The Next Technological Revolution: Urban Vertical Farming


WASHINGTON – Urban vertical farming is the revolution that will radically transform humanity’s approach to growing the food we eat. Whatever the technological transformations that have fantastically increased productivity, agriculture is pretty much the same activity we have known for millennia. First you need arable land, then you need water and a reasonably benign climate. The rest is taken care of by human ingenuity.

Technology helped

Indeed, over time humans developed new methods, new mechanical tools, and more efficient ways to irrigate and fertilize. Up and down the production chain, we have invented and improved upon modalities to harvest, store, transport, refrigerate and distribute food.

Indeed, we have become so good at increasing yields and overall productivity that for instance in the United States while a mere 2% of the active population works in agriculture, they produce more than enough to feed 300 million Americans, and a lot more for export.

Still the same fundamentals

And yet, even taking into account fantastic technological improvements, all in all, the fundamentals of agriculture have not changed. You still need land, (even though higher yields today  allow farmers to grow more on smaller surfaces). You need a lot of water, a reasonably temperate climate, a lot of fertilizers and pesticides.

A totally new way?

Well, what if we created a new system to grow food that would no longer rely on these fundamental ingredients? What if we could feed millions, indeed hundreds of millions, without the cultivation of millions of acres of arable land (much of it created by destroying forests) and without using billions of gallons of water and fantastic amounts of fertilizers?

Imagine the gains for the planet. We could have massive reforestation. We could save scarce fresh water resources. We would stop soil erosion and the nasty pollution caused by runoff loaded with fertilizers.

Furthermore, we would save an enormous amount of energy. Think about all the energy needed to pump and distribute water, to produce and distribute fertilizers and finally to plant, harvest, refrigerate and transport whatever we eat from farms to cities and finally supermarkets and other distribution outlets.

Not a fantasy

Well, this revolution is not a fantasy. Although we are not quite there yet, it is now conceivable and soon economically viable to develop “urban vertical farming”. Simply stated, this is about building skyscrapers that will house beds of lettuce and broccoli, as opposed to families or office workers.

We all know greenhouses, right? Well, think of many greenhouses stacked on top of each other. And think of a closed loop irrigation system that minimizes the use of water.

Of course there are technical challenges involved in all this. You have to invest money to design and build these “skyscrapers for vegetables”. You have to address and resolve in a cost-effective manner issues related to adequate lighting, temperature controls, proper irrigation and what not.

This is not easy. And these technical challenges in part explain why this technology has yet to become mainstream.

Savings and efficiencies

But think about the incredible savings and the immense environmental gains. We could give the land a rest. We could have forests instead of wheat fields, this way recreating lost natural habitats. We could save water and enormous amounts of energy, most of it still provided by carbon derived fuels, with obvious gains for the environment, as we would burn far less gasoline, diesel and what not –all of them necessary to support all the energy intensive activities directly or indirectly tied to agriculture.

The future looks good

And imagine this future. Your food supply, instead of originating from hundreds, possibly thousands of miles away, is conveniently located just a few blocks from where you live.

People working in these urban agricultural structures will plant, cultivate and harvest. Then the produce travels a very short distance to the next supermarket and/or other distribution centers, and you go and buy whatever is necessary for your daily consumption.

Challenges remain

I have no idea as to how long it will take to realize this revolutionary transformation. According to leading experts, such as Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, most of the technical challenges have been addressed. We are now about to get into the implementation phase. No doubt we are still tinkering. There is still a lot to do before someone will come up with the optimal, efficient and cost-effective designs.

Why so little focus on this?

Still, the potential economic, logistical and environmental gains are so huge that I am surprised to notice almost no interest on the part of main stream media on this revolution in the making.

I do understand that human beings have difficulty in conceiving truly dramatic change. Therefore, not many people are ready to abandon all we know about food production, while embracing a completely new and untested approach. And yet, if the technology is really there, then there is no reason for not using it.

Economic gains

If nothing else, economists should support this solution, because it is incredibly more efficient than the traditional approach. Indeed, most of the (growing) world population will soon be urban. This means hundreds of millions of people concentrated in relatively small clusters who need to be fed, every day. This being the case, let’s produce food right where the users are, in the midst of large population centers.

Of course there are huge costs associated with launching this new technology. But think of the enormous cost of the entire production chain related to agriculture, from preparing the land to harvesting, refrigerating, transporting and distributing often perishable produce. And think of the environmental damage caused by land overuse, soil erosion and what not.

Restoring the environment 

With urban agriculture we could feed humanity in a cost-effective way, while restoring much of the land until now exploited for agriculture to its original function of natural habitat for diverse species of plants, animals and birds.

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