During Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’s nebula battle scene, Spock says of Khan’s tactics: “He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.” Kirk, having played numerous 3-D chess matches against Spock, gets the hint and makes like a submarine, diving down then resurfacing behind Khan’s ship for the disabling shot.
A similar argument could be made about humanity’s inability to shift paradigms in regards to agriculture. Slash-and-burn is still claiming forestland in developing countries. Now that the price of renewable energy out-competes coal; the cost of high-intensity low-power LED lights has achieved cost/output parity with incandescents; and Western culture increasingly values farm-to-table freshness, it is time for farming to forego its horizontal spread, step outside the box, and go vertical.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organizations stated in a 2015 report that of the 4.9 billion hectares of land used for agriculture, nearly 75 percent is permanent pasture, unsuitable for intensive food production. The amount of arable land needed to support each person is 2.71 hectares. Multiply that by the 7.5 billion humans inhabiting the planet, and we need 20.35 billion hectares to feed everyone.
Scientific advances such as nitrogen fixing have allowed our population to grow beyond what the land can naturally support. Vertical farming enables non-arable land, such as in urban areas, to produce food.
Vertical farming replaces traditional horizontal substrates, such as raised earthen beds, with stair-stepped pyramids or vertical stacks. The earliest and simplest examples of vertical farming are the terraced agriculture employed in Southeast Asia and the Andes mountains.
Modern techniques take the endless rows of mono-cultured crops, slap them in a tray, and then stack each row inside a climate-controlled structure. Artificial (and redirected) light is used to promote photosynthesis, and hydroponic systems provide water and nutrients.
An early proponent of vertical farming, microbiologist Dickson Despommier, calculated that a network of 200 twenty-story vertical farm buildings, each with a 50'x80' base, located in open areas like industrial parks, could produce enough to feed the nine million people that are projected to inhabit New York City by 2050.
Increasing the available space for food production is not the only advantage to vertical farming. Decentralizing production not only decreases food transportation miles, but is good natural disaster preparation. Distributed networks are much better at surviving unexpected interruptions in the flow of goods and services.
Indoor food production can operate 24/7/365, regardless of the weather. Farms located on floors sandwiched between high-rise condos and offices also double as air filtration and waste treatment centers. Aeroponic systems that spray water and nutrients onto the plants significantly reduce water use.
Traditional agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater and contributes to fertilizer and pesticide runoff.
Most critics of this emerging technology point to the cost of electricity to power the grow lights, hydroponic pumps, and maintain optimum temperature. Another cost consideration is designing and building a multi-story structure for the sole purpose of producing food, especially in high-rent cities like Tokyo or London.
Only people with way too much money bet the farm (pun intended) on a nascent technology by building out in a $30,000 per square foot location. Not when there are underutilized rooftops and abandoned warehouses littering most cities. Worst-case scenarios predict vertical farms producing bread that costs $15 per loaf.
The cost of wind and solar electricity has fallen like a rock in the last five years, as has the per-kilo-lumen cost of LED lighting. Both technologies have achieved parity with their nearest non-green competitors—coal and incandescents. A $5 LED bulb now produces more light per watt and lasts longer than its $5 incandescent counterpart. LED arrays can now provide the full spectrum of light required by various plant types. Solar energy production is cheaper to implement and operate than a traditional coal-fired power plant.
Vertical farms around the world are now in operation thanks mainly to inventor Ed Harwood, owner of Aero Farm Systems. His company manufactures a line of stackable grow towers for the vertical farm industry. The company’s success revolves around Harwood’s patented method of using a custom cloth to secure and suspend the plant. His non-clog mist nozzle was so revolutionary that he refuses to patent it because he says that its secret cannot be reversed engineered.
Companies using Aero Farm towers to grow high-end veggies like baby greens, which command $8 to $13 a pound, have popped up around the country. Their customer base is made up of farm-to-table restaurants and upscale supermarkets.
The grocery store of tomorrow may trade its wasted warehouse-style ceilings and asphalt parking lots for a five-story warehouse, where shopping and parking occupy only a small percentage of the business, which is run by produce clerks turned high-tech farmers.
David Glenn is a sentient being with a bipedal Simian body-type. His current location is on the North American continent a few hundred meters or so from the world's largest freshwater lake.