The Future Farm is Vertical

Vertical Farm

In the area of eleven per cent of our human family is currently suffering as a result of undernourishment, eight hundred twenty one million people or approximately one in nine globally end each day hungry. While the number of hungry alone is staggering, consider the third of our population suffering from malnutrition, more than 2.5 billion world wide. In this day and age, with both our technical abilities and understandings, this is simply unacceptable. 

As confronting as these numbers are the situation will only continue to degrade while we persist with prevailing industrial farming methods. Current agricultural practices are inefficient, impact negatively on habitat, fail to maintain biodiversity and cause ecological harm through chemical use and transportation of harvests to market. We need a new method of food production which reduces the agricultural environmental footprint and produces food in close proximity to where it is needed. Vertical farms do both of these and more.

What is a Vertical Farm

A vertical farm is a structure in which plants can be grown vertically atop one another in a controlled environment. Growing plants in this condensed fashion allows for more plant material per square meter reducing the farms area footprint as set against current industrial methods. 

As an example of the potential land area savings, we can look at agricultural land use in Australia for the 2016/17 financial year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data from June 2018[1] shows there were three hundred seventy two million hectares of agricultural land in the country as of June 2017. Of this thirty one million hectares were used for crops, while three hundred forty million hectares were used for grazing livestock, with the remaining land used for forestry and other agricultural purposes.

Farming

As such, one million thirty story vertical farms, with a one hectare footprint, could completely replace all of the crop land used for the 2016/17 season, while saving twenty nine million hectares of land. That seems a rather large number of buildings, one could imagine entire cities of concrete and glass vertical farms stretching as far as the eye could see. Yet there is more to the story of Australia’s agricultural sector.

Australia exports sixty five per cent of its agricultural production[2], just shy of half of the export is from animal agriculture – 46.7 per cent. This means about 34.6 per cent of Australian food crops are sent to export. If we are to think globally while acting locally, as we should, we can determine the use of vertical farms would mean there would be no need for food export as there is today. 

This reduces our need for the aforementioned one million vertical farms by about three hundred forty six thousand, leaving us with six hundred fifty four thousand vertical farms. Ah, but what about imports you say. Australia farmers produce close to ninety per cent of the food we eat, only ten per cent is imported. Of the food imported a substantial amount is made up of processed goods.[3] So let’s add another five per cent back on to our vertical farm needs to account for these imports and say we need a total of six hundred eighty seven thirty story one hectare vertical farms, to meet our national agricultural crop needs. Still too many buildings? Let’s make them fifty five stories high with five stories underground and reduce that number again to three hundred twenty seven thousand buildings. We could also double the footprint of the building, making it the size of two rugby fields side by side, further reducing the number of buildings needed to one hundred sixty three thousand five hundred.

Wow, that still sounds like way too many buildings. With three hundred ninety four cities in Australia that would mean four hundred fifteen vertical farms per city. Where would we put the libraries, schools, hospitals and houses? Maybe we should consider the increased production of a vertical farm. One hectare of a vertical farm can produce between four and six times that of a traditionally farmed hectare. Thus, we can reduce the amount of vertical farms needed to thirty two thousand seven hundred. 

With three thousand eight hundred suburbs and somewhere in the area of twelve thousand towns in Australia we reach a number of vertical farms per town and suburb of about two. Of course some high density suburbs may have more while small towns may have less, but we are now down to a very manageable number of vertical farms nationally.

Next we can take into consideration the growing cycle in a controlled environment, unlike the traditional industrial farm which is restricted to growing seasons the vertical farm can produce fruit, vegetables and fibers year round. With agriculture having two main growing seasons, summer and winter crops, growing year round in a vertical farm again allows us to reduce the number of vertical farms. We could cut back to the one hectare vertical farm and keep two per suburb/town on average or keep the two hectare footprint and reduce the average number of farms per town/suburb to one. 

We can already see through the use of this technology Australia alone would be able to conserve tens of millions of hectares of land, being exceptionally beneficial to biodiversity. Yet, there are still further advantages found with this growing medium. 

Vertical farms also do away with the need for chemicals to protect crops from disease and pests and use close to ninety five per cent less water than open field farming, an exceptional benefit for waterways like the Murray Darling Basin which our governments seem absolutely hopeless at managing.

Further enhancements are brought to light when we consider natural weather variability. Vertical farms are not as heavily impacted by drought, flooding, hail, cyclones, frosts or extreme heat events. A big plus as our global climate crisis deepens. There are also vast reductions in transport, with vertical farms being constructed locally there is little need to transport food cross country to market, in fact, why not put the market in the farm and sell the produce direct to the public making it a community food hub?

