Countries with high population density, particularly those on islands, such as Japan and the United Kingdom, and countries where food can be more difficult to grow due to climate, such as Sweden and Iceland, rely heavily on import to feed their populations. With 68% of the world’s population predicted to live in an urban environment by 2050. Could vertical farming offer a solution to food supply and air pollution?


TL;DR

Artificial lighting would mean 24 hr growth cycles...
…and can even change the taste of a plant! Food could be produced locally and stay fresh. Vertical farming could also include animal, insect and mushroom life. Many of the techniques used for vertical farming were developed by NASA for long term space travel.

Broadly speaking there are 4 main types of vertical farming:

Vertical farming could take a modular approach. This example of mixed-use vertical farming was designed by Architecture studio Precht, Austria, to allow residents to produce their own food in vertical farms.

Mixed-use skyscrapers

The idea is that the building is used for both farming and habitation or office space. This concept is better suited to small scale farming; farm-to-table style restaurants, community gardens, and even vertical allotments. The idea was first proposed by architect Ken Yeang.

However, it’s not as easy as simply adding a tree to the side of a building. If everyone were to do this, it would affect the wind resistance and weight distribution of a building. When Architects designed Bosco Verticale, they needed to place the building in a wind tunnel to learn how the trees and additional weight would affect the building’s structural integrity.

Despommier’s skyscrapers

These are essentially purpose-built, skyscraper farms. The theory is that this type of farming requires less energy and produces less pollution than more traditional farming methods. It would also create a highly governable environment for temperature and pest control. This idea was first put forward by ecologist Dickson Despommier.

Shipping containers

Shipping containers have a seemingly endless possibility of uses. There are a number of companies that have converted shipping containers into stackable modular growing chambers.

The main challenge with this style of vertical farming is accessing higher levels, particularly taking into consideration the water supply.

Deep farming

The idea is to repurpose abandoned mineshafts into vertical farms. This avenue is less well explored but claims have been made that it could be 10 times more effective for food production. In addition, the external structure doesn’t need to be built and could be considerably cheaper. The vertical farms would take advantage of constant underground temperatures.

underground vertical farming in London.
The idea of underground farming might not be as bonkers as you think. There is already an underground farm in London! Image via Flickr Matt Brown

Ecological impact of vertical farming

Oxygen Vertical farms would improve air quality in urban environments. They would also reduce transportation requirements and lead to fresher produce.

Less land Farmers can maximize output from an area of land. Hydroponics has been able to produce crop yields that surpass traditional methods. They allow farmers to supply crops with water and nutrients at a much higher efficiency. Stacking plants vertically also reduces land requirements.

More natural land available Some argue that vertical farming would allow current farmland to return to its natural state of forest and marshland. However, no consideration has been given to the landowners.

Environmental impact of construction Even eco-friendly buildings have an environmental impact.

Fewer chemicals A sealed environment would also give farmers the potential to better control the environment, meaning fewer pests and diseases, and less need for chemicals.

Clean water Plants can be used to clean wastewater and their respiration can be collected as clean, drinkable water.

24 hours of growth Although it may seem illogical to use artificial lighting to grow plants. Artificial lighting would mean that, in some stages of growth, plants could have 24 hours of light, speeding up growth time. It would also increase potential food production in locations where natural light is scarce or days are short.

Plants grow best under red and blue spectrum lighting. Image credit: denisbin [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Lighting

Lighting can be natural, artificial or a combination. Natural light could be supplied by creating walls of glass, essentially creating vertical greenhouses. Additionally, light could be manipulated with mirrors and fiber optics and directed through areas of a building, much as with ventilation, water, and electrical systems.

LEDs are increasingly becoming the most popular option for plant artificial lighting as they are the most energy-efficient and do not produce excessive levels of heat, meaning that the lights can be placed closer to the plant without the risk of burning. This technique was first used by NASA’s very own Dr. Raymond Wheeler. A man who is very much a pioneer in the field of vertical gardening and hydroponic techniques.

Incredibly you don’t need bright white lights. NASA discovered that plants grow better under particular spectrums of light, namely: red and blue.

Lighting can also change the taste of food. Scientists have been able to manipulate the taste, aroma, and size of the leaves and stems, just by changing the spectrum of light during the growth period.

Vertical farming isn’t just for plants

Vertical farming wouldn’t just produce plants, it has the potential to become a whole ecosystem, sustaining livestock, converting urban waste, recycling water and cleaning the air.

One of the best-known examples of an ecosystem-based approach to farming is aquaponics, quite an ancient method of farming used in many Asian communities where land was scarce. In aquaponics fish produce waste and the water becomes nutrient-rich. This can then be used to feed hydroponically grown plant life. The plants remove waste from the water and the water can then be returned to the fish with a minimal loss.

aqaponic farming vertical gardens
Aquaponics is a traditional form of vertical farming that combines fish and plant life. Image credit: Bryghtknyght [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mushrooms are another interesting element in a vertical farming ecosystem that could be used to break down organic waste material. Currently, it is quite trendy to grow oyster mushrooms in used coffee grinds.

Insects are another important consideration for vertical gardening, even flys! Insects such as honey bees could be used to pollinate the crops whilst producing honey. Flies feed on waste material and produce larvae which can, in turn, be fed to livestock.

Additional options for vertical farming

Another option for a vertical farm would be to grow plants on a rotating gardening system. This allows farmers to control the light the plants receive. Some hydroponic designs turn the plant upside down and force it to work against gravity. Many claim that this makes the plants stronger.

NASA is currently conducting research into hydroponics and vertical farming methods to feed astronauts on long-term space missions. Several experiments globally have successfully allowed humans to survive in sealed environments.

Design your own vertical farms

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Further reading:

Aquaponics Mushrooms & Insects – The Association for Vertical Farming White Paper.

Virtual tour of a container vertical garden

The Plant Whisperer – How light can affect the taste of food.

Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way – Dr. Raymond Wheeler (NASA).

NASA Biomass Production System – Probably one of the first examples of vertical gardening. Know affectionately as the “Breadboard Project”.

Lunar Palace 1 Bioregenerative Life-Support Laboratory – Holds the record for the longest stay in a bioregenerative life support system (BLSS).

ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ – The first facility to be used to grow plants on the International Space Station.


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