Food Goes Vertical

This is a bit of a detour from our regularly scheduled programming, but it’s a topic of such importance that I think it deserves a voice. Though little information is available about the economics of such projects (most are concept-phase), I’ll attempt to tackle the cost/benefit angle and provide some insights into economic viability where possible.

This article is about growing food. More concisely, about growing food in vertical structures (like a skyscraper). Sounds a bit wonky to the uninitiated, but bear with me.

The problem: the world, she is a-changing. By 2050, around 80% of the earth’s population is projected to live in urban centres. Very conservative demographic estimates also suggest that the global population will increase by 3 billion people (to 9.8 billion), mostly in emerging markets (many of which will qualify as ’emerged’ markets by 2050). With current agricultural methods and yields remaining a constant, the additional population will require a swatch of new agricultural land roughly equal to 120% the size of Brazil in order for basic needs to be met on a global scale. However, 80% of the world’s current arable land which is suitable for agriculture is already in use, and typically 15% of this land is unusable at any given time due to poor land-management practices.

Sources: IMF/World Bank, UN:FAO, Vertical Farming Project

Put simply, in thirty-five years there just won’t be enough farmland to produce the food required to feed us all.

Thirty-five years isn’t a long time. Ceteris paribus, there are several scenarios which address this problem.

Climate Change

Kind of a nasty label. Climate change is supposed to be a bad thing, right? Yes. On a global scale: overwhelmingly, disastrously so. But there will be pockets of isolated positive development inherent to climate change. As the global climate warms, the concentrations of farmable land in the northern hemisphere will expand northwards (primarily in Canada, Russia, and parts of Europe). In fact, Environment Canada has produced several papers suggesting the possibility of a net positive change in agricultural production capacity for Canada. However, there are serious flaws with any strategy which relies on this theory:

  1. The newly-warmed land area will not be immediately productive
  2. As the available farmland in the northern hemisphere increases, available farmland in the tropical regions (slightly north and slightly south of the equator) will decrease as the climate becomes hotter, reducing the ability of the soil to hold moisture
  3. Extreme weather events will become more common, reducing the overall global food yield as droughts and floods destroy crops at increasing frequency

Increased Yields in Traditional Crops

‘Traditional’ is a bit of a loaded word. Some may think of it as usage of the same crops and species that were cultivated centuries ago, using time-honoured methods passed down through the generations. In this context, I refer to ‘traditional’ as the status quo for mass-agriculture which is prominent today (this is a forward-looking article, after all). Large swatches of land, chemical fertilizer and pesticides, artificial (constructed) irrigation systems, genetically modified/hardened crop species, and global food distribution networks. Using this perspective, the ‘traditional’ methods of food production are on a global scale quite harmful to the environment. The act of human beings nourishing and sustaining themselves does incredible damage to the natural biomes of the planet. The possibility exists that continued advances in GMO farming will increase crop yields enough to offset the gap in the future food requirements for a growing global population (Monsanto and Cargill in particular are heavily invested in R&D for this area). As with climate change, there are some severe problems with relying on this strategy:

  1. GMOs are not strictly regulated on a global scale, and are banned outright in some sovereign states (which is perhaps a bit alarmist). Genetically modifying a living organism has side-effects; the positive ones are highly publicized, yet the negative ones are largely unknown as they typically do not apply directly to human beings. One hypothetical example: inserting a new gene variant into a wheat crop increases its tolerance to temperature extremes, but makes the stalk toxic to bacterial organisms which normally have a net-positive benefit to the local biome. With the positive effects of this bacteria eroded, total net yield per acre falls.
  2. The safety of GMOs for human consumption is to some degree a crap shoot. Safety studies of GMO foods are largely based on pharmacology concepts which are applied to genetics (that which has been previously observed as a cause/effect relationship in a similar case is assumed to be a constant in the current case). Some sovereign states carry out human safety trials in a limited clinical setting (such as in Australia), but the global regulatory system is very patchwork, with varying standards.
  3. In most cases, crops with enhanced yields require greater volumes of resource inputs (water, fertilizer, carbon dioxide, sunlight). The larger an organism grows, the more caloric sustenance it requires (plants convert CO2 into simple sugars via photosynthesis, so they’re effectively consuming calories too as they burn the sugars for energy- just not in the same manner that animal life does). Theoretically, the energy requirements of an organism can be reduced dramatically as the organism increases in size by artificially increasing the efficiency at which the organism converts energy from sunlight into sugars (according to the Law of Energy Conservation, energy is lost when converting from one form to another). However, this still means increasing requirements for pesticides and fertilizers (overuse of chemical fertilizers leaches essential trace minerals from the soil, requiring a reclamation process to restore the land’s fertility).