Then we can consider implementing aquaculture into the vertical farm, using plant waste to feed aquatic animals and in return using their waste to feed the plants. This allows the farm to provide some fish and seafood species taking further strain off the natural environment. 

Finally we have what could possibly be the greatest availment of a vertical farm, the ability to monitor and adjust atmospheric carbon levels inside the building. While it is well understood plants rely on carbon to grow what is not satisfactorily understood is the impact of too much atmospheric carbon on plant nutrition. In short, it has been found that increased levels of atmospheric carbon impair a plants ability to uptake nitrogen, irrespective of the use of fertilisers, which result in decreased protein levels.[4] While we certainly have carbon sequestering technology it will be easier by orders of magnitude to alter CO2 levels inside a climate controlled building rather than trying to remove the correct amount from the planets entire atmosphere.

So far the advantages of vertical farming all look pretty good, there must be a downside, nothing can be all roses and sunshine you may be thinking. You would be right, there are two downsides to this high tech farming method, one being energy consumption the other employment impacts.

Energy Needs

Controlling the environment, pumping water and using lights to grow plants all have energy costs, and they are not small costs to be sure. However we need to be fair in our assessment of the energy costs of vertical farms. It is not enough to simply look at the ongoing costs of the vertical farm without exhibiting some intellectual honesty and assessing the energy savings as well. 

It is important to understand we are not talking directly about the use of electricity in this case, rather the CO2 emissions costs. We need to acknowledge the savings of energy with respect to the nullification of the need for pesticides and herbicides, these products are not produced, shipped or applied energy free. There are also vast reductions in transport and use of heavy farming machinery. More importantly to the vertical farm we have renewable energy options to generate electricity without continually producing CO2.

When most people think about renewables they initially think wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric. With good reason, these are all widely talked about options, however, they do not represent all our renewable options. We don’t have to plaster the country with solar panels and wind turbines to generate renewable energy.

Our basket of options also include geothermal, which can be done basically anywhere so long as you drill deep enough into the earth, wave, tidal and ocean current energy generation. We may be talking about vast fundamental infrastructure changes, but that is where we are.

Unemployment

Vertical farms could have a wide reaching impact on employment, their implementation having deep and lasting impacts across various sectors of any national economy. For a start they decimate the fertiliser and pesticides industry, then have a significant impact on the transport sector and almost completely wipe out the entire fresh fruit and vegetable markets – including farmers markets where fruit and veg are sourced by supermarkets and finally the direct impacts on farmers themselves who own millions of dollars worth of land and specialised plant.  

Using employment statistics available through the Parliament of Australia[5] we can estimate, at the extreme low end, vertical farms would lead to no less than the loss of 100,000 jobs nationwide. To be fair, that is an extremely conservative estimate based on little more than job reductions to a third of the agriculture sector.

Conclusion

The question we need to ask ourselves is: if we have a technical solution to malnutrition and food security does it make sense to let our system of economics prevent it from being put in place? At what stage should we decide that it is time to alter our economy to come into line with our technical abilities and understandings?

Our system of economics, which is fundamentally driving the climate emergency, is massaging human behaviour encouraging total and complete overconsumption which is distinctly unsustainable. When a system is this detrimental to the survival of our entire species questioning its validity should be a straightforward outcome. Defending the arrangement as immutable for little more than reasons of intellectual comfort is comprehensively insane. 

The climate crisis is getting out of hand, if we don’t choose to make far reaching changes we are essentially saying we are ready to condemn future generations to either having to do it themselves (rather more quickly), or simply suffer the impacts of an altered climate. The latter expectantly leading to near-term human extinction. Not much of an option really.

References

[1] Abs.gov.au. (2019). 4627.0 – Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2016-17. [Accessed 24/07/19]

[2] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (2019). Agriculture and food trade. [Accessed 24/07/19]

[3] Agriculture.gov.au. (2019). Food. [Accessed 24/07/19]

[4] Feng, Z., Rütting, T., Pleijel, H., Wallin, G., Reich, P., Kammann, C., Newton, P., Kobayashi, K., Luo, Y. and Uddling, J. (2015). Constraints to nitrogen acquisition of terrestrial plants under elevated CO2. Global Change Biology, [online] 21(8), pp.3152-3168. [Accessed Jun. 2019].

[5] Aph.gov.au. (2019). Employment-by-industry-2019 – Parliament of Australia. [Accessed 25/07/19]

Feature Image

Tomatoes grown on rockwool by Goldlocki  Creative Commons – Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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About Sean

Sean views society as changeable, and seeks to investigate, challenge and bring into question our current social system of organisation, treating nothing as taboo or unchangeable.

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