At one time, land was essential to farming (really ‘of the essence’). Since then, we’ve “moved on”.
Yes, yes, yes… there is still one heck of a LOT of land used for farming. But now it is not due to being ‘of the essence’ but rather a matter of ‘what is cheapest’? (Do note that we only use about 11% of land as ‘arable’http://www.tradingeconomics.com/world/arable-land-percent-of-land-area-wb-data.html or about 4% of the global surface. There is a LOT of land that could be used for Agriculture if needed.)
Why do I say this? Pretty simple, really. We have worked out ways to farm industrially. Land is nice as a ‘grow medium’ but we can manufacture better. The natural fertility of the land stopped being very important with the invention of artificial fertilizers (such as the Haber Process). What started as enhancing the natural fertility of the land has progressed to creating the environment any given bit of life needs to grow optimally.
The key words in that sentence are “creating” and “optimally”.
My bias is toward holistic natural organic farming systems. My Grandparents (on Dad’s side) had a farm that was run that way in Iowa back “before the wars”. Dad grew up on it “between the wars”. Eventually it was sold after the wars. Anyone who says “Organic farming just can’t work” needs to realize ALL farming was “organic” prior to the synthetic fertilizer and pesticide advent. It can, and does, work quite well.
The problem isn’t getting it to work, or produce all you want to eat. The problem is get it to do that with low labor and cheaply. (My garden is 100% free of synthetic pesticides and mostly fertilized with “rabbit doo”, though I also use Miracle Grow for starting things in pots, and on some garden squares if I want to “juice them up” for some reason- though rarely. But more on that below…) I’ve also done some very small scale playing with hydroponics. Growing plants in water, not dirt.
But my one true love is the entirely self contained family farm with nutrient recycle on property and little “inputs”.
I’m also a bit of a technical sort. (Odd when you think of it as Grandma was Amish… who still run ‘low input’ farms today…) I like knowing how things work and doing just exactly the minimum to get the maximum. Something like what Engineers do. Optimize…
And that leads to the technical kind of farming. Typically various kinds of hydroponics, aeroponics, and related methods. Some of these use a ‘grow medium’ for the support of the roots. Rock wool, vermiculite, gravel, sand, most any kind of mostly inert and non-toxic stuff will do with greater or lesser features and costs. Aeroponics does away with that and just mists the plant roots in damp air.
You see, the plant just uses it’s roots to get water and the stuff dissolved in it. Doesn’t really care at all about the solids. They just provide “support”, that can be provided by plastic, metal, wood, rocks, sand, or just letting the roots hang from a plant held up by the stem and misted.
The magic is in the sauce.
How can this be done? We (meaning some other guys ;-) have figured out all the minerals a plant wants and how much of each. Put that in water, add to plant roots, and you are pretty much done. ( It does also need light, some dark, temperature control, humidity control, keeping away things that make it sick or eat it, and air with lots of CO2.) After that, putting it all “somewhere” can be anywhere from a pot on a shelf to a Styrofoam floating cup holder to a big bucket of sand. Or even dirt.
Which brings us back to Miracle Grow. It is a fertilizer mix that has everything your plants need. It comes (can come) with a sprayer that adds enough water that you don’t over fertilize your plants. At that point, really, you are doing a kind of poorly controlled hydroponics using “whatever” dirt you happen to have. It is only one short step from there to a full on hydroponic system.
In full hydroponics, you add frequent monitoring of the chemical mix (or a more expensive ‘dump and renew’) along with a physical structure to replace the “support” from the dirt. Then various pumps and timers and things to make sure that the right water / air mix gets to the roots. Sometimes added artificial lights (for growing off season or indoors) and perhaps some warming / cooling facilities and a greenhouse for year round growing.
But do realize that while coupling to a greenhouse is a generally good thing with hydroponics, they are distinct. The greenhouse controls pests, humidity, heat, cold, and sometimes (often?) lighting control and adding extra CO2. Hydroponics controls what is in the water. (Land based farming does the same thing only with different means and getting some of the needed plant food / minerals from the native dirt). A greenhouse can be over hydroponic grow systems, or over plain dirt or pots. Hydroponics can be used in open air, or in a closed building.
I won’t go into all the different variations on hydroponics. Just realize that there are thousands of variations on “grow medium” and the specifics of method of supporting and managing the physical plant. (Pots, boards with holes in them, troughs, etc. etc.) Aeroponics is just a highly specialized case of hydroponics where the ‘grow medium’ is air and the roots are kept humid and ventilated in an artificial way.
What About Animals?
Some decades back pigs and chickens moved indoors. Cows are most often held in ‘feed lots’ that are the same idea, minus the roof and air conditioning. (Though they have some kind of shade available for when things are bad).
