April 22, 2016
On Earth Day, we all take note of our own individual impact on the environment. People try to use a little less electricity, create a little less waste, and try to make the world that much greener. However, one of the biggest challenges facing our environment is not how much resources we are using, but how many people there are to use them.
The Earth’s current population is approximately 7.4 Billion people, and projections estimate that by 2050, we are expected to add almost another 3 Billion people to the planet.
Today on Earth Day, we’re going to look at one of the most pressing issues related to the environment and our population: food production. Over 80% of all our farmable land is already in use and, if the population projections are accurate, a challenge could easily become a crisis. Our farming technology absolutely must be able to keep up with our population growth.
For decades, farmers and geneticists have been searching for ways to produce more food within the same plot of land, and potential solutions have been diverse. One idea being implemented in a few places around the globe is called vertical farming, and though simple in concept, it requires astounding feats of engineering to accomplish.
What is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is the process of growing food in what can best be described as indoor, multi-leveled greenhouses. It is an elegant solution to a lack of land. Simply grow up instead of out. Instead of just a single floor, vertical farms might be four or five floors tall, but designers and concept artists envision future vertical farms rivaling the height of the largest skyscrapers on Earth.
For the time being, that is science fiction, but the real vertical farms of the world are no less fantastic.
Sky Greens — Singapore’s Vertical Farm
Singapore has a problem that is all too familiar. The island-city has about 5 Million residents all living in about 441 square miles. That’s not a lot of space for so many individuals, and importing food to the island inflates prices. Singapore is truly a microcosm for the larger global problem we may encounter in a few decades. Sky Greens, Singapore’s first vertical farm, is working to correct the problem.
The initial questions on everyone’s mind are: can these vertical farms rival traditional agricultural techniques? Is this a new way to produce food that could replace a standard farm or are we resorting to vertical farms?
As it turns out, yes. Sky Greens claims to yield up to 10 times more produce than a mono-layer farm.
A Go-Grow Technology
Vertical farming is more involved than potting plants on a shelf. Sky Greens utilizes what they call “A Go-Grow” technology to maximize space to yield the most crops possible. The plants are grown in A-frame towers with 22-26 rows of troughs where the plants reside.
Here’s where it gets clever. Every plant, no matter where they are in the A-frame, will receive the same amount of light. Three times a day, the rack will rotate to give each plant the sunlight they need. Even more impressive, the process is powered by rainwater.
- First, rainwater is collected in an outdoor reservoir. As this is Singapore, there is no shortage of rain available.
- The system then directs the rainwater into their “Water Pulley Module.”
- Using the flowing water and gravity, the Pulley Module rotates the racks.
- After the water leaves the Pulley Module, it goes one of two places.
a. Water is fed through micro-sprinklers to water the crops.
b. Water is emptied into a generator powered by that flow of water.
- The generator pumps the water back up into the reservoir in Step 1 to supplement the rainwater collection, and the process starts all over again.
Keeping Costs Low
Mechanical systems powered and self-sustained by rainwater go a long way towards keeping costs low, but cost-effectiveness is key to the success of this endeavor. These vegetables must be able to penetrate the market and directly compete with their farm-raised cousins. To accomplish this, Sky Greens uses a few strategies to cut out middle-men and increase efficiency.
- Direct Harvest and Storage: Harvesting and packing methods in traditional farms are fairly limited on a traditional farm. Furthermore, because farms are often in remote locations, shipping and distribution both contribute to price. Sky Greens crops are harvested on site and packed immediately by the staff.
- Cold Chain Management System: Sky Greens has also patented a way to combine cooling, storage, and transportation into a single container, thereby further streamlining the logistics after harvest.
- Vacuum Processing: The vegetables are stored in vacuum-cooled cold trucks which maximize the lifespan of these vegetables.
The Future of Vertical Farming
Currently, the vertical farm in Singapore is limited to the kinds of vegetables it can produce. They primarily grow leafy vegetables and greens and seem either technologically or commercially incapable of producing a more diverse set of produce. Yet, Sky Greens openly states on their website that they are refining their processes to expand their menu. In a matter of time, potatoes, corn, and carrots could be planted in the Sky Green’s A-frames and ready to be cultivated.
Today, you should certainly conserve energy, reduce your carbon footprint, and learn about the challenges facing the environment. But at the end of the day when you sit down for dinner, take a minute to appreciate where your food comes from and where it may come from in the future.
Happy Earth Day.
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