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The sky isn't the limit
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Climate Change, reducing size of arable land and availability of freshwater have forced some thinkers to explore options of vertical farms. But the capital-intensive nature of farmscraper remains a major concern.


Will the farms in future be like this design?

The Seattle-based Weber Thompson Architects have designed a multi-storey farm complete with hydroponic grow areas, grey water remediation, research facilities, retail space and living quarters. Once built, such high-tech, water and energy efficient skyscraper greenhouse will occupy less than an acre of land to provide several acres of harvest of grains, vegetables and fruits. With several such designs doing the rounds, vertical farming could soon be a reality.

There are reasons for the idea of farming to go vertical. First, arable land the size of Brazil for growing food to feed extra 1.6 billion mouths in next four decades may not be available. Second, irrigating additional acres is unlikely as 70 per cent of freshwater has already been consumed. Third, frequent crops failure on account of changing climate is proving a setback to farming in many regions of the world. The crisis at the farm seems imminent!

Agriculture has never been as fragile as it is today: ecologically unsustainable, economically devalued and climatically vulnerable. It is only in the last few years that over 15,000 years of settled agriculture is being rendered insufficient and unsustainable, slowly but surely. John Steinbeck’s depiction of worst-case farm scenario in The Grapes of Wrath is seemingly coming to life, closing in on an agriculture revolution that has lasted for so long.

Much might have changed since the classic novel was published in 1939 but the tragedies of that period have returned to haunt the farmer and agriculture yet again. Rising input costs, skewed trade barriers, erratic weather pattern, export-driven monocultures and increasing number of farmers’ suicides have forced experts to conclude that agricultural practices may not be able to meet the needs of the growing population.

Agriculture has never been as fragile as it is today: ecologically unsustainable, economically devalued and climatically vulnerable. It is only in the last few years that over 15,000 years of settled agriculture is being rendered insufficient and unsustainable, slowly but surely.

It may seem a doom and gloom scenario but technological advancement into the 21st century is sure to make such troubles history. Notable have been efforts against odds by individual farmers. A Florida farmer, wiped out by hurricane Andrew, reinvested in a greenhouse and replaced some thirty acres of outdoor farmland with a single acre of greenhouse-grown strawberries using hydro-stackers, which allow multiple layers of hydroponically grown crops in a unit area.

Such promising results have led Dickson Despommier, a public health microbiologist at New York’s Columbia University, to design the concept of ‘indoor’ farming. The consequent shift from nature-dependent agriculture to computer-controlled farming will reduce external risks to a minimum and allows for secure, year-round production. The idea is to squeeze a whole ecosystem into one building for high production on a reasonable low resource base.

Such a high-rise building with 30 floors, the size of a Manhattan block in any city centre, would be powered by geothermic, solar, biomass, or wind energy and could generate the entire food needs of 50,000 people. In addition to year-round crop production, a ‘farmscraper’ will consume 70-95 per cent less water, purify grey water to drinking water, restrict the use of harmful agro-chemicals and ward-off weather related crop failures.

Despommier agrees that any first edition of an invention is going to cost a lot, like any one of our modern conveniences viz., hybrid car, plasma screen and mobile phone. The tangible and non-tangible gains from a vertical farm employing large-scale hydroponics and aeroponics (nutrient liquid and mist) will offset the initial costs - sustained crop production without further damaging the environment and eco-restoration of freed farmlands are important spin offs.

In addition to year-round crop production, a ‘farmscraper’ will consume 70-95 per cent less water, purify grey water to drinking water, restrict the use of harmful agro-chemicals and ward-off weather related crop failures.

Constructed as a network of facilities, a typical vertical farm includes a building for growing food; a separate control centre for monitoring the overall running of the facility; a nursery for selecting and germinating seeds, a quality-control laboratory to monitor food safety, document the nutritional status of each crop and monitor for plant diseases; facility for vertical farm workforce, a green market; and eventually an eco-education centre for general public.

During the last six years Despommier has worked with over 100 research students to combine futuristic architecture with futuristic agriculture. Interestingly, some six universities in the US, Europe, South Africa and Australia are currently researching into farming of the future. The research is focusing on an urban agro-production system so that lettuce or tomato would no longer travel 2,000 miles to reach their final destination.

Despommier has travelled across the world, presenting the idea of ‘vertical farm’ to governments and companies to secure large-scale funding for constructing 20 prototypes. “For high-tech, high-efficiency farming, I would ultimately pick countries like Chad, Mali, Malawi and other African countries where farming is not only failing but where farming due to climate effect is unlikely to occur in next 20 to 40 years,” says Despommier.

Though technically plausible, the feasibility of farmscraper has been contested on grounds of its capital-intensive nature. Experts do however concur that there is a need for positive interaction between urban centres and food production. Not only is there a need for high-tech urban farm systems to liberate the developing world from a dependence on frail agriculture but equally compelling is the challenge to separate agriculture from impending climate vagaries. All said, Despommier’s ingenious idea has the potential to ease the food, water and energy crises by heralding the third green resolution.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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