The “factory farm”. Food for animals goes in. “Poo and pee” along with animals for market come out. Land need not apply. A pig does not know if it is in a pen in a barn, a “piggery”, or a skyscraper. ALL are used to grow pigs.
In many ways our meat and eggs supply stopped being land dependent some decades back.
Yes, there are still “free range cattle” and sheep love grass, not grains. That we can get all our meat from a skyscraper doesn’t mean we want to, or that ‘grass fed beef’ and lamb chops are not going to fetch a great premium.
The point is that we can, and do, “farm” without land; and animals have already gone there in a big way.
One of the laggards was fish. Even as recently as the 1970s, most fish were caught and ‘fish farming’ was a new thing. But things change. As of now, most fish is farmed. From trout in concrete raceways to abalone in tanks in sheds to ocean salmon in giant pen nets. In the ’80s I did some testing of the whole thing, thinking it might be fun to do in the back yard. It was remarkably easy to get a few hundred tilapia underway, and a lot more bother than I wanted for a hobby. But the reality is that fish are now farmed in much smaller areas, and some well away from oceans and rivers.
Closing The Cycle
There are even some magnificent systems that “close the cycle” with things like fish water cycling through plant growing regions and back, or pig poo digesting to make a nutrient soup used on crops. Again, the variety of approaches you can use are gigantic (since most of these are spectrum choices and you can set the various variables at different points on the various spectrums.)
That we have far too often had things “open loop” (so pig farms may have giant stinking ponds of poo that contaminate land and waterways) does not mean they must be that way. It just means that was a cheap way to do it and gave good profit to the farmer. Nothing at all prevents cycling that pig poo slurry back onto land growing corn or into a nutrient mix for hydroponic tomatoes. Essentially returning to the cycle used on the Amish farms (and all farms of 100 years ago) where “That don’t smell like ‘poo’, boy, that there is the smell o’ Money!”… as told to me slightly more colorfully on a farm in Indiana… as we ran the manure spreader…
This, in a very very high tech way is what will be done in space on space stations to have fresh foods (and incidentally clean up the air and water a little…)
Why mention all this old news?
Well, first off, because the Climate Doom Chicken Littles and their FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) pushing handlers have also been pushing a Scare Story about “Running Out!!!” of everything from metals and oil to fertilizers and land ending up at a food and water shortage scare. (Just how one can ‘run out’ of water when the planet surface is 70% water and nature recycles it and we know how to recycle it endlessly too is, er, ‘left for the student’…)
So they have seized on land as one of the obviously fixed sized things we just must run out of. And my point being that no, we don’t. We can intensify farming greatly if ever needed, getting up to 10 x the present production fairly easily and 100 times is in sight; at only modestly higher prices to produce (and in some cases cheaper…)
Secondly, a couple of buzz words have “hit the twitterverse” and media lately and have people buzzing. IMHO, they are a nice step forward, but mostly on the economic front. Technically, they are just more specialized and edge case variations on the basic hydroponics + greenhouse + aquaculture that has been around since Disney put it on display in The Land in Walt Disney World (Epcot) in the ’70s. Yes, that long ago. So long ago, in fact, that a couple of years ago they converted the giant dome full of hydroponic trees (yes, trees…) including a large palm tree or three into a “Soaring” ride – and pissed me off in the process. I loved the “Behind the seeds” tour through that giant space.
Now they still have grow areas, but they are shorter flat shed like things. Growing all sorts of plants, from fruits to melons to tomatoes and saladings. All used in their resorts. If you ate at one of their resorts, odds are you had something from their greenhouse hydroponic system.
But now it is so “ordinary” and “common” that putting in Yet Another Ride made more money. Oh Well.
But back at the current hot buttons.
Freight Farming, Vertical Farming, and Aquaponics.
First off, I’m not putting down Freight Farms. They work. It’s a great idea to package things in a standard shipping container. But LOTS of things are being built in standard shipping containers. This was just a matter of time. The big “breakthrough” that makes this possible was not in farming, but in lighting.
Very high efficiency lighting makes it much easier to add light into a closed system, like a shipping container, at an affordable (and hopefully competitive) price.
It is, in essence, just a standardized hydroponics system in a standardized shipping container with some high efficiency lighting and decent plumbing / automation. All good stuff.
Freight Farms is a company that modifies shipping containers for the purpose of year-round agriculture.
Brad McNamara and Jonathan Friedman founded the company with a Kickstarter campaign, raising $30,000 in 2011.
The containers can be stacked like shipping containers.
A hydroponic system replaces soil with circulating water, efficiently delivering necessary nutrients to the plants.
