What Can You Do? Grow Up! With Vertical Farming.
The Footprint of Farming
As of right now (early 2022), we’re using 40% of Earth’s land for agriculture. This, plus fishing the oceans empty, is what it takes to feed us, cows, pigs, chickens, other livestock, and cats and dogs as well as to grow the nonfood crops we need for textiles, building materials, biofuel, and cigarettes. Or, at least 40% of the land is what it takes to do it the way we do it now.
40% is a shocking amount. If you want to visualize it, think of Africa, South America, and Europe plus a third of Oceania put together. And this is just for farming. It doesn’t include what we’ve covered up under concrete and tarmacadam for houses, roads, power plants, warehouses, and shops or dug up for mining.
Never mind those additional ecological stressors known as petrochemical pesticides and high concentrations of fertilizer, no wonder we’re driving a mass extinction and a pervasive collapse of ecosystems! Look at all the natural habitat we’ve stolen away from the other residents of Earth.
The Human Lives this Farming Supports
But at the same time, well done human race.
We’re at 7.9 billion simultaneous alive human beings and you can blame that on how good we’ve gotten at producing food for ourselves. Our rocketing from 1.2 billion people in 1850 to the nearly 8 billion of now has been packed into the period when we industrialized agriculture and took over so much of the Earth to do it. Yes, a bummer, but most of us would not be here today if we hadn’t done this.
But now things are getting scary. By the end of this century, we’ll have 11 billion human mouths to feed. That’s 40% more people than now, and if that means we will need to appropriate 40% more land area just to grow food, fodder, fuel, fibers, building material, and tobacco… That would take us to 56% of the land being devoted to agriculture, leaving just 44% for everything else.
Some of that would be wilderness, but only what wasn’t cities, towns, villages, roads, reservoirs, ski resorts, quarries, garbage dumps, or anything else we need that takes up space.
Top tip: hyperventilate now while there are still enough land plants to produce enough oxygen for you to experience the buzz of brief hyperoxia if you do.
One Solution: Vertical Farming
Or maybe don’t panic.
Realize instead that we could decide to solve the problem of how much space agriculture takes up. Solving big problems is actually kind of our brand compared to every other species on Earth, even the other smart ones, like whales and dolphins. Never mind thumbs, we have ideas, resources, and technology and it’s not like this would be the first dire agricultural problem we’ve solved during the last 15,000 years.
So, let’s go for it. How could we produce more food with less land area? How could we manage to eat our cake and have all the wonders of wilderness too?
The answer is tantalizingly obvious. Grow up! As in, let’s farm vertically instead of horizontally. At the same time, let’s change where grow things. Let’s stop wasting all the walls, pillars, and sides of our buildings‒including sidescrapers‒in cities and towns. Let’s appropriate unused buildings as well and use them to feed ourselves, thereby freeing up as much countryside as possible for uses other than agriculture, not least of which would be rewilding.
It will take a revolution. Vertical farming, which calls for AI-overseen hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics stacked high in repurposed warehouses, shopping malls, and parking garages or in greenhouses wrapping around buildings that reach up toward the sky, is pretty high tech. At the same time, it offers us the chance to reimagine cities and how we might organize communities around greenery and food-growing activities.
The Possibilities are Endless
Right now, I’m imagining the apartment complex my aunt lived in when I was a kid.
It was huge. Seven stories high, it took up nearly a city block. It wasn’t solid, but was built around a huge inner courtyard with a swimming pool, a lawn, chairs, tables, and barbecues. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they added an outer shell of greenhouse to both the street and courtyard sides of the building? Filled with gardens, fruit trees, berry bushes, and all sorts of vegetables and grains, they would grow a lot of great things to eat.
But not everything, of course. So the building co-op could sell or trade a portion of what was, perhaps, the city’s best collection of heirloom tomatoes, peaches, pomegranates, and Mexican limes to neighboring co-ops for, say, cash, watermelons, rice, runner beans, stone ground bread, or handmade cheese.
The buildings rec room could be devoted to keeping enough chickens to supply everyone in the building with eggs and even occasionally a chicken to eat. Meanwhile, the swimming pool would used for aquaculture; tilapia perhaps or maybe trout. As an added bonus, it would be easy to visit the wilderness to breathe in the desert in bloom. It would be but a short bus or light rail ride to the city limits away.
Practical Steps to Grow Up
It’s a nice dream, but what can you do? Growing food vertically where most of us live is such a paradigm change and it calls for so much infrastructure, even if it uses currently existing buildings are utilized. It needs a lot of laws to be rewritten, too.
But don’t throw up your arms. All change must start somewhere, even if the first steps are small and done without any guarantee they’ll lead anywhere.
Those of us who live in an apartment with a balcony could start by start growing food on it. That’s the simplest way to start turning the sides of medium to tall buildings into photosynthetic oases. Tomatoes, basil, and peppers grow well in pots, for instance. So does lettuce, if the local climate is right. We could even try it hydroponically on the balcony, on a patio, or even indoors. There are some great tutorials on getting started with hydroponics cheaply and easily here and here.
Those of us who have a yard could start a vegetable garden. It doesn’t necessarily need to be vertical, but we could try (see ideas here and here), getting more out of our space by growing food plants against walls, on trellises, or up bamboo poles. Any food we grow in an urban or suburban environment is food that is not being produced in the countryside that we would like to hand back to nature.
The Future Must Involve Vertical Farming
But all of us should learn at least a little bit about vertical farming, even if we never intend to start our own computer-controlled, vertical hydroponics system for growing cucumbers or anything else up the sunny sides of our dwellings.
It matters that we known we could produce a good chunk of our produce vertically in in-between and abandoned urban spaces. It’s also important to realize that there are people and companies already developing vertical farms in warehouses and portable shipping containers and selling the produce they grow this way in perfectly ordinary grocery stores.
This information matters. Knowing that vertical farming exists frees us to fiercely imagine that it will become the way we grow most of our food in the near future, increasing the chances of that actually happening.
For how can we clamor for turning our cities into lush paradises of fruit, grain, and vegetable plants reaching up into the sky if we don’t realize that this is possible?
How can we think to invest time, effort, and money into building up vertical farming, if we can’t see that this would be a good thing to do?
Almost most importantly, how can we inspire the next generation of students of engineering, agriculture, architecture, urban planning, business, or anything else along those lines, to specialize in an aspect of vertical farming if vertical farming isn’t part of our collective imagining?