over 5%. As the population of the world booms, and more and more countries stray away from rural lifestyles, people are flocking to cities, where they work, study, and of course, eat.
What exactly these new city dwellers eat is another story, and is an understandable concern when faced with the fact that in today's society of advanced technology and increasing wealth, we still have people on the planet going hungry.
For centuries, food has for the most part been produced on what many people would think of as traditional farms, using traditional methods. Despite the image this may evoke of lush, green pastures and clean air, traditional farming is in many ways at odds with the natural environment in which it inhabits. According to the World Wildlife Fund, when farming is not orchestrated properly some of its negative effects can include pollution, erosion, water waste, and, perhaps above all, a significant contribution to climate change.
Experts who champion the benefits of vertical farming speak of the environmental benefits above all. On the most obvious level, the concept of a vertical farm means that farming is not susceptible to the same land contamination that outdoor farms would be. Although it may seem as if the concept of an indoor farm would use more energy by synthesizing the sun and other components of farming which are naturally occurring, vertical farms can rely on renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines for energy. Most importantly, the growing of crops in the middle of the city cuts out two aspects of modern day farming that account for huge contributions of fossil fuels: the transportation of food from growth source to consumer, and the use of heavy farming machinery.
Other advantages to vertical farming include the ability for areas too cold for year-round farming to produce food, insulated protection from extreme weather events that adversely affect crops, and the relocation of farming activity away from wildlife populations who would otherwise be threatened by proximity.
Ask an Expert: The Association for Vertical Farming
In order to expand on these possible advantages, World Atlas had the opportunity to speak with Penny McBride, the Vice Chair for the Association for Vertical Farming, an international nonprofit organization set out to spread awareness about the vertical farming movement. When asked about the sustainability of vertical farming, she had the following to say:
“The Venn diagram of the vertical farming movement depicts a reduction in water use, a perfect balance of nutrients and a greatly reduced footprint for efficient plant development! Vertical farming supplements field based agriculture while allowing depleted soils time to regenerate. “
In a vertical farm, plant development could refer to the use of "dwarf" version of crops, which generally take up less growing space but contain more nutrients for human absorption. If the idea of food grown indoors under methods which are human-controlled makes you uncomfortable, the Association for Vertical Farming reassures that a vertical farm is not akin to a mysterious laboratory and can even produce crops that are healthier for human consumption than the food we eat today.
“Throw all of the Frankenfood misconceptions out the window," explained the Association for Vertical Farming. "Hydroponically grown food is real food that is nutritionally balanced and raised with love. Vertical farming uses a tried and true method of growing food that has been around for years with the added bonus of increased growing capacity! “
The Future of Vertical Farming
With all of these toted benefits, it would be fair to wonder why there is not already a vertical farm popping up on every city's street corners. After all, we must have the infrastructure for such an endeavor, particularly in some American cities where downtown vacancy rates are high and the warehouse foundations would be in place. So why aren’t we all eating food grown in vertical farms?
To date, vertical farms have already been developed in Europe and Asia. In the United States, the cities of Detroit, Seattle, Houston, and Chicago are among those who already have vertical farms in some capacity. Although it may not yet be overtaking the farming industry, these revolutionary ideas of how to feed the planet have been making undeniable waves, making one thing clear: the future of vertical farming should shine as bright as an LED lightbulb replacing the sun.
To learn more about the world of vertical farming, you can visit the website for the Association of Vertical Farming here.
Rachel Cribby is a writer based in Montreal. She has a background in creative writing and urban studies.