Produce quality is not affected by weather. Growing conditions can be precisely controlled. Light is provided by LEDs, saving energy versus other lighting methods. Overall, Freight Farms claims that individual containers require 30,000 kWh of electricity annually to run. Factors such as water, air quality and temperature can be monitored and adjusted from a smartphone. By growing things locally they eliminate the cost of shipping food a long distance.
The containers have designated spaces for different stages of plant growth, including a seedling and germination area for 2,500 plants and 256 vertical towers for the growth of over 4,500 mature plants. Stacking containers make it possible to create high density and high yield farms. Individual containers start at US$76,000.
These folks claim an acre equivalence:
One hydroponic shipping container = 1 acre, 24/7 sun.
But it is unclear if they mean equivalent grow area (unlikely) or production in a year (probably). Assuming the latter, $76k / acre is fairly steep for farm land, but not too far out of reach. For high value specialty foods, especially where land is scarce and shipping costs high, it can be profitable. New York City. Saudi Arabia. Hong Kong.
But the real point here is that it DOES work. Any increased cost in various foods from land ‘scarcity’ will just get more of these things stacked up.
(And for the inevitable Nervous Nellies who just have to chant about Running Out!!! Oh My!! of nutrients like phosphates: No, there isn’t any shortage of those for the foreseeable hundreds of years. But, if ever it were to become an issue… all that was ever used ends up eventually in the ocean. For thousands of years island farmers have harvested kelp, dried and sometimes burned it, and mixed it into the soil. It has all you need. So set some of these up near the ocean, pump in sea water, and turn kelp into fertilizer at an astounding rate.)
Aquaponics /ˈækwəˈpɒnɨks/, refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity. In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrification bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients. The water is then recirculated back to the aquaculture system.
As existing hydroponic and aquaculture farming techniques form the basis for all aquaponics systems, the size, complexity, and types of foods grown in an aquaponics system can vary as much as any system found in either distinct farming discipline.
It is important to note that the Chinese have had a system like this for centuries. From pig / fish / duck systems to shrimp ponds with plants in a corner. Yes, more land was used, but the basic nutrient cycle was the same. Pigs housed in pens over the water. Poo and pee fertilize the pond where plants grow. Fish and ducks eat the plants. People eat the pigs, ducks, and fish. And the cycle goes on. ]”Night soil” was often used in gardens and the produce could go to people, or pig food. Usually the pigs got the ‘slash’ and leftovers… then there’s this …
Some still in use… ( If “you are what you eat, I’m NOT eating that pig… ;-0 )
So “closing the nutrient cycle” is anything BUT new.
A pig toilet (sometimes called a “pig sty latrine”) is a simple type of dry toilet consisting of an outhouse mounted over a pig sty with a chute or hole connecting the two. The pigs consume the feces of the users of the toilet.
A fuuru (pig toilet) in early 20th century Okinawa
Pig toilets were once common in rural China, where a single Chinese ideogram (Chinese: 圊; pinyin: qīng) signifies both “pigsty” and “privy”. Funerary models of pig toilets from the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) prove that it was an ancient custom. These arrangements have been strongly discouraged by the Chinese authorities in recent years; although as late as 2005, they could still be found in remote northern provinces. Chinese influence may have been the origin of the use of pig toilets in Okinawa before World War II.
Pig toilets are also a tradition in Goa, a state on the west coast of India. A 2003 survey of sanitary arrangements in Goa and Kerala found that 22.7% of the population still used pig toilets.
The modern aquaponics dresses this up quite a bit and makes it a lot more sanitary… with plants getting the poo.
Though my personal favorite is the shrimp pond system. One corner is filled with brush and slash as a place for small ones to grow. Over time, more “yard waste” or “farm slash” is added. This fertilizes the pond, where lots of things grow, that shrimp love to eat. Then we eat the shrimp. Primitive in some ways, but elegant in others. Been around a very long time, but I’m not sure how long.
Aquaponics just dresses this up in tech garb and has aquaculture (instead of a pond) and hydroponics (instead of a garden)… and skips the pig…
Vertical farming as a component of urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating plant life within a skyscraper greenhouse or on vertically inclined surfaces. The modern idea of vertical farming uses techniques similar to glass houses, where natural sunlight can be augmented with artificial lighting and metal reflectors.
I.e. it is just a giant greenhouse with more artificial lighting and stacked layers. Useful where land is very expensive and shipping in food is costly. Kansas not so much… Essentially, once LEDs are cost competitive with acres of land on the light providing scale, stacking your greenhouses is sort of an obvious next step. Though you will still find this being lauded as some kind of Great Leap Forward. Nice idea, sure. Leap? Um…
Ecologist Dickson Despommier argues that vertical farming is legitimate for environmental reasons. He claims that the cultivation of plant life within skyscrapers will produce less embedded energy and toxicity than plant life produced on natural landscapes. He moreover claims that natural landscapes are too toxic for natural, agricultural production, despite the ecological and environmental costs of extracting materials to build skyscrapers for the simple purpose of agricultural production.
