Friday, June 27, 2008

Vertical farming - the future of agriculture?


vertical-farm-01.jpgThe Internet never sleeps. You blink and everybody beats you to the punch; WorldChanging, the Gristmill blog and BoingBoing already have posts about the interesting concept of vertical farming. Why is it interesting? Because, according to projections, in about 50 years 80% of the Earth's population will live in cities and 3 billion more people will crowd our planet. Problem is, 80% of the land that can be used to grow crops is already in use, and 15% of that land has been damaged by poor agricultural practices. They say that vertical farming will help us feed these additional 3 billion people.

An entirely new approach to indoor farming must be invented, employing cutting edge technologies. The Vertical Farm must be efficient (cheap to construct and safe to operate). Vertical farms, many stories high, will be situated in the heart of the world's urban centers. If successfully implemented, they offer the promise of urban renewal, sustainable production of a safe and varied food supply (year-round crop production), [...] a long-term benefit would be the gradual repair of many of the world’s damaged ecosystems through the systematic abandonment of farmland. In temperate and tropical zones, the re-growth of hardwood forests could play a significant role in carbon sequestration and may help reverse current trends in global climate change.

To learn more about vertical farming, you can read this essay on the subject and look at some of the potential designs.

Personally, I'm more excited about this concept as a way to help us stop the use of pesticides, herbicides, oil-based fertilizers, and to give a break to a lot of land that we have been stressing for decades than as an extra food source. Another advantage: the food would grow quite a bit closer to the consumers, something that will become more important as oil prices keep rising and transportation on long distances becomes a luxury (no more kiwis from New-Zealand in Canada during the winter).

I don't want to start a big debate on vegetarianism vs. meat-eating, but right now there is way more than enough food being produced in the world; it's just that we grow crops that we feed to animals, and then we eat the animals (in many cases it's a way to make money – sell meat for a premium to the rich instead of selling tons of grain for a fraction of that price to starving people). That's not very efficient, and if it came to having massive food shortages in the future, I think that phasing in a more vegetarian diet could help solve that problem - along with many other problems related to the consumption of meat - with more ease than trying to build enough of these vertical farms to feed all these billions of people and the dozens of billions of animals they would eat. You can read more about some of the environmental impacts of eating meat here (you might find different numbers elsewhere, but the general idea that it's inefficient is pretty hard to argue against).

Vertical farms are an exciting possibility, I'm just not excited for quite the same reasons as others who see them as an additional food source – I think we already produce enough food, it's just that we do it in a way that destroys nature and we don't distribute that food properly. These farm can be one of many technical solutions to the first of these problems, but the solution to the second one will need to come from a societal choice.

::Vertical Farm, via ::BoingBoing, ::WorldChanging & ::Gristmill

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