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What If We Could Feed Our Cities With Offshore Floating Farms?

A new idea for local, urban agriculture proposes not using any land at all.

Think about the future of urban farming, and you might picture stories of vertical crops stacked in a high rise. But since most cities happen to be located on coastlines, one team of architects is proposing another location for local agriculture.

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Could floating farms off the coast help feed a growing global population?

“With offshore farming, we consume less city space–basically scarce, premium land in dense cities–and use it for other purposes like housing and coworking,” says Javier Ponce, principle of Forward Thinking Architecture, the firm proposing the new floating farms.

Forward Thinking Architecture

In the modular system, called Smart Floating Farms (SFF), food would grow in hydroponic layers above a fish farm. Solar panels–and possibly also wave and wind energy–would power lighting, sensors, and everything else needed to make the system as automated as possible.

“Potentially we aim to develop software which can manage to control the system and make it an automated one, just as Google is implementing its Google Chauffeur software to make driverless cars possible,” says Ponce. “Big data analysis on a target city can reveal figures on its food needs and consumption, which can become relevant in order to make the SFF a more efficient alternative and produce only what is really needed.”

Each component of the design is already in use somewhere. Floating pontoons hold the farm in place without damaging the ecosystem. In the aquaculture layer below the water, the farm houses a fish hatchery, nursery, and rooms for processing and storing the food. On the main level, a hydroponic greenhouse grows several layers of crops, using a combination of desalinated water and rainwater for irrigation.

Like other forms of urban farming, the system would bring food closer to the people who eat it, helping reduce waste and the energy used in transportation. “We aim for a decentralized and if possible a self-sufficient model, where food is bring closer to the consumption areas,” says Ponce.

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Forward Thinking Architecture

The floating farms aren’t meant in any way to be a replacement for traditional agriculture–but the designers think they could help fill a gap as the global population swells. By 2050, the world will have to figure out how to grow 70% more food. Hydroponic farming uses far less water than traditional ag, eliminates pesticides, and relies on renewable energy. As a contained system, it can also avoid the kinds of natural catastrophes–like drought or floods–that can ruin other crops.

“Facing the current challenges of cities growing, land consumption and climate change, I believe this type of projects can give humanity a hand in a near future so we not only have to depend on traditional farming,” Ponce says.

The architects hope to eventually build the project, though it’s just a concept at this point.

“We have done some research on the commercial and economic side, and it gave us some clarity that the project can be a viable one,” Ponce says. “Apart from the software to make it automated, the whole project can be made out of proven, existing technologies which makes it more feasible in a way. We’re looking looking for potential partnerships and investors to explore potential locations for its implementation.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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