Vertical Farms? Still Waiting, But Concepts Abound
More than sixty years ago, in Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth's 1952 classic The Space Merchants described a kind of vertical farm; a "Chlorella plantations" which was used to grow greenery for food.
…the Chlorella plantation, a towering eighty-story structure like the office "In-and-Out" baskets stacked up to the sky. There were mirrored louvers at each tier. Surrounding the big building were acres of eye-stabbing glare. I realized that this was more mirrored louvers to catch the sun, bounce it off more mirrors inside the tiers, and onto the photosynthesis tanks. It was a spectacular, though not uncommon, sight from the air.
I'm afraid it's still science fiction, but true believers haven't given up.
(Vertical farming concept)
When I spoke to Dickston Despommimer, coiner of the phrase “vertical farming”, about his ideas last year, it became clear that his obsession with farming in cities actually springs from an obsession with places that aren’t cities. He calculated that, to match the world's 3bn population increase projected by 2050, we’d need an extra patch of farmland bigger than Brazil. Yet in regions where agriculture could expand, such as Africa, yields are low, and creating more farmland would require carbon-producing deforestation: essentially, it would take a massive toll on the environment, and wouldn’t even produce that much food.
Add to this the fact that some of our most productive farmland in India and the US lies in areas likely to be affected by climate change, and we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Despommier hopes that if the concepts behind Vertical Farming come into widespread use, ecosystems across the world could be saved from conversion into farmland.
So Despommier and his students kept working on the idea, and putting their ideas online. “When you put anything on the internet, it runs the risk of being shot down by naysayers. But just the opposite happened,” he tells me. Enthusiastic fans sent in their own fantastical designs, “most of which were impractical and would never work” – but a select handful have become reality.
Japanese ecologists and agriculturalists were particularly keen on the idea, as the country has a high population density and very little growing space. Meanwhile, a history of nuclear disaster has contaminated sea and land alike, and prompted a new approach to farming. What Despommier describes as “an underground academic movement” developed in Japan, dedicated to inventing new ways to grow food in closed closed containers using high-tech methods like hydroponics and aeroponics, plus LED grow lights.
Both growing methods are still central to vertical farming: hydroponics involves submerging plants’ roots in water fortified with nutrients; aeroponics involves spraying the roots with a similar sort of solution. About five years ago, the Japanese government issued a technical report on a new industry they named “plant industries”, concluding that it could make a major contribution to Japanese daily diets.
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