The Future of Agriculture is Indoors

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Traditional Farming practices are being put to rest by beginning advances in agricultural technology. Vertical farming is the practice of growing produce in vertically stacked layers. This innovative system can use soil, hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. Vertical farms make an effort to produce food in challenging environments where arable land is rare or even unavailable. Indoor vertical farming is revolutionizing the way we produce food.
Through the use of vertically stacked rows of crops, UV light fixtures, recyclable nutrient water, and filtered air, fresh produce can be manufactured locally. These systems can utilize varying techniques of farming such as hydroponics, where plants can be grown in a nutrient-rich basin of water, aeroponics which allow crops’ roots to be periodically sprayed with a mist containing water and fertilizer, as well as aquaponics, which involves breeding fish to aid in the cultivation of bacteria used for plant nutrients (Kalantari, et al., 2018). There are a number of implications that will disrupt the process of traditional farming in the near future due to climate change. Thus, it is imperative for traditional agricultural practices to evolve toward a future of indoor production due to impending population growth, food quality, the quantity of available food, and the overall preservation of the earth.

According to Stuart Oda’s TED Talk titled, “Are Indoor Vertical Farms the Future of Agriculture?”, he entertains the idea of a predicted population increase to about 9.8 billion people with roughly 68 percent living in urban areas. In just another 40 years, there will be another 2.6–3 billion people to feed (Despommier, 2011, 235). That being said, humans will need to produce approximately 70 percent more than the current output of food production. Oda states, “Just to put this number into perspective, we will need to grow more food in the next 35 to 40 years than the previous 10 thousand years combined” (TED, 2020). The population will not only grow in numbers, but grow increasingly dense and compact; thus there will need to be greater numbers in food growth by somehow utilizing less land and resources.
In addition to the communities who already endure food insecurity, with the impending population increase, there will be a much larger risk. The Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) suggests that food security only exists “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (Besthorn, 2013). By the year 2050, a large portion of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. With this urban migration, there will be ever-increasing demands for housing, sanitation and medical services, employment, and means of transportation. Vertical and indoor farming facilities can potentially alleviate chronic unemployment issues faced in many urban environments. Aside from the fact that there will be job openings within the vertical farm infrastructure, “additional ancillary job opportunities would result from the incorporation of the farm into the life of the community” (Besthorn, 2013). Firstly, the actual farm component will need workers to construct and maintain its structure. A vertical farm institution can also have the ability to include a connection of grocery stores, organic markets and restaurants, and local distribution and transportation networks that would allow for other food service related job positions.

By growing food in and around these urban neighborhoods, from a psychosocial perspective, consumers would find it comforting and be confident with the knowledge of where their food is coming from. There is a certain assurance in the fact that their food is grown locally. Additionally, because there is a significantly lower cost in transportation, the food will be available at dramatically less of a price and have less of a chance to spoil. In turn, lowered costs and better access to a healthy diet, community residents will have increased their overall health and and lower their risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Further, local schools would be able to afford to offer healthier lunch options for students, (Besthorn, 2013) which proves that the overarching quality and quantity of overall production will be superior to what traditional farms have output currently.

Due to the fact indoor farming allows the ability to control farming conditions, there will be a greater output in fresh produce that is not only abundant in quantity, but it will also prove to sustain better quality. There are a few companies who have begun the transformation from traditional to indoor farming today. A company called Urban Crops explained in a BBC article that there is no risk of contamination. The area where their facility is held is completely sealed off. Chief executive of the firm, Maarten Vandecruys, revealed that “each species of crop has a growing plan tailored to its needs, determining its nutrient uptake and light” (Baraniuk, 2017), as well as the fact that plants grow at a faster rate than any outdoor farm. Urban Crops went on to tell BBC that vertical farming “yields more crops per square metre than traditional farming or greenhouses do” (Baraniuk, 2017).Vertical farming systems can be used all year round, rather than being restricted to certain seasons. In theory, these types of infrastructures can be built virtually anywhere.

Vandecruys went on to explain that it is more cost-effective for his company to stick to the quickest yielding crops that have a high market value. This comprises mostly herbs and baby greens for salads which “fetch a lot more per kilogram than certain root vegetables, which are more likely to be grown outdoors the old-fashioned way for some time yet (Baraniuk, 2017). This practice and methodology ultimately allows for total control over all aspects of growing. The LED lights, for example, that Urban Crops use can be turned up or down at will. Urban Crops has opted for a hydroponics system and Vandecruys pointed out that the company recycles water multiple times after it has evaporated from the plant and recaptured from the humidity in the surrounding air. UltraViolet (UV) light systems are additionally utilized to limit the spread of any disease, which is the most important factor in agriculture. Over the last 5 years in the United States alone, food recalls have been implemented due to bacterial infectious diseases that have resulted in billions of dollars lost in income. “In traditional farming, a plethora of plant pathogens (e.g., rice blast, wheat rust) and insect pests (e.g., locusts) account for staggering losses of crops worldwide” (Despommier, 2011, 233). Soil erosion due to floods and droughts, as well as the effects of deforestation (forests that are being sacrificed for farmland — the consequence being that the carbon cycle is out of balance) will shape the image of what the next 50 years will look like as the planet suffers from climate change.

