By 2050, the global population is expected to grow by over two billion people. As approximately 80% of the population will be living in urban centres by this point, this will place huge strains on our cities. Keeping up with the global demand for food is going to be an enormous challenge, particularly as the world’s arable land continues to disappear at an alarming rate. With current omnivore consumption levels in Toronto, approximately two acres of farmland is needed to sustain each person. This means that the population of Toronto requires the equivalent farmland area of three Greater Toronto Areas to feed its population.
Due to the long winters in Canada, we also face the reality that food cannot grow all year round. From December to June, approximately 67% of the fruits and vegetables in Canada are imported from countries as far away as China. Depending on the transportation mode that’s used to import food (air, truck or rail) as much as a 1kg of carbon is released per kilometer that the food must travel.
One possible solution to ease this challenge is vertical farming. Vertical farming is the practice of growing produce vertically within a structure such as a warehouse or skyscraper. In order to grow this way, hydroponic or aeroponic containers are arranged vertically with artificial lights in climatically-controlled environments. This eliminates the need for pesticides, meaning it’s possible to grow and maintain local organic produce all year long.
So far, lettuce and other leafy greens are popular options to grow this way, because they offer the highest yields with the least amount of labour. Compared to regular farming, vertical farms have 50 times greater production per square meter. For every indoor acre farmed, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be returned to their original ecological state. Vertical farming is also much less resource intensive and uses 90% less water than conventional cultivation techniques.
The biggest challenge facing vertical farming is the expense of powering them. Projects that are not located in greenhouses rely on artificial light, which requires a constant source of energy. LED technology could be the key to vertical farming’s financial success. In the past 4 years, LED lighting costs have reduced by half while their efficiency has more than doubled. Scientists have discovered that they can further reduce the amount of energy required by limiting the wavelengths produced by the LED lights. Plants require only certain light wavelengths for growth and photosynthesis, namely red and blue bands, and each plant has its own unique preference of the mix and duration of light it receives. Lighting companies and universities are working in collaboration to develop various light recipes– aimed at optimizing crop yields and minimizing energy costs. Theses mixes give the greenhouses a futuristic pink glow. As renewable energy technology continues to improve, vertical farming will become even more economically viable.
Already, vertical farming has proved itself as a successful model and it’s estimated that the industry will grow to $6.4 billion by 2023. In 2012, a company called Sky Greens built the world’s first commercial vertical farm in Singapore. In the U.S., investment in vertical farming has exploded. In August 2017, Ikea and the Sheikh of Dubai invested 40 million in AeroFarms, the world’s largest vertical farm based out of Newark, New Jersey. In December 2018, Google Ventures invested 90 million in Bowery Farming, which plans to build large-scale vertical farms across the U.S..
According to Dickson Despomier, who is credited with coining the term ‘vertical farming’, “learning how to grow our food without damaging the environment will go a long way to helping humanity achieve the elusive but highly desirable goal: sustainability.” Vertical farming may not be able to solve all of the world’s food problems but represents a significant milestone in technology driven food production.
Jennifer Lavery has been with IBI for three years as part of the Transit Group and has worked on several exciting projects including the King Street Parklet. She is currently leading the CA on Laird Station as part of the ECLRT team.
Jennifer completed her Master’s at the University of Toronto and Parsons the New School for Design, in NYC. She has an undergraduate degree in Biology, and completed her thesis in Theoretical Ecology; always having a keen interest in sustainability. Prior to joining IBI, she worked on Interior Architecture projects including custom homes, restaurants and fitness centers.
Lead image by Michael Rivera via Wikimedia Commons.