Changing the Culture of Consumption and the System of Production

This tends to be the preferred solution for supporters of local agriculture and organic growing, and is perhaps viable from a production standpoint if the food shortage problem was going to affect Canada and the United States the most prominently (sadly, this is not the case- Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia will be the hardest hit by the projected production shortage). In this idea, the supply/demand gap is eliminated by simultaneously reducing food consumption in the west (ie, we start to eat less- which would be a good thing), and converting families into micro-producers of food (every family begins to grow their own vegetables and where possible, livestock). There are many benefits to this system: increased health via reduced rates of obesity, increased nutritional value of our food (produce loses nutrients during flash-freezing/preserving, and transportation over long distances because it is picked before fully ripening in order to arrive at the supermarket in a palatable state), decreased health hazard from residual chemical pesticides and fertilizers which remains on the produce, and increased disposable income for families who now pay less to eat (though only marginally so). From a quality-of-food standpoint, this is simply the best solution. And in a simple world, with a simple economy, it might just be a viable one. However:

  1. People are natural consumers, but producers only by necessity. This is partly due to societal conditioning, but mostly due to biology and primordial instinct. Early humans (think post ice-age) had a rough go of it. They had to forage for food (agriculture had yet to be invented) by hunting and gathering (in fact, this is how all animal life forms get by absent human intervention). Naturally, because humans evolved from hunter-gatherer animals (sorry, Creationists) over millions of years, our biological makeup is designed to hoard energy. Ever wonder why it’s so easy to pack on five pounds after Thanksgiving, but burning it off is such a bitch? That’s why. Our bodies want us to store fat in the good times, so we can survive the lean times. Problem is: evolution hasn’t caught up to modern society. Comparatively speaking, all times are good times now- but we’re still hardwired to consume as efficiently as possible (why expend energy producing food if you don’t need to?) Of course, being sentient and all, we’re capable of overcoming our biological urges. But, it’s not easy. Put ten randomly-selected people in a room who have the means to buy food at the supermarket and try to convince them they should start growing their own food. You’ll see what I mean.
  2. The tragedy of the commons is an economic principal which states that when resources are plentiful and commonly-available, humans will overuse them to systemic collapse. I discussed this concept before, as it applies to utilities-inclusive rental units. It also applies to food production- when food is readily available, people will consume it via increasingly wasteful systems (no matter what you say, factory-farming beef to supply a national chain of fast food restaurants is ecologically inefficient). The epidemic of obesity in many western societies lends credence to this concept, and suggests that voluntary conservation adopted on a massive scale is not a realistically-achievable goal. Ergo, telling people to eat less because it’s good them individually (and for all peoples of the planet) will be about as effective as trying to refrigerate a litre of milk with a single snowflake.
  3. This solution does not effectively address the food needs of increasing populations in arid areas. If arable land is scarce in nations which are net-importers of food, how can those populations grow their own food? Hydroponics systems are quite simply too expensive and too complex for an average family to operate without significant knowledge transfer (also; they require water inputs which might not be readily available). Aeroponics systems are similarly too expensive for small-scale production (though are operationally more cost-effective than hydroponics), and also require specialized knowledge transfer. A reduction in western food consumption could theoretically free up food resources for increasing export to these countries- but considering the current quality of life standards in western societies, this is an economically non-viable scenario, absent a very large government subsidy program (to maintain their quality of life, farmers would have to charge more than consumers in poor countries could afford to pay).

