Vertical farming or high-rise farming is a proposed indoor, urban farming technology involving large-scale agricultural production in multi-story buildings. It is an intensive farming strategy which mainly employs advanced techniques such as hydroponics and aeroponics to produce crops like fruits, vegetables and edible mushrooms continuously. It also includes the raising of livestock and fishes indoor.
Imagine a large farmland today being used for the production of various food commodities applying crop-livestock-fish integrated farming and under an intensive system of management. Farming operations are mechanized with implements available from land preparation to harvesting. Irrigation water is supplied, using state-of-the-art technologies.
Both labor and capital are available, and everyone is paid handsomely so that work output is efficient. Men and women possessing the highest educational credentials with long records of field experiences are there to ensure that the right inputs are provided. Whatsoever is needed is there.
Will such a large infusion of capital, coupled with appropriate technology, cause a significant increase in food production both on a per unit area and total area? Expectedly yes, notwithstanding the high cost of production.
With high-rise farming, a relatively large area of land will be converted into a facility on which a multi-story building will be constructed. It will be located in the urban center. Important food crops will be grown in this building on soil-less media, employing mainly the techniques in hydroponics.
In 2001, Dickson Despommier, who was responsible for conceptualizing vertical farming, and his students introduced the first design of a vertical farm. It consisted of a building 30 storeys high, occupying an area about the size of a Manhattan block. A city block of Manhattan, NY, USA, has dimensions of about 80 m x 270 m (Wikipedia, October 30, 2010) or an equivalent area of 21,600 sq. meters or 2.16 hectares.
Accordingly, the design was capable of producing sufficient food for 50,000 people, or a mere requirement of about 0.43 sq. meters (21,600 sq m/50,000) of horizontal land for one human. Multiplied by 30, this is equivalent to 12.9 sq meters of indoor floor area for every mouth to feed. The plan involved the growing of about 100 different fruit and vegetable crops on the upper stories while the lower floors are intended for the production of chicken and fish with plant wastes as feed.
On May 19, 2009, Dickson Despommier was interviewed by Miller-McCune.com. His statements on how VA would work are summarized briefly here:
1. The farming operations will be fully automated. Monitoring systems will be installed in each floor of the building to detect plants’ need for water, nutrients and other requirements for optimal growth and development. Likewise there will be detectors to signal the presence of pathogens. A gas chromatograph will analyze the levels of flavenoids, giving reliable information on the right time to harvest. The specific technologies are nothing new, it’s just a matter of applying them.
2. VA will end the reliance on soil for the conventional production of food crops. It can be done anywhere, even in the middle of a desert or in Iceland.
Reitano, et al. (2006) also suggested that a vertical farm can be built at sea in the form of a ship. The ship can be based twelve miles from the seashore in the tropics where there is calm weather.
In 2006, Dickson Despommier wrote to Trunity (The Encyclopedia of Earth) that he and his students had been exploring, for the past 9 years, the feasibility of indoor crop production in multistory buildings within the urban center. This indicates that the concept of vertical farming was born in or about 1997.
But high-rise farming did not just appear spontaneously. It started with the medical ecology class under Despommier at the Colombia University’s School of Public Health in New York, USA. He challenged his graduate students to feed the entire population of about 2 million of Manhattan on a daily diet of 2,000 calories using 13 acres (5,261,000 sq m or 5.261 ha) of rooftop gardens. But the students' calculation showed that only 2 percent (about 40,000 individuals) could be sustained.
This means that the capacity of rooftop gardens to supply food is 131 sq m for every human. This seems high enough, but Despommier was not satisfied. Without so much thought, he suggested the indoor production of crops, vertically. The idea took hold and sparked the imagination and resourcefulness of the students. The concept of vertical farming was born.
Since then many scientists, architects, and other supporters around the world have been working intensely to perfect the technology. Architectural plans have been developed. The proposal has sparked interest for adoption in countries other than the US such as South Korea, United Arab Emirates, China, France, and India.
However, just like any technology that has not been tested, there are many contrasting views against its full implementation.
Food production through indoor farming is a well promoted strategy. With vertical farming, however, this technology will be applied more intensely to cope up with the projected increase in the need for food due to the addition of billions of population in the years to come.
Hydroponics, the basic technology to be applied, is the production of crops in soil-less nutrient solutions. This technology is likewise not new. Thousands of acres have been used worldwide in putting up structures for crop production through hydroponics, using multi-layered vertical racks. It is widely used in producing tomato.
As to the stability and safety of a large skyscraper that will be constructed for vertical farming and capable of carrying a heavy load, the expertise of modern architects and structural engineers can be depended upon.
Around 600 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar started building a man-made mountain with exotic plants. It was later to be called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of Philon’s Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They were not really hanging gardens, but gardens on balconies or terraces. The "mountain" consisted of a square building 400 feet high (80-300 feet in Encarta Encyclopedia, 2009), containing five terraces supported by arches climbing upward, each thickly planted with grasses, flowers, and fruit trees, supplied with irrigation water from below pumped by slaves and oxen (Wallechinsky, et al. 1977).
While hydroponics was not employed, the Hanging Gardens shows that crops can be grown in high-rise buildings, even at a time when the science of engineering was in its infancy.
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