Traditionally, to grow food, you needed land—lots of land. Sadly, available land for farming is fast disappearing all over the world as the Earth’s population continues to grow. Consider that, at present, there are twice as many people on the planet today as there were in 1970. With a global population expected to reach nine billion by the year 2050, the ability to grow enough food to sustain such an increase using conventional farming methods is in serious jeopardy.

Advancements in plant knowledge, improved techniques (such as crop rotation), modern tools, and equipment coupled with better farming practices as a whole have led to increased production with greater yields than at any time in human history.

Nevertheless, it’s not enough. Change is Inevitable.

Common sense tells us we can’t stay on this path and should begin to shift from energy-intensive industrial agriculture to a more eco-friendly and sustainable system lest our carbon footprint become that of a work boot.

As the world’s population grows, less and less land is available for farming and agriculture. The challenge, then, is how to grow and harvest crops when there isn’t land enough on which to grow them.

Enter farmscrapers: skyscrapers with veggies on the inside and even some with trees on the outside. This revolutionary approach takes its inspiration from vertical farming, a method of growing indoors that is the front-runner in the race to feed the world. Fast gaining in popularity for being an effective, innovative, and productive complement to the standard sprawling land cultivation, vertical farming is taking agriculture in a new direction—up.

Meet the Master of Vertical Gardening

Widely regarded as the father of vertical gardening, Dickson Despommier, microbiology and public health professor at Columbia University, first conceived the idea of vertical farming over a decade ago when he challenged his students to come up with a way to theoretically feed an entire city of two million people using only 13 acres of rooftop gardens. When the endeavor proved somewhat fruitless, they eventually reworked the concept to include the vertical space inside the buildings and the idea of vertical farming emerged.

Much of this exercise centered on Despommier’s early recognition of the importance of growing food in an urban environment, in closer proximity to where people lived. Ahead of his time, even in the late 1990s, he saw the tremendous potential of vertical gardening for sustained food production.

Though scoffed at in the beginning, agriculturalists and botanists have now taken this high-flying concept to heart and are both creating and implementing new vertical growing methods with impressive results.

How does vertical gardening work?

In many parts of the world, farming is beginning to move away from the country and into urban areas; what was once planted in the ground is now being grown in what could rightfully be described as towering greenhouses with self-contained ecosystems designed to produce food.

In Shenzhen, China, six interacting buildings designed by the French firm Vincent Callebaut Architects contain office space and apartments internally, with an exterior that allows for the planting of living trees on the building itself. Designed to look like flat stones piled atop each other, the Asian Cairns Project—as it is known—hopes to improve the air quality in the city, with the addition of hundreds of centralized trees.

According to the study, Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources, published in July 2015, a staggering 4,400 Chinese die each day from health-related disorders as a direct result of air pollution. That’s 1.6 million people a year.

Growing Up

Sky Greens, located in Singapore, is the world’s first commercial vertical farm, and has been referred to as the “farm of the future”. This productive and efficient indoor organic farmscraper is three-stories tall and grows green leafy vegetables in its downtown location. The company estimates their production is more than a ton of produce per day, harvested from plants that rest on long, aluminum, A-frame racks that are approximately 30-feet tall.

“Rotation is powered by a unique, patented, hydraulic, water-driven system which utilizes the momentum of flowing water and gravity to rotate the troughs,” Sky Green states on their website, and it only requires 40W of electricity to power one of these towers.

This minimal use of electricity is due to its remarkably efficient design, which uses 90 per cent less water than traditional farming methods by employing a flooding method rather than a sprinkler system. “Only 0.5 liters of water is required to rotate the 1.7-ton vertical structure,” the company states. “The water is contained in an enclosed underground reservoir system and is recycled and reused.”

In August of 2015, the company and its founder, Jack Ng, were one of five recipients of the INDEX: Award 2015, the world’s biggest design award.

As the second densest nation on earth, Singapore is in desperate need of new ways to feed its residents and given the success of Sky Green, these buildings may one day be commonplace.

Are vertical gardens the farms of the future?

Urban farming is proving to be an exciting new frontier that is still in its infancy, but as the methodology evolves and lighting costs drop, growers will see a marked increase in efficiency and crop yield. According to Despommier, LED lights were only 20 per cent efficient a few years ago but are now operating at a 60 per cent efficiency level.

With the utilization of clean technology like solar panels and geothermal energy, operating costs for urban farmers will only decrease in the coming years.

In a 2009 interview with Scientific American, Despommier estimated that a 30-story building covering one square city block could produce a harvest equal to that of a 2,400-acre horizontal farm. Despommier also argues that vertical farming is a superior method in when juxtaposed with the negative impact that traditional farming imparts on the environment.

Environmental Drawbacks to Conventional Farming:

  • The high cost of fossil fuels required to plow, plant, harvest, store, ship, and refrigerate produce.
  • The loss of and damage to produce incurred during shipping leading to waste and increased consumer cost.
  • Twenty per cent of fossil fuel usage and 70 per cent of water consumption goes into producing food.
  • Conventional agriculture heavily relies on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which not only has serious impacts on public health but also on the environment in its contamination of streams and groundwater.
  • Air quality is affected by the fossil fuels burned to bring a harvest to the table.
  • Labor and transportation costs translate to higher consumer prices.

The Positives of Vertical Farming:

  • Can reduce or eliminate the need for trucks or trains, as well as the energy required of standard shipping methods.
  • Produce is picked at the peak of freshness, not harvested prematurely for shipping.
  • Organically grown and free from pesticides.
  • No damaged goods to sort through, therefore less waste.
  • Unmatched energy efficiency while reducing air and ground pollution.
  • Immune to storms, drought, and cold, allowing for 365 days a year of growing.

As developments in this new tech-savvy method of farming continue and begin to incorporate practices such as aeroponics, aquaponics, fogponics, and other productive growing techniques, Farmscrapers, urban farming, and vertical gardening will become more cost effective to operate and more commonplace.

On a smaller scale, vertical farm kits are also available the environmentally conscious grower to install at home. Overall, with this new vertical style of indoor farming, things are definitely looking up.