Before we dig into what is vertical farming, it is important to note that at this point, it isn't just unavailability of land that's inspiring research in vertical farming. Farming in itself, and more notably commercial farming, is not a very environmentally-friendly activity. For starters, farming involves consumption of freshwater for irrigation and the water thus used, is unfit for human consumption due to its interaction with fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, commercial farming involves the use of fossil fuels (diesel and gasoline), which naturally result in polluting emissions.
Vertical farming is an urban farming technique in which multistoried buildings function as hi-tech greenhouse farms and everything is hydroponic (cultured in mindral solutions only without the need for soil) and therefore, devoid of environment polluting elements. The basic idea is to grow upward thus, saving space and helping the cause of soil erosion and urban renewal. So if you're one of those people who love to farm, but feel restricted by the urban environs being more serious about it than being satisfied with some veggie creepers in your apartment terrace, then this may just be your thing! Yes, there are some constraints and costs involved, so let us delve deeper into this urban green realm.
Any talk about vertical farming is incomplete without mentioning the guru and star proponent of the concept, Dickson Despommier. Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, Dickson taught a medical ecology course in 1999 that actually launched and grew the concept of vertical farms. Dickson talks about vertical farming as an idea for the 21st century for sustainable crop production and food supply and the resulting repair of our battered ecosystems. He talks in terms of huge skyscraper farms (farmscrapers) and enormous structures with transparent walls to let in as much sunlight as possible to help year-round production of floor upon floor of food that would feed thousands of people. Seems a little far-fetched? It isn't really, not to mention it may well, become the most plausible alternative when things get really tough with traditional agriculture!
The building of multilevel farmscrapers is just the beginning of this futuristic and potentially expensive undertaking. Also, there's no comparable setup to help arrive at an accurate estimate. Vertical farming will obviously involve mimicking the entire natural, agricultural ecosystem. The urban multistoried structures must provide ample artificial light throughout the year, irrespective of the natural weather conditions. Obviously, an energy infrastructure would be a continuing cost in addition to the upfront cost of building the structure and creating the hydroponic environment. Experts believe that such a full-scale vertical farm would easily cost millions of dollars; one such estimate pegs it at $100 million. No doubt, vertical farming costs definitely seem astronomical!
However, when compared to the reduced carbon footprint due to reduced fossil fuel usage, negligible fertilizer usage, negligible spoilage, drastically lower transportation costs (as farms would grow closer to final consumer markets) and limited land use, etc., the long-term results look rather promising. The situation is slightly comparable to the use of alternate fuels for vehicles. Things are more on the design board and we're aware of the initial high costs, but eventually we have to go for it because, traditional gasoline and diesel are depletable resources.
You must be wondering, are there already such vertical farms in existence, at least on a research level? Yes, there are and more than one! Gene Giacomelli, Director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and his colleagues have created a semi-automated hydroponic facility called the South Pole Food Growth Chamber. And if you're wondering about providing sunlight to the plants in a glasshouse, you'll be surprised to know that the station is situated in the Antarctic where there's no sunlight through most of winter! Closer home, Valcent, a vertical-farming firm based in Texas, Vancouver and Cornwall, uses vertically stacked hydroponic trays. The trays move on rails to provide adequate sunlight to all plants. There are many such funded endeavors underway from a research perspective and hopefully these baby steps in vertical farming research should lead us to a happy place.
Visionaries like Dickson Despommier are on a mission that goes beyond research. Vertical farming is a concept that has its share of skeptics of course, but the tribe of Dickson is on the rise and many more researchers and even traditional farmers are opening up their minds to imagine a world where vertical farms will become the primary source of food supply to urban retailers and consumers alike. In the meanwhile, you might want to start attempting a hydroponic mini farm in your own terrace!
By Preeti Sunil