By Daniel Oropeza
With the world’s population estimated to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, is vertical farming a viable option for feeding our rapidly growing cities while keeping us from committing climate suicide?
City life is in demand. According to the United Nations, 3 million people all over the world are moving to cities every week, and this number is expected to keep increasing. The UN predicts that, in 15 to 30 years, two-thirds of the world will be living in cities.
The U.S. is no different — we love our cities too. Today, 82% of Americans live in medium or large-sized cities, and this percentage is expected to spike in the future as well. Where we get our food to feed these growing cities will play a major role in whether we achieve our climate goals under the Paris Agreement or not.
According to experts, up to 23% of our global greenhouse gases can be traced back to agriculture and land use. That’s almost a fourth of our total greenhouse gas emissions. But that only accounts for production: food then needs to be transported to the big cities, and in many cases, that means taking big diesel-emitting 18-wheelers across the country, or exporting food out of the country altogether.
California’s agriculture industry is huge. We have 77,500 farms producing more than 400 different commodities, and we produce two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts. We export one-fourth of our total food production to other countries. And all this comes at a carbon price we might not be able to afford as the food demand for our hungry cities increases.
A simple solution to reduce our food mileage — the distance food travels from production to consumption — is to grow food near our cities. But an even better solution could be to grow food right inside our cities.
Vertical farming is the act of growing food in vertically-stacked layers indoors year-round by controlling light, temperature and water, often without the use of soil. Two of vertical farming’s biggest perks are its climate control mechanisms and potential to make production more efficient.
As climate change gets worse, many places where we’ve been able to grow food for years will start experiencing unprecedented problems. Rain seasons, drought years, flash floods and irregular weather patterns can become less predictable. Habitable areas for insects will change as well, which could introduce pests and disease to new areas. The ability to grow food indoors, and without soil, gets rid of these future uncertainties.
Growing food indoors without concerns about climate or soil means extreme-weather Chicago, congested New York and even dry Las Vegas can become independently sustainable food producers, grow food year-round and feed themselves locally.
Soil-free agriculture will eliminate any use of pesticides and herbicides, which would make consuming food much healthier. It also alleviates the problem of dealing with the declining health of our soil. According to the UN, half of the soil usable for agriculture has been lost in the past 150 years, leaving us with only 60 more years of viable soil.
Vertical farming also brings potential for solving our current and projected water issues in California. By using hydroponic system technology, water is constantly recycled and uses 98% less water per item than traditional farming. Adopting this technology would be greatly beneficial for our future, considering that California’s agricultural sector uses 40% of our water.
Vertical farming also means potential economic profit for farmers. With 3.5 million workers maintaining the fields in the U.S., labor comes at a price. But vertical farming can automate most of its production, meaning that more businesses can afford to jump into the market and bring the cost of food down.
Ecologically, vertical farming can help the land harmed by deforestation and desertification to regenerate and return to its natural state. This would allow many species to retake their natural habitats and help slow the alarming rates of extinction.
While vertical farming has the potential to solve a lot of our current and future problems, it’s still very early in its development, and there are many questions we don’t know the answers to. Will the food grown under LED lights be as nutritious as the food grown under the sun? Is the carbon footprint of substituting the sun’s energy with LED lights sustainable? Where will the energy to run these vertical farms come from?
Vertical farming is not the answer to all of our problems and is not a technology meant to replace conventional farming altogether. But it can allow for our growing cities to take some load off farms and become more self-sufficient.