Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

No Place to Go but Up

By Ryan LeePublished October 24, 2014

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As population continues to increase over the coming decades, global food demand is expected to rise to 170% of current levels. Clearing more land to facilitate agricultural expansion is undesirable and cannot alone meet the challenge posed. Therefore, a high-technology solution is necessary to win the fight against global hunger. One novel solution to consider is vertical farming, which could potentially give humans the ability to bring production of food closer to urban centers, as well as eliminate some of the risks and costs imposed by and on nature.
By Ryan Lee, 10/24/14



If you have listened to the news lately, you may have heard that by 2050, we expect to have about 10 billion mouths to feed. Considering the trouble that we have feeding the seven billion on earth today, this prospect may seem a bit daunting. By some estimates, we will have to raise agricultural production by as much as 70% in the next 30+ years to keep up with the needs of humanity, but we may do so at our peril. The quest to find that increase could bring rapid deforestation as land is cleared for food production, further depleting already fragile ecosystems. Even this undesirable option though is mainly limited to South America and Africa. Asia, where the bulk of population expansion is expected to occur, is already utilizing nearly all of its available arable land.

It would seem then that natural limits of our planet are closing in around us. Nature, however, is not able to impose limits on the human imagination. What we need now is a radical shift in technology, and we cannot afford to wait for three more decades while it is developed. So then, what technologies do we have available right now that we can use to address this pressing issue? One emerging idea may ultimately allow us to grow exponentially more food per acre of ground used than is currently possible, while simultaneously eliminating many of the most harmful side effects of modern food production. It is called vertical farming.

Imagine for a moment that you are walking on the streets of your favorite major city. As you walk among the denizens in the shadows of skyscrapers, you look up and you can't help but be enamored of the beautiful glass and steel greenhouses towering above, bathed in sunlight. The smell of fresh oxygen settling down on you is the exhaust of this industry. The ventilation systems are hard at work pumping CO2 in from the city air for the dense, verdant urban oasis to convert into food, then replenishing the atmosphere with fresh oxygen and pumping it out at street level. Imagine 10, 20, 30 stories of intensive agriculture growing in the heart of downtown. Around the corner is a fruit vendor selling freshly picked grapes, strawberries, bananas, apples, pears, watermelons, you name it! All grown with minimal need for pesticide by farmers who earn a good living within walking distance of home. 

As far fetched or futuristic as this idea may seem, it really isn't. In fact, this technology is already with us, and is being adopted in such distant corners of the world as Sweden, Singapore, and Chicago. To some, this whole concept may feel a bit removed from what food is supposed to be, but the potential benefits of such a system of farming could be enormous. In a closed system, tended with precision care, soil conservation becomes a concern of the past. So does agricultural runoff, as water can be recycled and conserved. Even today, in Chicago, there is a farm which takes this concept a step further through the integration of aquaculture with hydroponics. Tilapia swim in clean, nutrient rich water and, in turn, provide fertilizer for the microgreens grown above them. All of this in a post-industrial building that is going completely off grid. Not satisfied yet? Consider the ability to control for climate. A year-round growing season, indemnity from extreme weather events, and the elimination of restrictive climactic zones for crops are just a few of the fringe benefits. 

As our world continues to become more urbanized, it makes sense that our agriculture should as well. Right now, there are relatively few working at this frontier, but the potential of these ideas is easily recognizable to many. Developing this technology should be a priority and may present a huge opportunity, not only for profits, but also for the greater good.