Vertical farming according to Despommier thus discounts the value of natural landscape in exchange for the idea of “skyscraper as spaceship”. Plant life is mass-produced within hermetically sealed, artificial environments that have little to do with the outside world. In this sense, they could be built anywhere regardless of the context. This is unlikely to be advantageous with regards to energy consumption as the internal environment must be maintained to sustain life within the skyscraper. However, this is not necessarily the case, as one of the most important features of a vertical farm is that it would contain some form of renewable energy technology, be it solar panels, wind turbines, or a water capture system, and could contain all three. The vertical farm is designed to be sustainable, and to enable nearby inhabitants to work at the farm.
Despommier’s concept of “The Vertical Farm” emerged in 1999 at Columbia University. It promotes the mass cultivation of plant life for commercial purposes in skyscrapers.
A commercial high-rise farm such as ‘The Vertical Farm’ has never been built, yet extensive photographic documentation and several historical books on the subject suggest that research on the subject was not diligently pursued. New sources indicate that a tower hydroponicum existed in Armenia prior to 1951.
Basically another idea that has been “around” for about 1/2 Century at least, but not economical until now with cheap and very efficient lighting.
One of the earliest drawings of a tall building that cultivates food was published in Life Magazine in 1909. The reproduced drawings feature vertically stacked homesteads set amidst a farming landscape. This proposal can be seen in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. Koolhaas wrote that this 1909 theorem is ‘The Skyscraper as Utopian device for the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a metropolitan location’ (1994, 82).
Or maybe that ought to be a whole century…
Please don’t get me wrong on this: I’m thrilled that this very old SciFi idea is finally ready for production.
I just think it is wrong to paint it as some new idea sprung from whole cloth about to change the world. It is an incremental advance on a set of known technologies when the economics begin to support it. Like most things.
It does have advantages. Crops mature faster in ideal ‘weather’, and there are no seasons, so you can get 6 ‘turns’ or ‘crops’ a year. Add in more production per ‘acre’ from ideal conditions, and each ‘acre’ having 100 floors, you could easily get 1000 x the produce in a year per ground acre used. So again, not exactly a need for a lot more land for farming.
Then, despite the long history above, these folks think they have a patent on a skyscraper with an integrated greenhouse.
Building with integrated greenhouse
integrated_greenhouse Plantagon – Building with integrated greenhouse
Method and arrangement for growing plants
– Swedish, USA and PCT applications.
Um, isn’t a “greenhouse” a “building with integrated greenhouse”?…
I have to think that the patent is one of those things that really only covers some minor detail (like the specific kind of built in conveyor system hydroponic greenhouse) that is hyped as covering the whole idea of a highrise greenhouse; but gets tossed out on a challenge. In any case, a couple of decades on, patents expire. It will be that long before it really is very important to have more than a few of these as proof of concept.
My point here is simple. These are very nice technologies and well understood. In many cases, proven to work for decades or longer. It is just a matter of getting costs low enough, or shipping and land costs high enough for traditional farms, and farming will leave the farm land.
There is no limit on food, and there is no practical limit on land. Folks pushing those scare stories are either “useful idiots” or pushing an agenda. In any case, they don’t know much about either farming or tech history and have not read much Science Fiction where the farm in a building has been around for ages.
Older links in the “no shortage” series:
In keeping with that ULUM link, and with the patent claimed above for a greenhouse integrated skyscraper in mind:
I do hereby proclaim the invention of the Ultra Large Agriculture Ship (or smaller variations such as the Large Ag Ship). A ship with either “Freight Farming” modules or integrated farming (hydroponic, aquaculture, aquaponic, and / or traditional, hogs, chickens and any other livestock, or any growing of biologicals for industrial or medical or any other uses including as fuels) and declare my invention to be in the public domain. Either self powered or shore powered, with either on-board stores or stores delivered from shore. With or without on-board processing of products and supplies. Copy Left open source license applies, attribution expected.
Furthermore, I proclaim the invention of the Farm Train wherein a mobile “Freight Farming” or integrated type of system is installed on any vehicle using rails. Similarly Copy Left, attribution expected.
Finally, the “Floating Farm” is invented as a category of Ultra Large Agriculture Ship where the floating entity is a barge, or any other floating entity other than a ship, including floating buildings and cities. This, too, is placed into Copy Left, attribution expected.
Anyone wishing to build any of these may cite this posting and this proclamation as ‘prior art’ in defense against any patent claim.