Take away the tractors, gadgets and GMOs, and the world’s first farmers would feel right at home today. A lot has changed in the last 10,000 years since the first rows were planted in the Fertile Cresent, but the formula remains basically the same: water, sunlight and good soil to grow your crops.
Yet a global population of 9 billion by mid-century means we need to grow about twice as much with less of everything. The future of farming may be on the way up–several stories up.
Vertical farms offer the vision of growing year-round, wherever we want, unaffected by droughts and weather-related events, while saving outside space for wilderness and humans. After decades on the drawing board, they are finally being built. The most futuristic examples are in Asia where crowded cities and scarce land has made vertical farming most appealing.
In Suwon, South Korea, a three-story vertical farm using robotics and LED lights has been built, along with a seven-story vertical farm by company Insung Tech in the city of Yongin. The Japanese government also plans to reclaim farming land decimated by the huge 2011 earthquake and tsunami that also includes vertical farming.
Yet the West is raising vertical farms of its own. England has the Alpha Farm, slated for an abandoned eight-story office building in Manchester, while the Duth company PlantLab has already built two vertical farms in the Dutch city of Den Bosch. In the US, a vertical farming operation by Civesca is slated for Seattle, while 312 Aquaponic is reclaiming a building in Chicago for farming, aquaculture and bioenergy.
Despite the promise of skyscraper greenhouses in our cities, the financials have grounded the vision as a replacement for conventional agriculture anytime soon. “Not all the press has been favorable,” says Dickson Despommier, a microbologist at Colombia University credited with developing the concept more than a decade ago, in Columbia Magazine. “Far from it. The Guardian ripped us apart. They said our idea made no economic sense whatsoever.”
For now, The Guardian is right. Despite annual crop yields six times larger than the same area in soil in some cases, it is not enough to offset the costs of vertical operations. “This place [the vertical farm in Suwon] is going to lose money, just as all the first vertical farms will,” said Dospommier from South Korea. “These are experimental projects, and it’s going to take years for them to become commercially viable.”
But smaller, more integrated operations–such as The Plant in Chicago in an old meatpacking plant – offer a transition to show the economics can work in the interim by relying on more than just crops. So far, the vision has proved attractive: a fish farm, hydroponic farm, bakery, mushroom garden and a kombucha tea brewer all call The Plant home.