Jun 28, 2010

Farms of The Future

As reported by Discover Magazine, by 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9 billion people, nearly doubling global demands on food and livestock feed. But there's one major problem: Farms can't keep up.

Until now, humanity's rapid population growth has been countered by the "green revolution"—advances in pesticides, fertilizers, and the genetic modification of crops. But no matter how much we maximize crop yield per acre, the limiting factor for food production is land. And farms use a lot of it.

But if we can't build out, why not build up? Vertical farms are a proposed innovation that might allow us to do just that.

Vertical farms use hydroponics and aeroponics, soil-free growing techniques once researched by NASA to grow plants in space. One major problem with conventional "horizontal" farms is loss of water to runoff. But plant cultivation in either a water-based nutrient solution, shown here, or a nutrient-rich mist enables water to be almost completely conserved.

Not everyone agrees that vertical farms will be economically viable. The biggest concern is energy. As with all indoor grow operations, artificial lighting like fluorescents or the LED's shown here must be supplied for any plant life that isn't exposed to sunlight.
Proponents insist that the reduction of farm equipment needed for harvest and transport would make up the difference by cutting back on fossil fuels. Some even argue that vertical farms could save energy by recycling wastewater and composting non-edible plant material to generate methane energy.

At least on a small scale, vertical farms are no longer just a theory.

In 2009, England's Paignton Zoo launched a program called 'Verticrop' that implemented vertical growing techniques to raise organic plants for animal feed. Using hydroponics, indoor lighting and rotating planters, the zoo has successfully reduced water and nutrient consumption by 95 percent relative to conventional systems.

Large-scale vertical farms, like the "Type O2" design seen above, are still only theoretical, but certain cities have expressed a serious interest in making them a reality. Incheon, South Korea; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Dongtan, China seem the most likely candidates, but it will be at least another five to ten years before we see them get off the ground.

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