Friday, May 17, 2013

The Advantages of Vertical Farming (Final paper for Human Impact on the Environment)

(Egao No Genki)
Chuck Martin
GEOG 760 – TU 1130-1245
Spring 2013
The Advantages of Vertical Farming
          Thanks to a worldwide population boom, land space for farms is steadily shrinking due to human development to suit the needs of the growing population. There is already famine in various places at any one time, and starving refugees who do not know where their next meals will come from. When you combine a rising population with shrinking land-area, the combination amounts to something of a sociological, ecological and humanitarian time bomb. It is therefore imperative for any innovator in the agricultural industry to learn to make do with shrinking land space. New innovations can also widen profit margins and therefore help their pocketbooks, so it is all the more reason to be able to squeeze more agricultural productivity into the same land space.

          That is where the Vertical Farm ought to come in. Even though the idea of vertical farming has existed since the Babylonian Hanging Gardens, the contemporary concept would be similar to greenhouses, but on a multilevel scale. This modern notion was publicized and promoted by an ecologist named Dickson Despommier at Columbia University in 1999. Such a structure can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Backyard greenhouses have potted fruits, vegetables or fungi stacked on multilevel shelves, intended to feed the owner’s family, which is on the small end of the spectrum. The other end would have supermassive skyscrapers that take up the entire land area of a former plot of farmland (which would still be in the concept phases and seen on artist’s renditions of structures yet-to-come.) In regions where land availability is tight and land values are getting astronomical, the vertical farming initiative is already starting much sooner than elsewhere. In situations where a land-crunch is reality, there is generally nowhere to build but up. For other, numerous urban applications, we have had a relatively easier time building up with them. We have had numerous skyscraper residences, and offices in skyscrapers, but why have sky farms taken such a long time to come around?

          We have thought for a long time that only the natural ground could provide sustenance. That was true until we have devised methods to grow plants without the aid of the natural ground. However, technologies available until now would have made the idea of growing crops in skyscrapers too cost-ineffective. Moreover, the needed societal trends and preferences were not yet around. We were not aware of how much of a carbon footprint we were making by buying distantly grown foods, and it was cheaper just to buy items grown or raised on traditional farms than to attempt to grow and sell them from self-contained structures. (There have been greenhouses for a long time, but they provided edibles to a limited degree, and were usually only a single story.) However, this is now changing. Reinventing an ageless practice in a compact, multilevel space is mostly a newer idea that required considerable miniaturization. Miniaturization has been making considerable inroads in the last few decades and will continue for the foreseeable future, causing practices once thought impossible, to become doable for the first time in technological history, which paves the way for vertical farming to be viable.

Cities like Chicago, Singapore, Tokyo, New York, and any other major city where both land values and demand for “locally-grown” food is remarkably high, have started early initiatives to build vertical farms. Mostly though, they operate in repurposed old warehouses and factories, as taking over an existing structure would be considerably cheaper than starting completely anew. Regions that have long had land crunches would traditionally be used to reclaiming land from the sea, and flattening mountains to gain more utilities out of them, which would turn out to be prohibitively expensive for the land gained. They would find stacking floors atop each other on skyscrapers more effective, which is why in the long run, vertical farming would win out over reclaiming land from seas or mountains to use as traditional farmland.

Moreover, adding oomph to the momentum of the Vertical Farming movement would be environmental initiatives and preferences. The concept of “food miles” would matter to those who are environmentally conscious, and they would want to be sure that the food came from within an hour of their store, and not clear across the country (or even an ocean!) Moreover, a greater incentive to get locally grown items would be that they taste and are fresher, so the quality would trump that of food items shipped from afar. As a matter of fact, in virtually any Manhattan grocery store besides “People’s Grocery,” most of the groceries sold would have had many hundreds or even over a thousand miles traveled before arriving at the shelves. If grocery stores tacked on as many flyer miles to each meal item as a “perk” for buying their food, for every mile that the items originally traveled, we would quickly have free flights anywhere for life!

Alas, to truck in grocery items for a long haul would consume copious amounts of diesel, which releases undue emissions into the atmosphere, which is yet another reason to rely on the environmentally friendly vertical farms.
Depending on the architectural styles and materials used, some buildings can stack more floors atop one another after their initial construction has finished, in order to accommodate rising demand. As most city centers will see an ever-growing population trend, it would be most essential for vertical farms to stack floors atop one another as demands see fit.

          One remarkable advantage of vertical farms would be that they can be built ANYWHERE in the world – on deserts, on tundra, on mountains, and even on oceans (though like oilrigs, it would be on stilts yet practice mariculture.) Anywhere buildings can be built, so can vertical farms. That is because the structure could be insulated according to necessary parameters. No longer would farmers have to rely on land being arable nor scientists have to expensively import food into their Antarctic research stations. More importantly, vertical farms in theory can even be constructed in the middle of refugee camps full of starving families in Africa and elsewhere with famines. In fact, once the first floor is finished and the second floor is being worked on, the first floor could theoretically be used right away to grow crops and/or raise livestock. The only downside is that there would be extra foot traffic for construction crews and equipment going up stairs and elevators, though having outdoor steps and employing cranes could mitigate the indoor traffic. However, most of all, once the complete structure is finished, it could serve a wide surrounding area thereby quelling starvation and pave the way to eradicating hunger and famine worldwide.

          As demands rise and fall in varying places, there could very well be farm-barges – essentially mobile farming platforms on ships, which could possibly be repurposed from old container ships. With these, they could sail from one famine-stricken region to another to give humanitarian aid grown at sea. Other such ships could be used to buy seeds at one place, and sell grown crops at another. Stabilizers would ensure that the crops grow stably as they should.

