The concept of farming was originally established just over 10,000 years ago. Since then it has manifested into one of the worlds largest industries. In order to meet the demands of huge population growth and mass consumption trends the agricultural industry has developed un-sustainable and intensive agricultural systems. In addition, large international food companies and corporations such as Monsanto and Nestle have come to dominate the food industry.1 This has led to smaller, independent businesses in the industry with little to no autonomy and a forced obligation to feed an unsustainable and over-demanding global supply chain in order to survive. This intensification which is heavily reliant on harmful pesticides, fertilizers and extensive water resources leads to a loss of cultivated landscapes and natural ecosystems. Furthermore, the extensive space required to grow and farm crops and the increasing demand for energy intensive foods such as meat will only grow larger as our population continues to surge.2 As it stands, population levels are expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. A staggering 80% of will live in urban centres, more commonly known as cities.3
Farming Tomorrow: Urban Farming
The unsustainable nature of current agriculture methods has provoked an urban farming revolution which has been steadily growing for quite some time now. Led by Japan and the US, urban farming or urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around urban areas. Urban farms are most commonly set up on our cities rooftops, where crops such as tomatoes, peas and lettuce can be found growing in abundance out of inventive pots and up twisted vines.
The main advantage of this type of urban farming is its removal of the need for carbon-heavy importation and drastically reduces agricultural land use. By providing fresh produce to local city dwellers urban farming is a way of once again integrating food production with everyday urban life. Moreover, urban farms are often set up in more disadvantaged parts of cities and they can offer an local and economically friendly option for communities who may usually struggle to gain access to high quality fruit and veg. A prime example of this is Lisbon’s Greenway Network Strategy, set up in 2011, which led to the construction of several new allotments across the city. The purpose of these allotments, which were established in more deprived areas, is to serve as a quality food source for immigrants and struggling families.4 As well as, providing cultural services and education opportunities for school children.
As we can see in Lisbon, urban farming has been a popular initiative for city councils and community projects. Yet, the movement has also caught the attention of the private sector which, in the case of an ongoing project led by urban farming company Agripolis, has meant it is able to take on a much larger scale. The french company plans to build the largest urban farm in Europe on a rooftop in south-west Paris, growing over 30 different species of plants and producing approximately 1000kg of fruit and vegetables every day in high season, using entirely organic methods (no pesticides).5
Farming Tomorrow: Vertical Farming
Vertical farming or vertical agriculture is another form of urban farming but goes one step further by actually growing crops inside buildings. According to the Vertical Farming Institute, vertical farming is a sustainable form of agriculture which allows us to mass-produce vegetable products inside buildings, using stack planting methods, hence the name vertical farming. In vertical farms, “every square meter of floor space produces approximately the same amount of vegetable crops as 50 square meters of conventionally worked farmland”. Colombia Professor, Dickson D. Despommier who wrote ‘The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century’, believes these types of farms address several global issues, such as, food supply and water shortages. Due to aeroponic and hydroponic growing methods,vertical farms can run and produce year-round independent of weather conditions and season, whilst also saving between 0-95% water compared to traditional farming methods.6
Vertical farming also offers a biodiversity conservation solution. By moving large amounts of our farming activities indoors it drastically reduces the use of agricultural land, as well as, limiting Co2, and providing the opportunity for natural ecosystems and biodiversity to repair itself. The wonder of nature is in its ability to regenerate and self-heal if only we leave it alone and give it the time to do so.
The futuristic nature of this new form of farming has provoked a great deal of innovation and interest from eco-driven ‘cool’ start-ups, such as the london based company http://growing-underground.com who have developed a system for cultivating herbs and vegetables in abandoned railway tunnels around London.
Yet, whilst there are mainly advantages to vertical farming, there are also several disadvantages.
One key issue with vertical farms is the associated costs. Anti-Global Warming activist George Monbiot, who has been openly skeptical about vertical farming, states that the “light required to grow the 500 grammes of wheat that a loaf of bread contains would cost, £9.82” while “the current farm gate price for half a kilo of wheat is 6p”.7 Henceforth, vertical farming could potentially contribute to a system of centralised power within the food and agricultural sectors where private companies continue to hold a monopoly over the price of bread.
Furthermore, vertical farms use complex technology to function which could present a possible barrier to those from more traditional farming backgrounds who may lack the necessary skills or resources needed to get involved in this new industry.
From an environmental perspective, although vertical farming would reduce deforestation and limit the use of pesticides which are harmful to the environment, it is heavily reliant on energy. This is due to its dependence on artificial LED lighting. Not to mention, the use of complex fossil-fuel run machinery such as, automated cooling and heating systems which are needed to power the vertical farms. According to Ecofriend.com, the power required for a vertical farm can be 100 times more than the amount of light required by people working in office buildings, leading to increased light pollution, as well as, contributing to increased pressure on energy resources. Therefore, whilst the concept of vertical farming may appear attractive on paper, it clearly still has a way to go before it becomes a truly viable sustainable solution.
Although we may not be quite ready for vertical farming to go mainstream, the range of benefits offered by urban farming, from the provision of fresh produce for local communities to cultural ecosystem services, such as recreation and learning, definitely seems like a step in the right direction.