Food? It's a fast-approaching global crisis, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimating that we will need to double agricultural production by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Yet the amount of arable land keeps shrinking. Obviously, a drastic new vision is needed, and one has appeared.
Growing food has always been a horizontal activity, spreading out over the land. It has centered around putting more acres into production and increasing the yield of each of those acres. But technology has now reached the point where soil is no longer necessary. So why not build our next farms upward instead of outward? That's the idea behind vertical farming.
It isn't even a very new idea. While most people have heard of hydroponics (usually associated with tomatoes and marijuana), almost no one is familiar with aeroponics. It's based on the discovery - in 1983 by inventor/entrepreneur Richard Stoner (yes, that's his real name) - that it is possible to suspend plants in midair and deliver food through a nutrient-rich mist.
Aeroponics is far more efficient than soil-based agriculture. It requires only a tiny fraction of the water supply needed by conventional farming; takes up far less space; eliminates expensive farm equipment and the fossil fuels needed to run them; makes herbicides and pesticides unnecessary, thus removing their toxic runoff from the ecosystem; minimizes transportation costs; and allows for year-round growing. Aeroponics is s the ideal way to feed a city.
A Swedish company, Plantagon, is already deploying 10,000-square-meter glass spheres in Sweden, Singapore, and China that can grow 100,000 square meters' worth of produce. But the concept could scale up far beyond that. It's estimated that a 30-story building one New York square block in footprint could feed 50,000 people all year long.
Vertical farms would be constructed with a skin of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a polymer that is extremely light, self-cleaning, and transparent as water. Parabolic mirrors would increase the amount of sunlight bouncing around inside, and LED grow lights could be used as a supplement on cloudy days and at night. Embedded, computer-controlled sensors could monitor and adjust temperature, pH balance, and nutrient flows. On top of all that, University of Illinois researchers predict that within the next 10-15 years, genetic engineering will increase a plant's photosynthetic optimization and thus ramp up crop yields by as much as 50%.