As vertical farms are contained inside structures, there would be drastically less runoff than through traditional farming systems. Moreover, if the design is made with enough expertise, the water could be reused indefinitely as it could cycle through its processes repeatedly and is filtered and re-filtered through its in-house water-treatment systems. Traditional farming causes pollution because forests may have to be cut down to make room for horizontal farms, and can wreak other ecological havoc that hits back like a boomerang. Fertilizer runoff would foul up water supplies and any aquatic marine life in any body of water in which the runoff would run off. In a vertical farm, the fertilizer would not leave the facility and be filtered, possibly recycled and reused as fertilizer the second time, or at least placed into a disposal container to be carted off and processed elsewhere, unless the structure also happens to include an on-site waste processing facility.

Because of the absence of the farming chemical runoff phenomenon, the food would be safer to eat and water safer to drink, because such water, when untreated or inadequately treated, would cause various harm to consumers’ health, sometimes even cancer. The prevention of these ill health effects would translate to vertical farms saving lives.

Thanks to its closed and sealed system, and far more meticulous handling of its byproducts, the vertical farm would end up having a considerably smaller environmental footprint than traditional farms have now. Environmentalists everywhere thanks to its obvious advantages would champion it. The closed and sealed system of vertical farms would offer even more advantages by the fact that its crops could grow all year-round, thanks to climate control, and it would not matter what crops were grown inside and where the vertical farm is. Such a farmscraper in Antarctica could grow food normally grown in Florida, while another section grows what is seen in Central Europe, and other parts of the building could grow a myriad of food indigenous to many countries. Sometimes, temperatures, humidity and other conditions ideal for one type of food may not be ideal for another, which is why rooms and sections must have sealed double-doorways apart from one another, to ensure an “airlock effect” of not letting one room’s artificial climate enter another and alter the growth of certain crops.

          Moreover, the persistent artificial lighting would ensure that the vertical farms remain a 24/7 operation, and the towers would even come equipped with battery backup generators to ensure its continued operation in outage conditions. While daytime light would take care of the growth, the highly-efficient LED light bulbs illuminating the parts of the building that natural light hits, would shut off with the help of external light sensors. The ever-present lighting coupled with the year-round operation would ensure a quicker turnaround time for the crops grown in farmscrapers than in traditional farms.

          If vertical farms can be built above ground, they can also be built underground, so long as the makeup of the earth underneath the surface will not make the construction of sublevels impractical or cost-prohibitive. The natural insulation of the earth would make the costs to maintain the artificial climate even lower, and with stable temperatures year-round underground, this would make growing crops even easier.

          Some vertical towers can have multiple purposes. On the first floor, there could be grocery stores selling and restaurants serving food grown on-site, having been sourced from literally above or below there, effectively having zero food-miles behind them. They would be the freshest food any customer / patron could ever have. Other floors could also have administrative and other offices and apartments for the tower’s workers and connoisseurs. Many purposes could be placed into a building whose lion’s share of real estate would be dedicated to vertical farming.

Some detractors have cried foul over the idea, sometimes calling it a “scam” and claiming that artificial energy use and other such methods could making growing a wheat grain for a single loaf of bread, cost $10. However, that would not consider the use of LED lights, which would slash the cost by half to one-fifths, at current costs of LED lighting, which would have been expensive per-bulb at first, but keeps falling as newer, more efficient production methods come along, thereby lowering the cost to grow a loaf’s worth of grain. Much of the vertical farming movement is in the trial / experimental stages. However, as trials, research and testing progresses, researchers will figure out how to streamline all farmscraping operations to the best of their abilities and persist in improving every way to run the farms and therefore cut the costs. Refinements will keep being made and remade until it is cheaper to grow crops in a vertical farm for the land area it grows on, than it would be to grow crops in traditional farms.

As some concept art shows, some farmscrapers would come equipped with wind turbines and solar panels to leave even less of a carbon footprint. Coupled with already energy-efficient utilities and practices, these power sources would make an indelible mark on the environmental sector and be a template of even greater sustainable innovations yet to come.

          To draw out some conclusions, necessity is the mother of invention. Overpopulation and shrinking urban land is like two trains on the same track, on a collision course. Many agriculturalists have been innovating countless methods to make traditional methods of farming more efficient, but that trend could eventually hit a wall that will only be surmounted by the popularizing of the vertical farms and their movement. For a long time, I have not wanted to work in agriculture but the vertical farm represents a massive paradigm shift in that sector that utilizes far more cutting-edge technology in a more efficient space, which has therefore caused me second thoughts about how my feelings for that sector. After vertical farming gains considerable momentum and starts replacing traditional farms with their open systems, there sure will be a reversal of damaging environmental trends. This would be thanks to the new measures of self-containment that ensures that pollution will not leave the system and contaminate the wider ecosystem. Kansas is largely an agricultural state, so it would be a matter of time before the first farmscraper shows up in Kansas possibly as a “demonstration farmscraper” to show farmers all across the state how much of a better endeavor it is to farm on more than one level. In this way, more farmers could be persuaded to join this bandwagon of the agricultural future. I would hope to be the first people to step inside such a structure, and sample the food made there to compare the taste, quality and nutrition to those of traditionally grown methods. There is no turning back the vertical farming movement, nor is there a good reason to attempt such, given the sociological, ecological and humanitarian issues in the world today.


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