With failing food production comes a failing Earth. Lester Brown, former president of the Earth Policy Institute, noted that “due to land degradation, failing crop yields, climatic volatility, and food prices indices having reached historical highs, the world had reached the precarious position in the first decade of the 21st century of being one poor harvest away from worldwide chaos” (Besthorn, 2013). Over the next 50 years, rapid climate change issues will play a major role in traditional agriculture. It is estimated for every 1 degree fahrenheit of increased atmospheric temperature, 10 percent of the land where there is food currently harvested, will be lost. “Modern fossil fuel dependent and agrochemical reliant farming practices contribute to soil depletion and erosion, water contamination and runoff, ecological dead zones, increased greenhouse gases, and global warming” (Besthorn, 2013). Farming is considered so imperative to society that it uses the majority of available freshwater, despite the fact that drinking water is already a scarce supply for many agrarian areas. Most counties are able to manage the water but less developed countries have a difficult time when it comes to fertilizers. Thus, they rely on feces as a means for nutrients as it’s readily available. Yet, there is an extreme price to pay for this practice as there is a risk for the transmission of parasites. This lack of sanitation is the culprit when it comes to underdeveloped regions. “Geo-helminths (hookworm, Ascaris, and whipworm), the latter two whose eggs can survive years in soil under the right conditions, cause diarrheal diseases, induce permanent learning deficit in heavily infected children, and keep them out of school” (Despommier, 2011, 235). The end result unfortunately being an illiterate, poverty-stricken society unable to work effectively or efficiently.

Because less of the Earth’s resources are utilized while farming indoors, this practice leaves room for alternate uses of land and the preservation of permeable/arable soil to sustain a healthy ecosystem. Converting roof tops into gardens, planting and harvesting crops in empty lots, and other sustainable abandoned city plots can become the new norm for rising cityscapes.

Many individuals today may continue to support the idea that traditional farming methods have been in place for thousands of years, proving to be a successful method of food growth. Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University is a skeptic of indoor farming. He claims that “vertical farms depend on constant supplies of electricity, much of which will come from fossil fuel sources” (Baraniuk, 2017).

Indoor vertical farms in fact do quite the opposite. They use less fossil fuels given all the equipment used in the cultivation of produce runs on electric or even solar energy. The issue is present in traditional farming where fossil fuels are a necessity for the equipment used in the seeding, cultivation, and harvesting of produce. “In america alone 20% of these types of fuels are consumed in farming” (Kalantari, et al., 2017, 46). Unlike traditional farms, indoor vertical farms have the added benefit of utilizing sustainable solar energy as a means to not only consume less energy, but to reduce the amount of pollution within the environment.

Some may argue that indoor agriculture requires meticulous care and monitorization which will need highly educated individuals to learn the new science behind this practice; potentially taking jobs from traditional farmers.

During the transition to indoor agriculture, traditional farmers will be needed for their expertise in the field. They are knowledgeable in terms of what each plant specifically needs in a “perfect” environment. As stated previously, agriculture will be a growing career field because of the newfound efficiency, as production will increase on an exponential scale. There is also ample opportunity for the education of all people. The existence of vertical farms in a society provides a good platform for educating people on nutrition and health. Today, the foods received and consumed come from fields outside of the city, causing there to be little known about how they are produced, transported, and finally arrive on the table. “If the food we consume is produced in the cities as realized by VF [vertical farming], it will provide opportunities for educating people on all the procedures involved (Kalantari, et al., 2017, 52).

Overall, creating an urban environment where human populations produce most of their food and recycle all freshwater poses no technological difficulties, given the available technologies to provide solutions that are at our disposal. With the right kind of economic incentives and enough social pressure, the overarching idea of an eco-city with urban, vertical, and indoor farming facilities, is a viable system that is not so far in the future.

References:
Baraniuk, C. (2017, April 6). How Vertical Farming Reinvents Agriculture. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170405-how-vertical-farming-reinvents-agriculture
Besthorn, F. H. (2013). Vertical Farming: Social Work and Sustainable Urban Agriculture in an Age of Global Food Crises. Australian Social Work, 66(2). Doi: 10.1080/0312407x.2012.716448 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0312407X.2012.716448
Despommier, D. (2011, June). The Vertical Farm: Controlled Environment Agriculture Carried Out in Tall Buildings Would Create Greater Food Safety and Security for Large Urban Populations. Journal of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, 6, 233–236. doi: 10.1007/s00003–010–0654–3 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226426887_The_vertical_farm_Controlled_environment_agriculture_carried_out_in_tall_buildings_would_create_greater_food_safety_and_security_for_large_urban_populations
Kalantari, F., Tahir, O., Joni, R., & Fatemi, E. (2018). Opportunities and Challenges in Sustainability of Vertical Farming: A Review. Journal of Landscape Ecology, 11(1), 35–60. doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/jlecol-2017-0016
Kalantari, F., Tahir, O. M., Lahijani, A. M., & Kalantari, S. (2017). A Review of Vertical Farming Technology: A Guide for Implementation of Building Integrated Agriculture in Cities. Advanced Engineering Forum, 24, 76–91. doi: 10.4028/www.scientific.net/AEF.24.76
TED. (2020, February 7). Are Indoor Vertical Farms the Future of Agriculture? | Stuart Oda [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9jXW9r1xr8

University of Delaware ’21 English Major and Environmental Humanities minor.

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