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Growing Up: Water Efficiency and Sunless Farming

Concept vertical farms. images by Chris Jacobs and Gordon Graff, SOA Architects, via WikiCommons

Food and water: Two things humankind can’t do without. As Earth’s population continues to grow and a dynamic global climate shifts our expectations of where and when food can be grown, scientists are trying to find new ways to get more from less. For example, the places best suited for stimulating photosynthesis — those sunny, arid fields in desert and Mediterranean climate zones around the world — also happen to be amongst the driest. The traditional solution to this quandary has been to divert water from places that have water (and may be unsuitable for growing because of inadequate sunlight, high altitude, or low temperatures) to the hot, dry zones where food crops flourish beaneath the sun’s golden rays. A group of Dutch engineers have turned the existing food-production paradigm on its head by removing sunlight from the equation.

The Dutch project grows crops indoors using artificial light and carefully metered water — what could be the first attempt by anyone to grow crops in a manner completely independent of nature’s often capricious inputs (regardless of the upcoming religious holiday, indoor farming operations are to be plague-free). Looking at the development of agriculture since the dawn of human civilization from a big picture perspective, it’s clear that dams and irrigation were the first big step, and petroleum based fertilizers (the “ Green Revolution” of the 1950s) were another huge development. Dutch innovators have figured out a method of sunless farming that could, not definitely, but could, someday create another big shift in food production techniques. It is a concept that implies seamless production provided that water and energy supplies are maintained. By growing food plants indoors, all inputs into their growth and production — from artificial light and temperature modulation to precise water metering — are controlled by man.

The big question that comes up is how our bodies will jive with food that isn’t produced naturally. Would it be nutritious enough? Nobody knows just yet, and it will probably take a while before all the bugs are worked out (although bugs in the traditional sense would be eliminated from the equation, taking pesticides out of the mix).

Olaf van Kooten, a Dutch horticulture professor who has studied the sunless indoor farming project, told CBS News in an interview that it can produce a kilogram of tomatoes with a liter of water. In dry, sunny Israel, where tomato production is big business, it takes more than 60 liters to grow a kilo of tomatoes.

Because of its focus on more efficient water use, indoor farming could be an attractive option at a time when global energy production options and water supply are stressed. The indoor farm project’s engineers contend that moving agricultural production closer to city centers would also drastically cut down on the amount of fuel expended on transportation. Rising food prices in recent years — due to increased demand and higher fuel prices — has caused concern among consumers whose incomes have largely remained static.

A lake formed from glacier melt in Peru's Ansangate Mountains, 2008. photo by Gvillemin via WikiCommons

Water supply issues continue to be a challenge, particularly in developing countries like Peru. Most of the South American nation’s population lives along its arid coastline, which means water has to be diverted from remote glaciers in the Andes Mountains. Now that glaciers are disappearing — a sad consequence of climate change — Peruvian scientists and officials are looking for more water efficient ways to feed a burgeoning population. It is important to note that as a country industrializes — and Peru is certainly doing so — its water footprint tends to increase as food production and manufacturing use more and more water. There’s a place for ultra-efficient farming everywhere, but especially in such places.

The Netherlands isn’t the only place where indoor farming is taking place. Twelve years ago, Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, worked with students to develop a model of urban food production centered around high rise construction. Vertical farming would, like the Dutch concept, keep all of the crops enclosed in modern skyscrapers, eliminating the need for pesticides, reducing water consumption, and providing exposure to sunlight within a city’s often shadowy, canyonesque interior. Designs vary, and Despommier is seen as something of a radical by science and engineering colleagues, but who knows, his concept 30-storey ag towers could be a more efficient alternative to miles-distant rural fields.

Not everyone agrees that vertical farming is feasible. The high cost of powering artificial light could eclipse the benefit of freeing up acreage and using water more efficiently. In the meantime, vertical farm projects are giving design students opportunities to solve real probems, and, hopefully, inching us closer to a better model for food production on an increasingly crowded planet.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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