Relying on Science and Technological Innovation

A common theme among technology-focussed sociologists is that of the Malthusian catastrophe and how human civilization has cheated its inevitability by enabling greater food production volumes through technology. Such an occurrence was averted in the last century when the green revolution enabled drastically increasing crop yields through the development of synthetic fertilizers and the creation of superior crops through cross-breeding. For some, scientific and technological innovation remains the greatest hope for averting the next Malthusian catastrophe. Today, 3D printers allow for the rapid manufacturing of prototypes using stock inputs as thin as a few millimetres. Could this technology system evolve to include organic stock inputs at the molecular level, over the next four decades? Perhaps; this would give rise to the creation of food on a near-molecular level (I’m not convinced about the taste though), and would enable on-demand production which would virtually eliminate food waste. In vitro meats are another technological innovation currently being researched. Relying on future technological development has inherent top-level risks though:

  1. There are no guarantees. The future problems may be averted, and they may not be. Meanwhile, carrying on with the status quo could set our civilization up for an even more catastrophic failure in the future; a far less risky approach is to work to mitigate the future risks now.
  2. Side effects: health products have long safety-efficacy cycles. It takes 10-15 years to bring a newly developed therapeutic drug to market due to a rigorous clinical testing methodology (though sometimes not rigorous enough). If an innovation like in vitro meat was commercially viable by 2020, and a rigorous clinical safety trial was imposed, the meats would not be available until 2030 or 2035. Then the economies of scale and distribution systems required to make new products affordable for the masses would begin- perhaps another five to ten years. Such an innovation may arrive too late to head off the problem (especially if there is political or consumer resistance to consuming petri-dish meat, which is a near certainty).
  3. Western civilization is currently not very efficient at technology transfer and commercialization of concepts from the basic research level. The process is slow, convoluted, and often involves disputes about the ownership of IP and the division of royalty structures in technology licensing deals. Not to mention that there is significant investment risk in taking on technology which is newly emerged from the basic research space, due to significant and plentiful unknown variables in the commercialization process. [We are making progress in this area, however- Peterborough’s own Innovation Cluster is an example of the private/public partnership structure which plays an important role in streamlining this process]

The Vertical Farm Concept

As a term unto itself ‘Vertical Farm’ is a bit ambiguous. In its simplest and most universal form, a vertical farm involves increased land-use efficiency by expanding agricultural space upwards, or vertically instead of outwards, or horizontally. The stacking of agricultural space is not a new idea- James Douglas’ 1976 work on hydroponics describes a hydroponic farm integrated into an old tower which existed in Armenia prior to 1951. Additionally, literature dating back to 1915 suggests the use of an inverse vertical farm concept, where farmers increase their yields by increasing the depth of their fields as opposed to the width (presumably involving vertical holes or pits and tuber or climbing vine plants such as tomatoes or cucumbers).

The vertical farm concept as most popularly described today dates back to Dickson Despommier’s work at Columbia University in 1999. In this concept, agricultural production is shifted to vertical structures (skyscrapers, towers, etc) which are hermetically sealed in order to prevent toxins and contaminants from entering the growing environment (an earlier incarnation conceptualized by Ken Yeang involved open-air structures and agricultural production for personal or community use). As the availability of arable farmland decreases and the demand for food increases, this concept is becoming more attractive. Especially when paired with aeroponic production methods, which considerably reduce the water inputs required throughout the growing process.

Benefits of the Vertical Farm concept:

