WASHINGTON – Over the years farming has become much more efficient. It has been heavily mechanized. Therefore it is far less labor intensive. Good roads, (at least in the developed world), cold storage systems, modern distribution centers, computerized logistics networks, and a lot more make sure that your lettuce moves rather rapidly from the farm to the supermarket shelf.
On account of all these positive developments, the US agricultural sector, with a minute number of people working in farms (around 2% of total workers), feeds more than 300 million Americans, while it exports a huge surplus around the world.
So, is this good? Well, for sure agriculture production systems are better and more cost-effective than what they used to be 100 years ago. And, yes, they are far more efficient. Less time from farm to market. Far less waste due to produce rotting along the way.
Really that efficient?
However, if you think about it, these modern techniques are still terribly wasteful. First of all, you need a huge amount of land to feed billions of people. In fact, you need more and more land as the world population keeps growing; not to mention more (and increasingly scarce) water for irrigation, and colossal amounts of fertilizers.
Growing more food means means more deforestation and other environmental disruptions caused for instance by water runoff loaded with excess fertilizers eventually flowing into rivers. Not to mention all the fuel necessary to power large machines that now perform tasks that in the old days required human labor.
And then you need more energy for cold storage chains, and massive amounts of fuel for the trucks that have to deliver the produce from the farm to the distribution centers and finally the supermarkets located in cities.
If you think about it, this modern system to produce, transport and deliver food is still pretty cumbersome and expensive, while it threatens fragile ecosystems across the world.
Just think about the amount of water required for agriculture. Add to that deforestation, and the negative impact of fertilizers runoff on rivers, often leading to abnormal growth of algae and other dangerous ecosystem imbalances.
The future: vertical urban farming
Well, is there a better way to grow food? Yes, there is. According to Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University, after years of experimentation, we are finally getting to the point in which vertical urban farming is slowly but surely becoming a reality.
The idea is extremely simple. Grow vegetables and other edible plant food in vertical structures located right in the middle of cities. This way you eliminate the need to devote so much land to grow crops. Besides, you cut down the use of water in a dramatic way, because urban farms will have closed loop systems in which water is recycled and reused. You also cut down on the use of energy. No more need for cold storage systems. No more refrigerated trucks to transport perishable produce for hundreds of miles. And no more excess fertilizers getting into waterways. Not to mention the huge advantage to have a large supply of fresh produce harvested a block away from your supermarket.
Can we do this?
All this looks very nice. But is this new way to grow plant food in cities really feasible?
Well, there seem to be some technical issues that still need to be resolved if we are talking about building a skyscraper with 80 or 90 floors dedicated to growing tomatoes or lettuce. There are still challenges related to optimal design, so that adequate sun light will reach all surfaces, proper temperature controls, and more.
However, there are already examples of commercially viable vertical farming enterprises that are implementing this vision, albeit on a relatively small scale.
Sky Greens in Singapore
For instance, in Singapore, a very small country with a large population that needs to be fed, there is just not enough land for agricultural purposes. Hence the value of increasing yield by building vertical farms on the little land there is.
And this is what Jack Ng, Director of Sky Greens, has done. In this case, we are not talking about skyscrapers for growing greens. However, Sky Greens built very tall greenhouses that can accommodate 10 “floors” of vegetables. A rather ingenious, cost-effective water powered system ensures rotation of the 10 floors, so that all vegetables get the same amount of sun light.
The water powered rotating system, combined with an efficient irrigation system that allows water re-circulation, created a viable vertical farming structure with minimal operating costs.
In Singapore’s context, the ability to have 10 times more produce from the same amount of (scarce) land is a major benefit. More broadly, the Sky Greens story proves that vertical farming is possible and commercially viable.
The new urban agriculture models will spread
As of today, we have yet to see the construction of really high rise structures devoted to growing plants. However, given the success of Sky Greens and other similar projects in Japan, Europe and the USA, we are probably on the verge of an urban agriculture revolution that will be good for the environment –think reforestation of land no longer used for agriculture, water and energy conservation, end of fertilizers-caused pollution– and for billions of city dwellers across the globe.