“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
– William Jennings Bryan
It would be no exaggeration to say that while there are a number of key pillars upon which the progress of our species has been achieved, agriculture is undoubtedly foremost amongst them. Where once our species roamed the lands, hunting and foraging for food, the invention and utilisation of farming techniques 12,000 years ago acted as the enabler of the magnificent civilisations that have come and gone since, and the many marvels that we take for granted today.
The practice of cultivating soil for the growing of crops completely changed our relationship with the Earth. No longer was it necessary for humans to live subsistence lifestyles, dedicated entirely to finding food for ourselves and our offspring – instead, with farm-sourced food in abundance, humans were able to devote their energies to other pursuits. Populations rose drastically, and small tribal settlements evolved into villages, towns, and cities – far larger, denser communities, in other words, than foraging could ever have hoped to support. Art flourished, and we began to put our minds to exploring, manipulating and understanding the world around us.
Fast forward to today, and the impact of thousands of years of agricultural development is clear to see. Our civilisations have advanced to the extent that we are able to harness the world’s resources to our advantage in ways that are difficult to comprehend. Yet, as William Jennings Bryan quite correctly pointed out, our industrialised, digitised world would quickly turn to nothing without a plentiful supply of affordable food. Therefore, of all the challenges that face mankind today, the business of ensuring a sufficient, affordable supply of food is amongst the most pressing.
Herein lies the problem: since the turn of the millennium, a tipping point has been reached, and the growth in demand for food is rising considerably faster than supply-side growth. Of what little increase we have seen in global food production over recent years, 80% of this minor increase comes from efforts to enhance the productivity of existing farmland. It is clear that with the best, most productive arable land already in use, suitable farmland is becoming hard to come by. With the global population projected to continue growing rapidly, and the increasing environmental toll of intensive traditional farming methods, a third ‘green revolution’ is needed. That revolution, it appears, could well come in the form of vertical farming.
Vertical farming is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as you’d find in the vertical farming skyscrapers being designed in Singapore, or even in an old warehouse like those being used by Aerofarm in New York. This indoor agriculture is no longer a science fiction-esque concept, but a viable working reality, and certainly, its proven results are as impressive as the futuristic settings in which they are based. Unlike traditional agricultural farming methods, there is no need for acres of land and soil, or even natural sunlight. In fact, vertical farming facilities are rarely, if ever exposed to the open air!
Instead, these facilities use more modern indoor methods that incorporate controlled-environment agriculture technology, allowing for the control of all environmental factors. Artificial light can be utilised and carefully controlled, as can humidity, temperature, and fertigation – the process of injecting fertilisers and water-soluble products into irrigation systems – in order to optimise farming output. In some respects, vertical farming techniques differ little to those used in regulating a greenhouse.
While such a method of food production may seem almost alien to most of us, there is little denying that the benefits of vertical farming are quite astounding. Traditional farms in Europe and North America can only produce food within very specific windows of time, but this isn’t the case with indoor vertical farming methods which allow for all-year-round crop production. With such a capacity for constant harvest, research has shown that crop output can be multiplied anywhere from four-fold to even thirty-fold, depending on the crop. Then there are the benefits that come from crops not needing to be transported vast distances around the world to reach their marketplace destinations.
While this technology is in its infancy now, this new model of growing food could avert the coming food supply crisis that faces our children and grandchildren. Vertical farming is the future, and will have a transformative effect on the world we live in. Viva la farming revolución!