  1. Fewer Food Miles: Produce can be grown in population centres with high density, decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and global transportation networks to provide for local food needs
  2. Pesticides and herbicides would be unnecessary, or significantly reduced: since the environment is controlled and artificially regulated, contaminants and pests would not enter the growing area (in theory). Though in practice, outside contaminants in the form of pests/disease would occasionally enter the constructed environment, necessitating corrective action
  3. Traditional synthetic (chemical) fertilizers would be unnecessary: in both hydroponics and aeroponics, soil is not used as a growing medium- nutrients are delivered directly to the plant’s root system via water or mist
  4. Increased production yields: in an artificially-controlled climate, food could be produced year-round, and extreme weather events such as droughts or floods would not directly impact production
  5. Improved land-footprint management: assuming a vertical farm with a footprint of 1/2 acre (21,780 sq’), a twenty story facility would allow for the rehabilitation of 10 acres of traditional farmland (utilizing this space for woodland or wetland would also increase the planet’s CO2 processing abilities on a net-positive basis)
  6. Conservation of resources: farming in controlled environments with hydroponics and aeroponics eliminates the need for soil preparation and harvesting using farm machinery, most commonly powered by fossil fuels (yes, this number is significant: ask any farmer how much diesel fuel they burn through using a combine harvester on a 20 acre plot during any given season). Additionally, the water inputs required for production would decrease drastically if aeroponic methods were used (as plants are ‘fed’ via a nutrient-enriched mist)
  7. Increased nutrition and food quality: since the produce is grown and consumed locally, flash-freezing and other preservation methods which strip produce of vital nutrients would be unnecessary.
  8. Integration of farming into urban labour markets: Labour shortages on rural and family-run farms are a potential production constraint (in North America, often solved by seasonal workers transported in from other countries). Integration of food production into the urban economy would add a valuable diversification to the labour market, and eliminate the production constraints caused by labour shortage (young people tend to migrate from rural to urban areas; under a vertical-farm production system, the new-age farmer could also be an urban-dweller).

Food production utilizing the vertical farm model isn’t all sunshine and roses, however. Two primary risks call into question the suitability of the model. Let’s tackle them one by one, shall we?

Increased energy usage

Like any other artificially-constructed environment, vertical farms would require electricity to operate- thus causing a significant demand increase on an already taxed electricity grid. However, there are ways to offset this electricity increase using renewable energy sources (perhaps by as much as 70-80%). A combination of renewable technologies would be the most efficient: solar PV film applied to the exterior of any windows (particularly effective if the vertical farm exists in a renovated skyscraper), rooftop wind turbines (such as the Honeywell WT6500), and biogas/biomass (organic remnants from the growing process could be burned as biomass, or methane from decomposing organic matter could be captured and burned in a digester as part of a composting system).

Due to the substantial reduction in fossil-fuel consumption, net-energy consumption with a vertical-farm production model would likely decline. Electricity usage would increase, but this would be offset on a net basis by reduced fuel consumption (fossil fuels typically have a 30-40% efficiency). Though the efficiency for solar PV is lower (in the vicinity of twenty percent for film laminates), the primary input (sunlight) is plentiful and free. Using high-efficiency lighting, such as fibre-optic or LED, would also significantly decrease the energy requirements for the structure.

Increased security risk

With an increased focus on combating terrorism, shifting to a regionally-centralized food production model would appear on the surface to increase the vulnerability of society to food supply disruption (for instance, setting off a bomb in a large city’s production tower could be catastrophic if supply was critically disrupted and shortages widespread in the aftermath). A single structure or group of structures would make for a much easier target than sprawling agricultural fields. However, if you consider the system as a whole, the likelihood of catastrophic failure due to a terrorist plot is rather low. Even if the food production structure for a given city was destroyed, food could still be transported from another area or from a strategic reserve while production was rebuilt (the concept of food reserves dates back to the early Roman republic, where excess grain was stored in granaries during high-yield years to offset emergency needs in drought and flood years).

Additionally, the incidence of terrorism has decreased steadily since 2001. Prior to the 9/11 attacks (and arguably, after as well), deaths and economic loss due to terrorism were negligible when compared to the whole (more people die in traffic accidents every year than terrorist attacks, and economic loss due to extreme weather events is higher than loss due to terrorism).

Clearly, there are downsides and unknown variables to the vertical farm model (not the least of which is that it is economically unproven). Many think the idea of growing food inside a building to be foreign; as food should naturally grow outdoors in fields. After all, we’ve produced food this way for over 9,000 years (agricultural science first appears in the known historical record around 7,000 BCE, in the fertile crescents of Egypt’s Nile River deltas). But, modern agriculture is essentially an artificial construct. The manner in which we as a society produce food doesn’t occur in nature, nor do any other life forms on the planet utilize such a system. The defining hallmark of human existence is that we as a species have the ability to shape the natural environment to suit our collective and individual needs. Perhaps it’s time that we freed ourselves from the notion that growing crops in a field is a more natural (better) way to farm, and begin to examine alternatives that have a chance at solving the looming food crisis.

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