As our world population continues to grow at an accelerated pace, with 70% of humans expected to live within urban centres by 2050, concerns pertaining to land use and food production have taken on a greater importance than ever before. Recently, a long-looming idea has been more brought to the forefront of the discussion: the concept of vertical farming as a form of crop production in urban centres, for which the development of new technology in recent years has allowed prototypes to reach the brink of reality.
Logistically, vertical farming would provide an immense array of immediate benefits: reduced carbon footprint due to reduced transportation costs, the availability of fresher produce grown locally, the prospect of growing crops in remote areas such as deserts, reduced pesticide use due to controlled and monitored environments and the prospect of higher yields under optimal conditions. The proposed idea, however, does not come without complex engineering challenges. For one, a structure that rises vertically will impede itself by blocking necessary sunlight to the lower levels of the structure. In order to address this issue, researchers have employed the use of parabolic mirrors to reflect sunlight towards medial and low-lying areas of the structure. Conversely, prototypes have been suggested that are made entirely of glass, or that carry light through fibre optics to light-deprived areas.
In fact, the use of sunlight may even be overlooked completely when we consider areas of the world rich in geothermal energy such as New Zealand. In areas such as these, it may be possible to build ‘basement farms’, driven by growing lamps running on geothermal energy. Adding to the sustainability of the system, parts of crops that are not eaten may be recycled for use as biofuels. By engineering a controlled farming environment, creators hope to eliminate many of the inefficiencies of conventional farming, especially water waste and the use of expensive and harmful pesticides by essentially eliminating the need for fertilizers, and growing crops hydroponically (where roots are suspended in water mixed with high concentrations of essential minerals and compounds).
Regardless of the wide array of pictures the many prototypes for this idea paint, many scientists and architects alike agree that such an idea is not only feasible, but necessary—and investors are starting to take notice. Chances are, however, that we are much more likely to see rooftop ‘farms’ on the urban landscapes of supermarkets (capable of growing their own annual produce demand on site), rather than entire skyscrapers in the very near futures, as the process involves much planning and experimentation before it can be implemented on a larger scale. It appears, though, that one thing is for certain: our crops in the sky are here to stay, thereby bringing our childhood Jack and the Beanstalk fantasy just one little step closer to reality.