As of today, the human population on Earth numbers almost 7.5 billion, and it is still growing. As the lifeline of our survival, the agricultural industry has been able to keep up with the demands of our growth. Since the turn of the century, bulldozers, tractors and harvesters makes it possible to clear and develop land at an extremely fast pace, and plant and harvest crops in large quantities. Advances in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides help us to produce much higher yields, increasing our food supplies. Improvements in transportation help distribute our harvest all over the world, bringing desired food items to the people who want them. Known as the Green Revolution, these improvements in the farming industry kept up with the global population growth and the fight against world hunger. All this has come at a cost though.
Each year, millions of acres of natural habitats are destroyed to create new farmland, robbing those areas of their natural balance. Irrigation efforts disrupt the water cycle, fertilizer runoff create toxic algae growth that chokes our waters, the overuse of pesticides result in super-resistant pests and poison our food supply. The transportation required to move the massive amounts of food throughout the world contribute heavily to environmental pollution. Meanwhile, climate change that has resulted from environment-harming practices have made harvests less successful, raising the price of acceptable foods. United Nations predict that global populations will reach 8.5 billion by 2030, to almost 10 billion by 2050. The Earth is not likely to be able to sustain such growth with current farming methods. To do so, the farming industry needs to mature in a different direction. It needs to grow up, literally, yes, actually vertically, in plant factories.
Plant factories has origins from greenhouses. Typically, greenhouses are structures with clear covering shelters the crops inside from harsh elements such as storms, extreme heat and cold, strong winds, and pests. They provide farmers some control over the elements to grow crops, though most still rely on natural sunlight for photosynthesis. Better greenhouses also control its interior climate, providing better conditions for crop plants to grow than in the outside environment. Conceived and advocated by Professor Dickson Despommier of the Public Health Department at Columbia University’s School of Environmental Health Sciences, vertical farming can expand the greenhouse concept to factories of great heights.
With today’s technology, plant factories with artificial lighting (PFAL) are beginning to become more and more popular. These air-tight, climate controlled factories use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to produce photosynthesis 24-7. Crops grow on multi-tiered hydroponic culture beds instead of soil, and carbon dioxide supply units provide more CO2 than in natural environment to increase growth. The process produces high-yield, high-quality food crop that is cleaner, pesticide-free, with a longer shelf life, at 100-times higher efficiency than open field farms. Best of all, no waste is generated in the process, leaving a much smaller footprint on the natural environment. Because of high initial setup costs, including costs of land, building and equipment, as well as energy costs, PFALs are still not able to guarantee profitable returns. However, with better planning, improved methods, shrinking cost of technology, combined with use of renewable energies and government incentives, PFALs may become profitable pretty soon.
At the forefront of vertical farming, agro-scientists, environmentalists, provincial planners, architects and even unrelated businesses have been researching improvements and benefits of plant factories. Bright Agrotech, a company in Wyoming has developed farming on a vertical plane to produce higher yields than stacked horizontal trays that are currently being used. The company has developed a system which takes up less floor space for crop growing, and saves on equipment use while reducing worker liability potential in harvesting the crop. In Utrecht Province in the Netherlands, officials are exploring vertical farming as a way to use the vacant office buildings that have become a problem in the region. Farmers may be able to use vacant buildings at reduced rent or at no cost to offset the high setup and conversion costs to make the buildings into plant factories. Architects Daniel Podmirseg and Lucas Kulnig are studying the possibility of skyscraper farms using the tallest building in Austria, DC Tower, as a model. They believe the tower alone has the capability to produce the food supply needed to feed at least one-third of the population of Vienna.
One of the most interesting involvements in vertical farming is the design of the headquarters building of Pasona Group, a staffing company based in Tokyo, Japan. The company has integrated edible plant farming into all aspects of the building interior. From tomatoes to lettuce, corn to blueberries, crop plants decorate meeting rooms, office walls, overhangs and room planters where traditional office plants normally occupy the green space. There’s even a rice paddy in the building lobby! The owners believe that the nature scape created by crop plants are healthy for employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. The cafeteria serve only supplies harvested from the building’s plant farm, and employees are welcome to take home as much of the bounty as they like. The building exterior is lined with a plant curtain which sheds its leaves in the winter to allow sunlight in, and grows foliage to block the hot sun in the summer. The Pasona plant farms also serve as educational tools for local school visits and the company’s agricultural staffing candidates. Their goal is to get the younger generation involved in the New Green Revolution.
Since 1900, the Earth’s human population has grown from 1.5 billion to 7.5 billion. The Green Revolution helped to sustain this growth, but the side effects of the traditional farming expansion will not be sustainable for the Earth moving forward. With the development of vertical farming, we have the chance to create the New Green Revolution that will create more efficient crop production and provide fresher food supply from the factories’ proximity to higher-density urban population, with minimal environmental impact. As we move away from open field farming, we have the chance to restore natural habitats and reverse the damage the old methods have created. Pretty soon, we should be seeing city skylines with plant factory skyscrapers. We can look forward to sightseeing on their observation decks, and having wonderful, healthy meals from their fresh harvest.