Imagine walking into the grocery story to pick up freshly harvested lettuce, fragrant basil, juicy sweet strawberries, and ripe red tomatoes – all of which were harvested at a local farm only hours before you’d arrived. Then imagine that you were eating these fruits and veggies while living and working at a space station or at an underground base on the moon, on Mars, or even on Earth. With a concerning loss of arable lands worldwide, coupled with fewer and fewer skilled farmers and potentially unfavorable and unforeseeable climate change, the Earth's population may be forced to move agriculture indoors whether we find ourselves living in space or not.
It is already happening in places like Denmark and Japan where a majority of the population lives in urban centers increasingly isolated from agricultural regions where an aging population of farmers that is not being replaced by younger workers harvest food for city dwellers. Fresh produce is being grown in vertical farms where farmers can grow indoors year-around by controlling light, temperature, water, and even carbon dioxide levels. Generally, fresh produce grown in vertical farms travels only a few miles to reach grocery store shelves compared to conventional produce, which can travel thousands of miles by truck or plane.
Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. It often incorporates controlled-environment agriculture, which aims to optimize plant growth, and soil-less farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. Some common choices of structures to house vertical farming systems include large vacated retail centers, shipping containers, underground tunnels, and abandoned mine shafts.
The main advantage of utilizing vertical farming technologies is the increased crop yield that comes with a smaller unit area of land requirement. Current applications of vertical farming coupled with other state-of-the-art technologies, such as customized LED lights, have resulted in over ten times the crop yield than occurs through traditional farming methods. The increased ability to cultivate a larger variety of crops at once, because crops do not share the same plots of land while growing, is another sought-after advantage. Additionally, crops are resistant to weather disruptions because of their placement indoors, meaning less crops lost to extreme or unexpected weather occurrences. Lastly, because of its limited land usage, vertical farming is less disruptive to the native plants and animals, leading to further conservation of the local flora and fauna.
Nearly two out of every three people on Earth are soon expected to live within urban areas. Producing fresh fruits and vegetables close to these growing urban centers could help meet growing global food demands in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way by reducing distribution networks, providing higher-nutrient produce, and drastically reducing water usage and runoff.
Things are moving ahead in this area in the United States. It is great to see the USDA and the Department of Energy taking the lead on vertical agriculture and sustainable urban ecosystems. Vertical farming technologies face economic challenges with large start-up costs compared to traditional farms, so government support is going to be essential at the outset of any transition. The USDA has already initiated educational workshops and the allocation of supportive funding for small businesses that realize the potential opportunities vertical agriculture presents in addressing future food security. The potential here is incredible. If I were young and still ambitious, it would certainly be something worth pursuing as a business opportunity for the benefit of all.