The Forty Story Farm
So I was sitting in the office one day taking a well deserved mental health break, when I stumbled upon an article for Vertical Farming. Amazed that I hadn't heard of it before, I began to research it further. As I learned more it became apparent that this technology could be a game changer, and that I needed to share this information. Here's what I've found out so far.
Much like the Industrial and Green Revolutions, another breakthrough in agriculture is needed if we hope to sustain our current population growth. Current estimates add another three billion hungry mouths to feed by 2050, who would need another six trillion calories, or over two billion pounds of tofu a day, to meet doctor recommended caloric intake. To make that happen, the world is going to need to start producing more food with less land. With eighty-percent of current arable land already under cultivation around the globe, there appear to be two potential paths to solving this problem.
Touted by corporations like Monsanto and Cargill, many believe that in order to feed everybody the world needs more GMO crops. Along with being resistant to drought and disease, these can be made to be completely impregnable to a company's own pesticides. While the idea of a grow anywhere, withstand anything, crop sounds like an amazing idea, time has shown us that there are some serious drawbacks. These new crops become increasingly reliant on fertilizers and pesticides, destroying the environment as they go. Not to mention the fact that nobody knows the potential long-term side affects of human consumption of these crops and that the overuse of pesticides leads to the creation of Lex Luthoresque super bugs, that are many times more menacing then their pre-pesticide predecessors.
There is a small but growing number of scientists and engineers that think they have found the alternative. Build large skyscrapers that are little more then gigantic indoor farms. While it may seem like Vertical Farming came straight out of Disney's Tomorrow Land, technological improvements mean that one day it could be coming to your downtown. Being strongly pushed by the likes of Dr. Despommier, an environmental health science professor at Columbia University, the necessary research and potential system designs are being amassed in hopes of one day receiving enough funding to test their hypotheses.
Theoretically VF has massive potential. There isn't a city in America that doesn't have a derelict section that could greatly benefit from not only the fresh produce to combat high rates of diabetes and heart disease in our inner cities, but also provide steady year-round employment as opposed to the seasonal employment of outdoor farming.
The boogeyman of this project is the potential that this style of farming would be far more energy and fertilizer intensive, and therefore less sustainable, then traditional farming. I mean the energy required for total climate control must be ghastly right?
This is where the two sides of the debate split. Many scientists have off-handedly dismissed this idea as a fairytale, but those who have jumped on VF's bandwagon have come up with some clever ideas to reduce the energy required and drastically reduce the farm's footprint.
By hydroponically growing as many of the plants as possible and then recycling the water in the farm's own treatment facility, you can completely eliminate the runoff normally associated with a farm, thereby sparing aquatic life from the annual dead zones associated with excessive nitrogen in the water. Not to mention that the water delivery systems would require far less water in the first place then many of the water systems in use on many farms today.
By controlling the climate and having the ability to isolate a diseased area, you also lose the need for pesticides. This is a huge deal because with many pesticides being little more then neuro-toxins in concentrations fit for bugs, and countless studies showing that the people who work with these pesticides on a day to day basis have far higher rates of a relative menagerie of neurological diseases, who really wants that in their food?
Also the farm would be able to create its own energy from a combination of solar panels and wind turbines on the outside of the building and the use of the inedible biomass for energy production. In fact theoretical projections done by students at Columbia have projected that for a forty-eight story tall VF, the building would actually provide a weekly surplus of 482,145 kWh that could be used for building maintenance or simply added back to the grid.
On top of all that, the ability to stack crops and micro-manage climate, gives VF four to six times the average yield on an outdoor farm, depending on the crop. This is a promising new idea, that if it ever gets the funding and proves viable, could solve a lot of the world's ills.