Is Vertical Farming the Future of Food?

Right now, those in the business of feeding us face two monumental hurdles: a skyrocketing population that threatens to outpace our food supply, and climate change, with all its attendant catastrophes. There is no silver bullet that can save us from ourselves, but there are people out there devising solutions that might seem like science fiction.

In the Fantasy issue (which is now on newsstands!), we explored possible panaceas that are already being floated in discussions about our food future. We offer no definitive verdicts; instead, we encourage you to decide for yourself which dreams seem worth pursuing. This week, Courtney Balestier looks into vertical farming.

What’s the idea?

Feeding the global population currently requires farmland totaling roughly the area of South America and, by 2050, we’re going to need another plot the size of Brazil to feed us all. So says Dr. Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, who also points out that modern farming isn’t exactly rigged for expansion. Growers exhaust land, chemicals leach into the soil, and elaborate irrigation methods are sometimes necessary to make land arable. Despommier, a professor emeritus of public health and microbiology at Columbia University, espouses a different solution: farming up, not out.

Vertical farming takes agriculture indoors, with different crops grown on different floors of a multistory building or in stacked growing systems on a single floor, all in controlled environments. Plants can be grown using methods like hydroponics (plants grown in water), aquaponics (plants grown in a symbiotic environment with aquatic animals, with the fish fertilizing the plants), and aeroponics (plants grown in an air-and-mist environment without soil). Light comes from grow lights; nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium can be added directly to the water. Despommier predicts that, in the next twenty to forty years, every major city will derive as much as 20 percent of its vegetables, fruits, and herbs from vertical farms.

What do we stand to gain?

The variables that can sabotage traditional outdoor agriculture—droughts, floods, plant disease—will become regulated, controlled quantities in a vertical farm. Vertical farms employ sanitary measures like air locks and air showers, so there’s also no need for pesticides. (Pollination can be achieved manually; Green Spirit Farms, a Michigan-based vertical farm, uses electric toothbrushes.) And since there’s also no soil, that means no runoff-caused pollution.

Abused farmland would be rehabilitated, since the basic premise of vertical farming is that you don’t need land at all. Vertical farms often pop up in retrofitted existing architecture, too, so any number of old Walmarts or abandoned shopping malls could be reborn as viable food sources. Ecosystems that couldn’t otherwise support a healthy diet’s worth of traditional agriculture—places like the United Arab Emirates, Greenland, or dense urban environments—could produce their own food, or at least some of it, thus reducing the need for transporting produce over long distances. What’s more, they could produce year-round: Green Spirit Farms sells a gourmet lettuce mix that grows on a twenty-one-day cycle, generating seventeen harvests per year.

Vertical farming also uses about 98 percent less water than traditional farming, because water can be recycled back into the system. An acre of lettuce farmed outdoors in California might need anywhere from 270,000 to 972,000 gallons of water, depending on the operation; Green Spirit Farms president Milan Kluko says he can produce an acre of romaine with 5,400 gallons.

Is Vertical Farming the Future of Food

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