Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Vertical farming: disrupting agriculture
A new agricultural revolution could forever change the planet.
- Vertical farming leverages cutting-edge technology to grow food in a new and better way.
- One of its many benefits is that it can increase crop yield by 700 percent.
- Vertical farming can help relieve pressure on scarce resources and boost Earth's biodiversity.
One day soon, you could eat bananas grown in downtown Manhattan.
It's a way of growing food that turns traditional agriculture on its head. With the required technologies now rapidly maturing, vertical farming is sprouting across the globe.
While there are still unresolved issues with this marriage of technology and agriculture, its promise may be irresistible. If it gets off the ground — literally — in a major way, it could solve the problem of feeding the Earth's 7.9 billion people. And that's just one of the benefits its proponents promise.
Vertical farms could take over the world | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Agriculture through time
When humankind began planting crops for nutrition about 12,000 years ago, the nature of our hunter-gatherer species fundamentally shifted. For the first time, it's believed, people began staying put.
With agriculture as their central mission, communities formed, with the now-familiar arrangement of residential areas surrounded by land dedicated to growing food. Even today, with modern transportation making the widespread consumption of non-local foods common, this land-allocation model largely survives: population centers surrounded by large areas for growing vegetables and fruit and raising livestock.
Challenges facing traditional agriculture
Credit: Genetics4Good / Wikimedia
As our population has grown, traditional agriculture has begun facing some big challenges:
- Farmland takes up a lot of space and destroys biodiversity. Our World in Data reports that half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. As Nate Storey of Plenty, Inc., a vertical farming startup, puts it, "It is probably one of the most defining acts of humanity: We literally changed the ecosystem of the entire planet to meet our dietary needs."
- The demand for farmland — both for produce and livestock — has led to a dangerous deforestation in several parts of the world. This also results in biodiversity loss and contributes to an increase in the greenhouse gases that drive climate change.
- Degradation of farmland, such as through soil erosion, poses a threat to agricultural productivity.
- Agriculture consumes copious amounts of water, which exacerbates water shortages. (Obviously, water shortages also reduce agricultural productivity.)
- Fertilizer run-off causes substantial environmental damage, such as algal blooms and fish kills.
- Pesticides can degrade the environment by affecting non-target organisms.
- The effects of climate change are already making agriculture more challenging due to significant shifts in weather, changes to growing seasons, and realignment of water supplies. Our climate is continuing to change in unexpected ways, and the only predictable aspect of what lies ahead is unpredictability.
Vertical farming proponents expect that a re-think of how we grow food can ultimately solve these problems.
What is vertical farming?
Credit: Freethink Media / Plenty, Inc.
Vertical farming is a form of agriculture that grows plants indoors in floor-to-ceiling, tower-like walls of plant-holding cells. Instead of growing plants in horizontal fields on the ground, as in traditional farming, you can think of vertical farming's "fields" as standing on edge and extending upward toward the ceiling. The plants need no soil or other aggregate medium in which to grow; their roots are typically held in a cell lining, often composed of coconut fiber.
Vertical flora is grown either aeroponically, in which water and nutrients are delivered to plants via misting, or hydroponically, in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water. These are incredibly efficient systems, requiring 95% less irrigation than soil-grown plants. With vertical farming, Storey says that 99 percent of the moisture transpired by plants can be recaptured, condensed, and recirculated.
Plants, of course, also need light to grow, and vertical farms use increasingly efficient LED bulbs to keep plants thriving.
Vertical farms can increase crop yields by 700 percent
Credit: pressmaster / Adobe Stock
If vertical farming takes off the way its supporters believe it should and will, it may solve many of the aforementioned challenges facing agriculture.
Crop yields with vertical farming far exceed what's possible with traditional agriculture. Plenty, Inc.'s Shireen Santosham notes that the highly controlled growing environment of vertical farming has allowed her company to reduce the growing time for some crops to as little as 10 days. Without needing to consider weather or even sunlight, combined with the ability to operate 365 days a year, their system increases the potential annual yield by about 700 percent.
The land requirement for vertical farming is a mere fraction of that for traditional agriculture. Santosham says it can be done in a building the size of a big-box retail store that can be built pretty much anywhere that has adequate utilities, including within major urban centers. The tightly controlled environment of a vertical farm should also eliminate the need for applied pesticides.
Yet another benefit of vertical farming is the return of land currently needed for food production back to the planet. This could help facilitate Earth's recovery from deforestation and return much needed habitat to threatened or endangered species. Of course, if we ever colonize the moon or Mars, vertical farming will be the go-to option for feeding the colonists.
