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Vertical Farming- Providing Alternative Resources for Food Production

written by: ciel s cantoria•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 10/31/2010

A closer look at vertical farming and how it can provide the solution to environmental problems. This greenhouse-based method of high-tech farming will provide alternative resources for food production, and will allow depleted agricultural lands to take a break from agricultural use and misuse.

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    The Need for Alternative Resources for Food Production

    800px-Vertical farms 

    It is estimated that world population will increase to 8 billion people by 2025, and hopefully vertical farming will have full realization by then. Today, a hydrophonic vertical farm is fully operational at El Paso, Texas and its owners are proud of the fact that it's no longer a "pie-in-the-sky dream".

    At the rate that agricultural land used for food production is diminishing and the population increasing, it is expected that food scarcity will be the next biggest problem we have to contend with. Most of our planet's natural resources have eroded due to intensive farming, while other land areas have been devoted to industrial and suburban uses. GMOs, are not the alternative resources for food production, as means of feeding the increasing population. Vertical farming works

    In the U.S. alone, studies show that population increases by as much as 5,000 per day while the land correspondingly decreases by 15,000 acres.Based on agricultural reports, about 24 billion tons of topsoil are lost yearly due to farming methods that make use of harmful pesticides. Liberal irrigation on the other hand has caused the depletion of natural resources of ground water that supplies fresh water to wells and springs. Too much water is being drawn off the ground causing the water table to go down at an uncomfortable level. Other sources of water cannot be relied upon because it has been contaminated by agricultural run-offs that contain pesticides.

    Hence, the concept of indoor farming being used by some small scale industries for the past 15 years, is now gaining technological attention. The concept, modified by dedicating high-rise buildings in urban environments for food production purposes, is called vertical farming.

    What is Vertical Farming?

    Vertical farming is a greenhouse-based method of agriculture, where commercially viable crops would be cultivated and grown inside multi-storey buildings that will mimic the ecological system. Safe and efficient methods of recycling organic wastes as well as the recycling of water wastes from sewage systems will be implemented.

    This method of indoor farming will include the production of freshwater fishes, crustaceans, and mollusks, like tilapia, striped bass, trout, shrimps, crayfish and mussels. The success of vertical farming as the answer to the imminent problem of food shortage is also foreseen as a means of rehabilitating vast agricultural lands that were systematically eroded by aggressive commercial farming for the past 20 to 30 years.

    The aim of this concept is to follow the patterns of past civilizations and inhabitants; land was abandoned when it was no longer ecologically useful. Thus, the abandoned area will be left untouched to naturally rehabilitate and experience re-growth. Vertical farming will provide an alternative agricultural venue, allowing land that has been depleted to take a break and repair itself with natural growths.

    There are several underlying concepts that support the viability of vertical farming:

    • The rainforests of Central America also experienced deforestation during the pre-Colombian era when an estimated 50 million people, including the Mayans, occupied this region. It was only in the 1950's that these rainforests completed full re-growth and it became impossible for archaeologists to look for more evidences of its ancient civilization.
    • Another example was the grassland prairie of the Great Plains of the United States. Early immigrants used them for farming until the next 20 to 30 years brought drought and soil erosion. The devastating condition resulted to the abandonment of the land by the years 1932-1938. Most of the settlers headed further west to look for more sustainable land which they found in California. After 15 years, wildlife began to come back, while grasslands were rebuilt and other native plants reclaimed the region. However after World War II, farmers came back to plant wheat with the use of irrigational systems. Due to the rising costs of fuel needed to pump and raise water from its depths, farmers are again expected to abandon these lands. In the same pattern as before, the tall prairie grasslands are likely to dominate the land once more.
    • There are other similar patterns that were observed in ecological studies conducted by the scientific community. These presented possible processes of recovery for different U.S. sites that include not only grasslands but also alpine forests, semi-arid deserts, wetlands, coastal savannas, estuaries, rivers and lakes. All have shown proof of their natural ability to return to their original state if given the chance to re-establish their natural ecological conditions.

    Henceforth, the concept of vertical farming will provide the alternative ecosystem for most of the world's traditional food requirements, in order to give room for most of the agricultural lands to rehabilitate itself.

