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April 29, 2013

Vertical Farming – Farmscrapers

It’s no secret the world’s population is growing rapidly. In the last 50 years we’ve gone from 3 billion to 7 billion people, which of course puts a strain on our resources, namely food. Common sense would tell you such exponential growth also means less land to inhabit. Although before you get too worried, sit tight, as Dr Dickson Despommier from New York’s Columbia University says he has a solution – vertical farming.

Unlike vertical gardens, vertical farming is more of a green skyscraper than a tall garden. Think of stories of green plants stacked on top of each other, supplying a tower of edibles to a hungry population within local proximity (thereby eliminating the need for food transport). Well that’s the idea anyway.

Vertical farmingAccording to Despommier’s vision, a 30-storey city building, equipped with artificial lighting and advanced hydroponic and aeroponic growing equipment, could feed tens of thousands of the city’s population. There could even be a few of these, placed strategically to reduce carbon emissions and costs associated with food transport.

“Each floor will have its own watering and nutrient monitoring systems”, says Despommier. He adds the health status of each and every plant could be tracked by sensors, which would help managers keep disease and fertiliser usage at bay, all while increasing yield. Despommier adds, “a gas chromatograph will tell us when to pick the plant by analyzing which flavenoids the produce contains”.

Despommier says that “horizontal farming” is failing, and that vertical farming is the key to sustaining our burgeoning population. Furthermore, he argues vertical farming would not only save space, but would yield just as much as their horizontal counterparts which cover five times the amount of land. Despommier even argues the land saved could return to its natural, forested state to combat global warming.

What then, are the down sides to vertical farming? Critics attest a vertical farm would need vast amounts of electricity to power the lights and machinery needed to run it. Bruce Bugbee, Utah State University crop physiologist, says the power demands of a vertical farm exceed that of a typical office building (of equivalent size) by 100 times. However, advocates of the idea believe the farms could run off renewable energy.

Well, it appears that time is nigh – as of April 2013, a 26-storey vertical farm entitled the EDITT Tower (Ecological Design In The Tropics) is being built in Singapore. Funded by the National University, the tower is slated to have over half its surface covered by organic local vegetation. Importantly, around 40% of its power needs are set to run on solar panels, while human waste will be converted to supportive energy via bio-gas.

Vertical farming could well prove a clean method for sustaining global food requirements in the very near future.

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