Could vertical farms turn our world upside down?

4 mins
13 Jan 2023
Could vertical farms turn our world upside down?

Like a skyscraper, but good and green.

image Team Woo

words Rhys Thomas

In part, skyscrapers came about because some people were wondering just how do we fit way more offices into a tiny piece of land. Do we zap humans and make them tiny and then build tiny offices? Maybe, it was a possibility, but doing so would have been very difficult. We don’t have a Honey, I Shrunk Up The Kids style laser that zaps humans into smaller humans...yet. Fortunately, someone came up with the clever idea of: why don’t we just make really tall buildings. That way, we can have stacks and stacks of offices and houses accommodating people, but without taking up much ground space.

This happened, and now we often look up and go ‘ooo’ or clamber up look down and out across a city from places like sushisamba in London, and go ‘ahh’. Of course, some people would disagree with the idea of a skyscraper – it blocks the sun, it obstructs views, it’s grey. Sometimes it causes microclimates and even burns actual cars. But what if it was green?

Vertical farming is pretty much the same general idea as a skyscraper, except it’s about creating levels of agriculture.

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What’s so special about vertical farming, then?

Well it means we can grow way more produce within a confined space. The Mayans sort of did it thousands of years ago, that’s what all those steps are. They were to test altitude and angles of the sun that helps crops grow best, but they are also rows stacked almost upon each other, generally making more space for produce.

Literally stacking them above each other is just the next step (ha), taking the angle from 45 degrees to a full 180. As well as the vertical aspect, often vertical farming incorporates modern techniques that more or less guarantee the crops grow well, such as AI monitoring, indoor farms with computer-controlled conditions and so on. If you’ve ever heard words like hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic, they are part of and emerged from ideas of vertical farming, too.

How will this save the world?

The scale of just how much more food we can grow in a fixed space is kind of staggering. Plenty, an indoor urban farm, uses vertical farming and its bosses have said that for every kilo of produce a normal farm yields, they can get 350. Yes, three hundred and fifty! And often, in conditions that mean it’s difficult to get a bad crop (as they’re an indoor farm, weather doesn’t really play part in the equation). This is also an example of how we can grow more produce in cities, meaning we can lower our carbon footprint.

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Who came up with this?

A person called Dickson Despommier, he’s an emeritus professor of microbiology and public health at Columbia University. And he’s pretty much the person credited with pioneering modern vertical farming. He, with help from his students, came up with a skyscraper farm that's capable of feeding 50,000 people. At the time - the development took from 1999-2009 - it was purely theoretical, but it showed the idea could be done, and what the benefits of it would be. Enough to make other people go: woah, let’s do it!

Vertical farms are still quite expensive to implement due to electricity costs. And using a load of electricity is bad for the planet, yes. But there are solutions for this – if we can power the farms with clean energy, the benefits far outweigh the cost of producing the farms. We also still need skilled agriculturalists to tend to the crops, so jobs will be saved, if not increased.

How can I get involved?

Buy food. Produce from Plenty as an example, can be found online and at Whole Foods. That aside, as with many ways to save the world, sharing is caring. Also you could look to reduce carbon footprint with food by growing your own, whether it’s hydroponic or not.

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