Farmland of the Future

by Samantha Grimes

By 2050, more than nine billion people will populate the world. Urban areas will grow, as more people will leave rural regions for opportunities in cities, and urban centers like Pittsburgh will have to support as much as 80 percent of the population. In order to keep up with the global demand, food production will have to double. Currently, traditional agricultural practices use roughly 80 percent of all arable land. Thus, if production methods and yields remain constant, the amount of new farmland needed to double food production would be larger than Brazil!                 

However, all currently available farmland is unlikely to last until 2050. Climate change, natural disasters, urbanization and the conservation of biodiversity all indicate that the amount of suitable cropland will decrease in the next few decades. Unfortunately, traditional agricultural practices contribute to these problems, accounting for more greenhouse gas emissions than every country’s transportation system combined. Furthermore, industrial agricultural techniques are notorious for depleting the nutrients in local soils, which can result in lower levels of vitamins and minerals in harvested crops. Clearly, agriculture needs a revolutionary overhaul if humans are to produce enough food to satisfy not only a minimum calorie count, but also the nutritional needs of more than nine billion people.

One of the developing methods of producing more food using less land centers around building up instead of sprawling out. “Vertical farming,” or “skyscraper farming,” does for agriculture what skyscrapers did for urban residential and commercial architects in the early twentieth century, bringing agriculture to a more central and controlled location, decreasing transportation costs and maximizing food production for a certain area of land. The phrase “vertical farm” was coined by Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University, as a part of a solution for growing food more sustainably. As the name suggests, vertical farming utilizes the vertical space supplied by a skyscraper to increase crop yields by planting on multiple levels, similar to multi-story greenhouses.

There are two main variations of vertical farming, one referred to as “horizontal plane production” and another called “vertical plane production.” Horizontal plane production, the most commonly utilized method in start-up vertical farms, is a stacked system of growing beds supported by shelving with vertical growing space in between units that can be varied according to the height of the crops. This method of growing can incorporate space up to the ceiling and from wall to wall, with aisles for workers to harvest produce. One drawback, however, is that especially tall systems require additional aisle room for lifting equipment to allow growers to reach their crops. A less common, though more efficient, type of vertical farming is vertical plane production, in which plants grow either in tall columns, growing laterally, or are planted on a long growing board which can be folded up to create a triangular growing bed. However, this type of growing is only suitable for shorter crops, such as lettuce, kale and strawberries.

Undoubtedly, the plan for an ideal vertical farm varies drastically according to population, but even with current methods, such as hydroponics, aquaponics (in which fish and other aquatic livestock are raised alongside crops) and genetic engineering, vertical farms could become not only efficient, but also uniquely adapted to their host cities. Regional cultures and food preferences could be integrated in design and production, while local resources such as forms of alternative energy could be utilized to create distinct spaces that reflect each city.

Though vertical farms can become personalized, several features will likely become ubiquitous as they will aid efficiency. As vertical farms will exist indoors in a controlled environment, herbicides and pesticides will become unnecessary since weeds, pests and disease will be significantly more manageable. While vertical farms can take advantage of natural daylight with large windows, this can be supplemented by red and blue LED lights, which maximize photosynthetic efficiency and can be used for longer periods, extending the daily growing period and allowing for year-round production. Additional conditions that impact plant growth, such as temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide concentrations can be monitored and regulated by relatively simple systems in order to increase the efficiency of the self-contained ecosystem.

Furthermore, irrigation will be sustained in a closed system, greatly reducing the amount of water necessary for production, and could even be supplemented with filtered city graywater, which is wastewater collected from bathing, drinking and washing. In addition to these staples, vertical farms might choose to implement genetic engineering in order to produce more nutrient-dense crops, regulate nitrate-fixing bacteria, grow cotton or hemp to produce textiles, grow corn to produce biofuels, integrate hydroponic or aquaponics systems and raise other protein sources such as poultry, pigs or even insects.

Though the possibilities seem endless, these systems are more than futuristic daydreams. Just last year, Michigan’s Green Spirit Farms debuted the world’s largest vertical farm in East Benton near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Green Spirit Farms provides fresh, local produce through both groceries and restaurants, and they have provided more than one hundred jobs. Though the farm boasts an incredible 17 million individual plants, it will only retain its title for a few more years, as AeroFarms, a company that arose in 2004, has plans for the new largest vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey.

These efforts also extend beyond the United States, as exemplified by Plantagon, a Swedish company that seeks to promote vertical farming as an essential part of urban centers. In addition to planning buildings for the sole purpose of industrial agriculture, Plantagon also has plans for reusing abandoned buildings as farms and adding greenhouse façades to preexisting skyscrapers. This concept of introducing food production as part of a multifunctional space that includes commercial, residential and recreational use would help integrate vertical farms into the urban community and increase awareness of how food is produced.

As cities begin to embrace a commitment to the future, it seems ever more likely that the next several decades will usher in a world of more sustainable development. Creating the most efficient agricultural systems for the future will require a dynamic and diverse approach, implementing various techniques to reduce waste and increase crop yields. In order to continue developing the way we grow food and the way we incorporate sustainable design in urban planning, architects, engineers, biologists, chemists and ecologists must study current systems in order to keep moving forward.

One of the best places to consider today’s most innovative methods in horticulture in the United States is Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens right here in Pittsburgh. Although Phipps does not currently implement vertical farming, the center has integrated some of the latest systems for growing sustainably in its urban location, and would be an invaluable inspiration for future vertical farms. Phipps’ Production Greenhouse manages 16 distinct climates for plant growth, while their Center for Sustainable Landscapes treats and reuses all storm water and graywater for irrigation and miscellaneous building use, and maintains several crops that are harvested and used in the conservatory’s café. Helping to set the standard for global sustainability, Phipps might offer a glimpse into more than just the future of sustainable buildings and horticulture, but also that of food production.

By implementing a variety of measures, vertical farming could radically change the way food is grown, harvested and made available to people. While traditional farming practices will probably never vanish, vertical farming is meant to supplement, not substitute traditional farming practices. Nonetheless, future methods of food production must somehow improve. With many more hungry mouths to come, it is the job of humans everywhere to change what it means to grow up in the city.