Ever gotten stuck in an infinite regress of lappies round a parking lot trying to find an empty space? Or been stalked by someone doing just that as you headed back to your car with your groceries? This is a symptom of our ever-expanding population and it’s not just our cars we’re having trouble finding space for.
By the year 2050, experts reckon there will be over 9 billion of us on the planet. The words “small world” will become more and more of an understatement as the years go on.
Apart from car parks, we’ll be needing a lot of resources for all those additional humans. Space for food cultivation is already becoming difficult to find with urban areas expanding and land being used for roads, housing and other infrastructure.
The same logic that led to us stacking people on top of each other in apartment buildings is now being put to use in the farming industry. Vertical farming isn’t exactly new. The concept has been experimented with, in isolated instances, for the last 100 years or so. Images and prototypes of plant-laden skyscrapers have been used as utopian antitheses to the bleak and gloomy future-worlds depicted by the likes of Orwell and Huxley. But it’s only in recent years that real-world development has properly taken off.
What exactly is vertical farming?
Generally speaking, a vertical farm is any multi-level growing facility for crops. Some farms are outdoors, on rooftops. Most are inside. And many are in urban areas. Herein lies the appeal. If food production could be achieved in the cities where all the hungry mouths are situated, transport costs could be cut down and rural land could be put to other uses.
Recent advances in lighting technology, and other innovations in sustainability, have made commercial-scale, indoor farms a viable proposition. This is good because inner-city cow apartments just don’t seem like they could ever be a thing.
Arguments against vertical farming
Plants draw life force from the sun. So our current practice of letting crops grow outside, with direct access to said sun, is about as straight-forward as you can get. Vertical farms add a whole bunch of middlemen into the system. Their process takes sunlight, converts it into electricity and then converts that into artificial light for the plants. Then, of course, there’s the inevitable energy leakage along the way. This is the basis of the oft-repeated argument against vertical farming:
“Isn’t technology meant to simplify things, not complicate them?”
While this argument is compelling in its simplicity, it is not necessarily the end of the dialogue on vertical farming. There are companies coming up with innovative ideas to make the industry not only viable but less of a strain on resources than traditional methods.
Vertical farming made viable
A company in San Francisco has built a multi-level farm in an inner-city factory that uses a conservative LED lighting system to provide the plants with the precise spectrum of light they need to thrive and nothing more. This cuts down drastically on energy expenditure, especially with their other conservation tactics taken into account.
Earth-bound indoor farms
With the substantial extra deliveries of humans we’re expecting over the coming years, water will be increasingly expensive, space and healthy soil may be scarce and outdoor farming may well become a costly venture. The sentiments of those pioneering the vertical farming movement is:
“Why wait until it’s a crisis to work on solutions to the problem?”
Indoor farms can grow crops without soil, in half the time, with far less water. As the roots of the plants are partially exposed, there’s no need for vast amounts of water to soak into soil. Misting of the roots is all that’s required meaning farmers are able to cut down water use by as much as 95%.
Farmers in space
Perhaps the best part about jumping into the indoor farming scene is that you may be among the first to receive an invitation to Mars. NASA is already working on “Martian gardens”, using soil that simulates the composition of that on our rosy galactic neighbour.
When we say “soil”, this technically isn’t really what Mars has. According to Ralph Fritsche, food production project manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center:
“Soil, by definition, contains organics; it has held plant life, insects, worms.”
Mars, by contrast, has a concoction of toxic chemicals and crushed volcanic rock. Not ideal for growing anything you want to actually live. Hence NASA’s research. Their project commenced in 2016 and we are eagerly awaiting their final report, due for publication in March 2017. It may well be that the first occupants on Mars will be, not just astronauts, but farmers.