A quiet revolution is taking place in agriculture. Several technologies are converging to make Vertical Farming economically competitive with industrial agriculture. Does it mean that sustainable food production is finally on the horizon?
In 1968 Paul Ehrlich predicted widespread famine in his book “The Population Bomb.” The Megatrends of that time supported his theory completely. Population growth was outstripping food supply. Countries like India were only surviving with massive amounts of food aid.
The famine never happened. The reason was the Green Revolution.
In the 1960s rice yields in India were about two tons per hectare. India soon adopted a semi-dwarf form of rice labeled IR8. It was a hybrid form with a yield ten times higher than the traditional crop. A crude form of genetic engineering saved the day. India went from depending on food aid to feeding an ever increasing population and exporting rice.
Wheat, maize and soybeans soon followed. The success of these crops was not solely the result of new hybrid and engineered varieties. Irrigation, synthetic pesticides and herbicides, along with heavy use of fertilizers were also required.
These new methods increased food production dramatically. Without the Green Revolution, it’s likely tens of millions of third world people would have died of starvation.
Agriculture was transformed, now the world depends on miles upon miles of monoculture. Areas where the only living things are genetically identical crops.
We are now feeding a billion more people while producing a surplus. But the miracle of industrial scale monoculture also has a dark side. All those chemicals start out as hydrocarbons pumped from the ground. The insecticides, herbicides and fertilizer find their way into lakes, oceans and groundwater. Producing and moving the chemicals to the farm, and the farm products to market produces massive amounts of greenhouse gas. Plus, monoculture is the opposite of biodiversity, it is inherently fragile and unstable. The Green Revolution is in no way sustainable.
Vertical Farming is all about increasing those yields per hectare another ten times or more, by moving the farm indoors. Production is increased at the same time the ecological footprint dramatically reduced. A recipe for a more sustainable system of growing, harvesting and distributing food.
The successful vertical farm needs cheap and reliable LED or CFL lighting. Also, control systems to feed the plants, maintain the correct environmental conditions, and recycle the water. Once the science and infrastructure is set up and running, the advantages start to multiply.
- Multiple harvests per year. Summer or winter, rain or drought, a new harvest is always getting ready.
- Farming indoors in a controlled environment means pesticides and herbicides are not needed. There is less opportunity for pathogens to enter the system.
- Water is recycled along with some nutrients. Fertilizer is used much more efficiently, and runoff into public water sources is reduced or eliminated.
- The whole vertical gardening system lends itself to automation. Eventually, the whole process is likely to be robot controlled with the obvious savings in labor costs.
- The facilities can be near urban centers so transportation costs, and resulting pollution, are reduced. Fresh veggies in February, without having them shipped from South America.
Credit for the world’s first commercial vertical farm goes to Singapore. Being a city-state with only 280 square miles of real estate, Singapore has to import more than 90% of its food, and substantial amounts of water. Only 1% of its land is devoted to farming.
Sky Greens got started in 2012 on an unused rooftop. Being near the equator, they don’t need artificial lighting to get them through the winter. The plants are on racks that are vertically rotated inside a greenhouse like enclosure. Water is recycled in their Aquaponics based closed system. It’s been a successful system selling premium products. Still expanding three years later.
The first large scale vertical farm using LED lighting exclusively, was Shigeharu Shimamura’s Mirai farm in Japan. They manage to produce 10,000 heads of lettuce per day for local grocers.
FarmedHere, a large vertical farming operation in Illinois, grows herbs and greens in a 90,000 square foot warehouse. About 46,000 square feet is floor space devoted to growing. When stacked, that floor space becomes close to 140,000 square feet. They also have an interesting implementation of Aquaponics. They raise hormone free tilapia in large fish tanks. The tilapia are not only an end product, they supply fertilized water for the plants.
Whole Foods, the grocery chain, loaned FarmedHere the $100,000 seed capital to get started. Now Whole Foods is one of their biggest customers.
There are many new vertical farm projects getting started across the US. These new ventures require substantial investment, and sophisticated management. In spite of those hurdles, a new breed of tech savvy farmer seems to be popping up like flowers after a rain. They promise higher quality, nutritious, locally grown food free of chemicals. Maybe vertical farming is the dawn of an era of sustainable agriculture.