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    There are more advantages than disadvantages that can be said about vertical farming. However, for some people this proposed urban farming method and its disadvantages may be few but they have more bearing than the advantages. Find out why.
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    How Will Vertical Farming Work?

    According to scientific calculations, a single vertical farm that will occupy about one square block of a city and elevated up to 30 stories can provide enough food to supply the needs of about 10,000 people. Constructing these vertical farm units will develop a closed in system where waste products, air, water and minerals, needed by plants and vegetables to thrive, will be recycled within the building. It aims to generate energy, maintain a pesticide-free farming technology, effective waste management as a means of sustaining food production all within one vertical farm building. Channeling the city's wastes into its system which will undergo bioremediation process makes it a feasible integration to the farming technology.

    There is still a long way to go in constructing these vertical farms, since the aim is to generate greater yields for every square foot that the system uses. Therefore, it requires intensive researches in various fields, like industrial microbiology, hydrobiology, engineering, physics, plant and animal genetics, waste management, public health and urban planning, to name only a few.

    The researches have to support the concept of addressing food production in a modern city, where urban wastes, like black water will be composted, recycled and used for farming inside a standard tenement-like building. This will be expected to improve the living conditions since transportation costs in handling food supply and wastes will be greatly reduced.

    Hydrophonic methods which denote raising plants using water instead of soil will come into focus. This is a system already in use by some small industries. Hydrophonics was developed by a German scientist out of concern for the depleting effects of commercial agriculture over the land used.

    The city's sewage sludge will enter a machine called “SlurryCarb", to break down the sludge into carbon and water. The remaining slurry will be burned like coal to power steam turbines that will generate electricity. Part of the sludge will be treated with chemicals to kill the bacteria and will undergo heating and drying process that will convert the treated sludge into topsoil. Water extracted will undergo bio-remediation processes using cattails, sawgrass and zebra mussels, until it becomes clean enough for agricultural use. It can also be subjected for further refinement until safe enough to be used as drinking water.

    Vertical Farming Advantages and Disadvantages

    Aside from the main objective of giving the damaged agricultural resources the chance to rehabilitate and re-develop biodiversity, vertical farming as a self-sustaining method of food production will also bring the following possible benefits:

    1. Crops will be protected from harsh weather conditions and disturbances like typhoons, hurricanes, floods, droughts, snow and the likes. Food production as well as food transport will not be affected.

    2. Crops will be consumed immediately upon harvest since there is no need to transport them to far-off places. Spoilage will also be lessened.

    3. The use of chemicals as pesticides will be eliminated; hence, even vector borne diseases can be prevented.

    4. Waste reduction, especially those coming from fast foods and restaurants will be composted in every vertical farm building; this will also result to less garbage for rats and cockroaches to thrive on.

    5. Reduction in vehicular transport is also foreseen; there will be less demand for delivery trucks, garbage trucks and other utilities.

    6. Overall wellness because city wastes will be channeled directly into the farm building's recycling system, hence, less bacteria can find its way in the environment and the atmosphere.

    7. Abandoned or unused properties will be used productively.

    It cannot be helped that there will be skeptics who will not be easily convinced about the benefits of vertical farming. In fact, the advantage of providing additional employment cannot be cited as such, since the system will require much automation. On top of that, other occupations like farming, delivery drivers, garbage collectors and even garbage scavengers will be placed at a disadvantage. Other possible disadvantages are:

    1. The initial phase will be cost intensive, and certain flaws integrated in the system that may appear during its initial run can still dampen efforts for its full maximization.

    2. There will be fewer variety of foods to choose from because not all plants and vegetables are suitable in a controlled and limited environment.

    3. The public will find it hard to reconcile with the idea of using black water for food production.

    The whole idea may seem too ambitious and there are mixed reactions about the concept of vertical farming and the recycling of black water. The current state not only of our environment, but also of the world population's general health conditions leave us with no other choice but to try anything that offers even just a glimmer of hope. Vertical farming offers more than a glimmer, because its premises are all based from lessons of the past.