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It may come as a surprise, but there’s a big problem with your appetite.
Well, not yours specifically. Perhaps I should say it’s the way that the Western world produces the food, not the foods that it eats, that’s contributing to the destruction of the planet. Fortunately for all of us, this won’t be a conversation about obesity. This is a conversation about how we provide the ingredients.
Right now, our current methods of agricultural production are quietly stifling the health of the environment. Beginning with its most tangible impact, agriculture is the world’s number one contributor to deforestation. National Geographic reports that a swath of forest the size of Panama is cut down on average annually, most frequently using “slash-and-burn” techniques. This method has a two-fold consequence. The lack of forest reduces the environment’s ability to take in carbon, which is ironically released in huge amounts during the man-made forest fire associated with this practice.
Further, according to the Pacific Institute, global agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. This is largely due to flood irrigation, an outdated method of watering crops that is still one of the most common practices in the world, both domestically and abroad. Only about half of the water used in flood irrigation actually waters the crops — the rest either evaporates or ends up as runoff, making its efficiency abysmal.
The bill doesn’t stop there. Pesticides and fertilizers — up by a 26-fold increase, or 2,500 percent, in agricultural usage in the past 50 years — end up in lakes, rivers and streams, harming the fragile affiliated ecosystems. Half of the world’s topsoil, which acts as a sealant keeping erosion from occurring, has been lost in the past 150 years due to agriculture. With less topsoil to hold on to pollutants and sedimentation, more harmful runoff enters streams and harms the wildlife that depend on them. Topsoil losses also promise to increase flooding and the destruction of arable land. Fortunately, there may be a green solution.
Enter indoor farming. In a world where sheep can be cloned and hamburgers grow in a petri dish, it should come as no surprise that a viable solution to our food-farming crisis would resemble a laboratory setting. While this is a far cry from the overalls and reddened skin one might associate with traditional agriculture, only a calculated solution is going to solve a global problem.
The concept is relatively simple: Using synthetic lighting and indoor housing, the world could begin a new type of agricultural production that largely does away with the problems of past farming efforts. In an era where abandoned buildings seem plentiful in urbanized landscapes (think Detroit), the odds of finding housing projects of this scale are large.
The advantages of a switch to large-scale urban farming are lengthy. To start, clear-cutting of trees would be done away with, as the buildings scouted for indoor farming would likely already be in existence. Food could be grown year-round, and without the risk of crops being ruined by inconsistencies in weather patterns, crop yields would be much higher, especially if Crop Spraying Services are prioritized. Further, using hydroponics and soil stabilization — growth spurred, using mineral-rich water solutions — completely dissipates the risk of outdoor soil erosion. These principles are all encompassed in the approach Chicago-based company FarmedHere has taken, and the business model has proven successful.
FarmedHere boasts a 97 percent water efficiency rate, reducing reliance on a resource whose supply has become more and more limited in an era of climate change. The company’s success also highlights a plethora of unseen advantages of locally grown produce. According to their website, most lettuce travels 1,200 miles before arriving at its consumer’s table. With vegetation limited to one region, FarmedHere’s sales are strictly local, cutting down on the emissions generated by trans-state shipping. Plus, all of their hiring is from within the community, boosting local economies. FarmedHere is a shining example of large-scale indoor growing operations in the nation; another is Green Sense Farms of Indiana. The existence of these two companies proves that vertical urban farming isn’t just a viable idea, but a practical and proven one.
Efforts abound internationally as well. Take Shigeharu Shimamura’s Tokyo-based indoor farming operation, for example. With a 25,000 square-foot facility, its numbers are staggering — producing a self-claimed “10,000 heads of lettuce per day (100 times more per square foot than traditional methods), with 40 percent less power, 80 percent less food waste and 99 percent less water usage than outdoor fields.” The company has plans to expand to several other nations, with construction in Hong Kong already underway.
Of course, with all new innovations, there are massive barriers to entry. While the LED lighting used by such facilities allows for precise control of plant exposure to light, it’s also an incredibly expensive technology, and that still doesn’t address the issue of how one would power such facility. Although they use less energy to grow produce than traditional farms would, it’s still burdensome to allocate power to one urban location. In an ideal future, green technology could be used to completely offset the costs of establishing such a massive lighting operation, but solar panels and wind turbines still require sums of capital that most startups couldn’t immediately get their hands on.
Still, indoor farming presents a fascinating new approach to the very thing that spurred civilization — agriculture. Perhaps when our grandchildren look into history books, this will be portrayed as a leap by humanity equally as vital — the transition from wasteful societies to a complete sustainability.
Contact CU Independent Assistant Opinion Section Editor Sam Schanfarber at firstname.lastname@example.org.