Several vertical farming company pioneers are already getting their high-quality crops into the hands, and mouths, of consumers. Plenty, Inc. has an eponymous line of greens, and Aerofarms has their FlavorSpectrum line. Both companies claim that their products are exceptionally tasty, a result of their carefully controlled growing environments in which computer-controlled lighting can be optimized to bring out the most desirable qualities of each crop.
Credit: Alesia Berlezova / Adobe Stock
The history of vertical farming
The idea of vertical farming isn't new, and experts have been questioning its viability since the term was first coined in 1915 by Gilbert Ellis Bailey, who was obviously way ahead of the available technology at the time. The first attempt to grow produce in a constructed environment was a Danish farmhouse factory that was built to grow cress, a peppery green related to mustard, in the 1950s.
The modern concept of a vertical farm arose in the New York classroom of Columbia University's Dickson Despommier in 1999. He presented the idea as a theoretical construct, a mental/mathematical exercise imagining how to farm in an environmentally sound manner. His class began with the notion of a rooftop garden before considering a "high-rise" version that might theoretically be able to grow enough rice to feed two percent of Manhattan's population at the time. The eureka moment was a question Dispommier asked: "If it can't be done using rooftops, why don't we just grow the crops inside the buildings? We already know how to cultivate and water plants indoors."
With the technological advances of the last few decades, vertical farming is now a reality. Our sister site, Freethink, recently paid Plenty, Inc. a visit. (See video above.)
Vertical farming today
Credit: Nelea Reazanteva / Adobe Stock
Today, growers across the globe are developing vertical farms. While the U.S. has more vertical farms than any other country, the industry is blooming everywhere.
There are currently over 2,000 vertical farms in the U.S. While more than 60 percent of these are owned by small growers, there are a few heavyweights as well. In addition to Wyoming's Plenty, Inc. and Newark's Aerofarms, there's also New York's Bowery Farming. There are also companies such as edengreen, based in Texas, whose mission is to help new entrants construct and operate vertical farms.
Japan comes in second, with about 200 vertical farms currently in operation. The largest vertical farming company there is SPREAD. Across Asia, vertical farms are operating in China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan. In Europe, vertical growers are in Germany, France, Netherlands, and the U.K. Germany is also home to the Association for Vertical Farming, "the leading global, non-profit organization that enables international exchange and cooperation in order to accelerate the development of the indoor/vertical farming industry."In the Middle East, whose desert land and scarcity of water present a particularly challenging agricultural environment, vertical farming is taking root, so to speak. The United Arab Emirates' Badia Farms is now producing more than 3,500 kilograms of high-quality produce each day and expects to increase that yield going forward. In Kuwait, NOX Management launched in the summer of 2020 with plans to produce 250 types of greens, with a daily output of 550 kg of salads, herbs, and cresses.
The economics of vertical farming
Credit: meryll / Adobe Stock
Building and operating a vertical farm is a costly endeavor, requiring a substantial initial investment in state-of-the-art technology, real estate, and construction. AgFunderNews (AFN) estimates that it can cost $15 million to construct a modern vertical farm. Fortunately, investors see the potential in vertical farming, and the industry has attracted more than $1 billion in investments since 2015. That includes $100 million for Aerofarms. Plenty, Inc raised $200 million in 2017 from a fund backed by such respected forward-thinkers as Jeff Bezos and Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.
AFN is particularly excited by the potential of what they call second-generation vertical farming technology. They cite advances in LED technology — expected to increase energy efficiency by 70 percent by 2030 — and increasingly sophisticated automation that can streamline the operation of vertical farms. AFN anticipates operating cost reduction of 12 percent due to improvements in lighting and another 20 percent from advances in automation.
BusinessWire says that the vertical farming produce market was valued at nearly $240 million in 2019, and they expect it to grow 20 percent annually to over $1 billion by 2027.
A welcome disruption
Veritical farming will be disruptive.
Vertical farming would eliminate the need for the arduous work of harvesting crops by hand from vast tracts of farmland. Current picking jobs, the company says, can be replaced by better-paying, full-time jobs available 365 days a year in better working conditions — and in the variety of geographic locations in which vertical farms can operate.
There are two caveats, however. First, the number of people needed to manage and harvest vertical farm crops will be far fewer than the many farmworkers required for less efficiently planted traditional fields. Second, with automation becoming ever-more capable — and perhaps a key to eventual profitability — one wonders just how many new jobs ultimately will be created.
But the societal benefits far outweigh any costs. As Plenty's Storey muses, "Like most everything in the world, we can only save our species if it makes economic sense." Thankfully, it does make economic sense.
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
View this post on Instagram
During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
A post shared by LKCNHM (@lkcnhm) on
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work