The idea of farming, as we have known it for centuries, typically recalls images of open fields, fresh air, and the sound of birds. So, when considering farming in cities, the thought can seem understandably foreign. But then, everything is foreign until it becomes known.
A need for new
With our global population already sitting at about 7.7 billion and estimated to reach an incredible 9.7 billion by 2050, we face the challenge of producing enough food to supply an expected 59 – 98% increase in demand. Our rapid rate of global urbanisation means that the largest portion of this demand will come from cities, which are traditionally situated far away from agricultural activities. This will lead to an upsurge in global food transportation, sparking a greater fuel demand, and ultimately, pushing up food prices. A big portion of the global population won’t be able to afford fresh produce or even have access to it.
In this light, large-scale conventional farming is seeming increasingly unfeasible in the long-term. In facing a grim prediction for the future, necessity has once again mothered invention.
In the US, Europe, Middle East, and Asia, the idea of ‘controlled environment agriculture’ within cities has attracted attention as a serious means of meeting our global food demand as efficiently as possible. By using sophisticated modern technologies, this type of farming requires significantly less space and resources to produce over 300 times more food than traditional farming. For this reason, South Africa too, is beginning to weigh up the possibilities of expanding the market for controlled environment agriculture in its urban centres.
Why move farming into the city?
The reality is that beyond the distance food now needs to travel to reach the consumer, we just don’t have the land to continue producing food the way we have in the past. Climate change and years of intensive farming have led to a decrease in average soil fertility around the world, meaning that not only are we having to grow significantly more, but we have significantly less land to grow on.
Underutilised and unused urban spaces and infrastructure are offering interesting opportunities for controlled environment agriculture, or as it is more commonly referred to, ‘indoor vertical farming’, which is safer, faster, and less draining on resources like water.
If we want to meet the future needs that are hurtling towards us, we need to start thinking outside of the box (or in this case, inside the box).
Indoor vertical farming
The name says it all. Indoor vertical farming quite literally involves farming indoors, and growing up rather than out. This economical use of space allows indoor agriculture to take place inside even the smallest chinks in the city that are not being used.
Stuart Oda, an active developer of indoor farms in Beijing, shares in his TED Talk how he and his team have managed to install indoor farming systems in underutilised underground parking areas, in between building partitions, and in unused office corners.
Indoor vertical farms have efficient racking systems, which can reach up to 4.8 metres high in larger spaces.
LED lights are used to mimic sunshine and can be manipulated in ways that can alter the size, texture, colour, and even flavour of the food being grown. Different strengths and combinations of light are known as ‘light recipes’ and are specific to each vegetable.
In place of soil, vertical farms use either hydroponics (where the plants are grown in a nutrient solution), aquaponics (which combines aquaculture and hydroponics as nitrifying bacteria is grown in the water to make it more nutrient rich for plants), or aeroponics (growing plants in an air or misted environment). These methods greatly reduce two of the largest costs of conventional farming – water and fertiliser. Water is constantly recycled throughout these vertical systems, and of course without soil, there is no need for fertiliser.
Automated monitoring technologies ensure that conditions for plants are optimal at all times. These can easily be adjusted to suit the consumer demand and needs of a specific period.
Leafy greens like kale, lettuce, spinach, and herbs are most commonly grown in vertical farms at the moment. With the accelerated development and design of this technology, we may one day be able to grow most of our food this way.
Plus points of indoor vertical farming
The controlled nature of indoor agriculture eliminates the uncertainty that climate often causes in conventional farming. Vegetables can be produced all year round and maintain consistent quality, meaning that overall output is far more predictable.
Resources are used efficiently, lowering production costs and minimising the devastating impact we are having on a deeply strained world with our current food production practices.
On top of this, pests and contaminants can be prevented from ever getting near growing food, so there is greater opportunity to grow organic veg, pesticide free!
As the supply chain is shortened, more of the nutritional value of plants is retained, of which much is lost on long-haul trips.
And, most impressively, the racking design of indoor vertical farming allows for incredible amounts of food production per square metre, offering a real chance of meeting our rapidly increasing food demand.
The downs of growing up
As with most new technologies, there are still some drawbacks of indoor vertical farming.
Lighting can be quite energy intensive, and the overall cost of installing and running these systems is still quite high.
Currently, only a small variety of vegetables can be feasibly produced commercially, making this quite a limited process.
Plants grow towards the light
And so should we.
Investing in the research and development of indoor vertical farming will allow experts to have the resources they need to improve the current costs of ths innovative form of agriculture. It offers a beacon of hope to our future generations, who are drowning in the sea of sombre predictions.
There are already attempts to source higher efficiency LEDs, employ lasers for more optimised growth, and channel sunlight through fiber cables to save energy during the day.
As the industry progresses, indoor farmers will be able provide equitable access to all. This is crucial for underprivileged communities who often live in city food deserts.
South Africa coming on board
While we still have a way to go, South Africa is starting to take the necessary steps to bring indoor vertical farming into our own cities. Food security is dire in this country, and requires every possible idea and solution to combat it.
Establishing partnerships will be key in allowing countries like South Africa to afford the initial startup costs of vertical farming. The African Association for Vertical Farming (AAVF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving urban agriculture throughout Africa, has held several conferences to onboard individuals, organisations, and research institutions within agriculture in an attempt to encourage a spirit of coordination and teamwork in implementing technologies for the future.
There is hope – we must take hold of it, and make it ours.