Vertical Farming Could Break Cycle of Sustainability Threats

High times: Vertical farming is on the rise — but can it save the planet?

Salon, September 25, 2016

Farming as we know it is failing. Mom-and-pop operations are struggling to survive and Big Ag cares far more about its bottom line than about your health, or the health of the planet. Ecologists, anti-GMO activists, even sticker-shocked soccer moms in the produce aisle agree: It’s time for a revolution. Now, some experts are saying, this revolution may come via vertical farming, in which produce is grown indoors, in stacked layers. After years of technological trial and error, the practice is primed for blastoff.

 The basic idea is not new. For centuries, indigenous people in South America pioneered layered farming techniques, and the term “vertical farming” was coined by geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915. But the need for its large-scale implementation has never been greater. Under our current system, U.S. retail food prices are rising faster than inflation rates, and the number of “food insecure” people in the country — those without reliable access to affordable, nutritious options — is greater than it was before the era of agricultural industrialization began in the 1960s. And we’re only looking at more mouths to feed; according to the UN, the world’s population will skyrocket to 9.7 billion by 2050, an increase of more than 2.5 billion people.

Additionally, climate change is threatening the sustainability of our current food production system. Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields, while creating ideal conditions for weeds, pests and fungi to thrive. More frequent floods and droughts are expected, and decreases in the water supply will result in estimated losses of $1,700 an acre in California alone. Because the agricultural industry is responsible for one-third of climate-changing carbon emissions, at least until Tesla reimagines the tractor, we’re trapped in a vicious cycle.

So how do we break out?

Vertical farming operations are sprouting in the U.S. and around the globe. Earlier this year, the $39 million AeroFarms, comprising 12 layers spread over 3.5 acres, opened in an old steel mill in Newark, New Jersey. Production yields the equivalent of 13,000 acres of farmland in the region. It also utilizes 95 percent less water than traditional vegetable farms since the H2O is recirculated.

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Image credit: Lufa Farms