Recently I’ve been intrigued by the concept of vertical farming. The idea of having stacks upon stacks of automated food production pods dispersed throughout a city resonates in one’s imagination.

It’s so beautifully Sci-Fi, especially when contrasted with the industrial image of a combine harvesting vast acres of land. It goes without saying that we owe a lot to our current agriculture system, but there’s no reason we can’t imagine a better one.

The Concepts Behind the Food

Tiered Vertical Farming

Vertical farms get their “vertical” from the tiered growth structure. Forgoing soil and instead using hydroponics allows for layers and layers of crops. This lets us to grow crops in three dimensions instead of two.

It’s skyscrapers for food.

On top of multiplying crop yield by the height of the building these farms can speed up the growth of their crops as well

The idea is to create a completely controlled environment. Water, nutrients, light, temperature and sometimes even gas concentrations are all set to maximize crop growth and minimize waste. It creates and incredibly efficient system.

Vertical Farming benefits

  • Less Water usage
  • Less land usage
  • No pesticide usage
  • Increased crop yields
  • Year-round growth
  • Resilience against inclement weather
  • Closer proximity to populations

They’re better in pretty much every metric, except one. Unfortunately, it’s a big one.

Vertical Farming Uses a lot of Electricity

Power Lines

Keeping environments so carefully controlled requires a lot of energy. Energy to power the lights, A/C, heat, water pumps, and any robots that are being used to automate processes. Mostly lights though.

Vertical farming doesn’t use sunlight, which means leaving a lot of free energy on the table. Energy which needs to be taken from the grid.

This in itself isn’t an issue, except that currently our grid is fossil fuel powered. Which is a big issue. It’s like a bright-eyed intelligent kid with a deadbeat parent.

No vertical farming, you didn’t fail. Our power grid failed you.

Still this is the primary factor keeping vertical farms from being viable. We’ll need to solve our energy problem before we can implement them on a large scale.

A Vertical Farm Powered by Renewable Energy.

Luckily there’s no rule that says that you have to get your energy from the grid. One of the beautiful advantages to solar is that you can buy and install them yourself and put them anywhere that gets sun.

If we continue to see the price of solar panels drop, there will be a time when buying panels to power a vertical farm will be a reasonable investment. If they need lots of energy, we can build more energy.

Currently there’s a stigma against things that use lots of energy because we view energy as something finite and tied to carbon emissions. This is only because carbon producing fuels are finite.

Infinite Power!

We’re never going to run out of silicon to make solar panels. Eventually we’ll be able to use clean energy to make more clean energy. We can make as much energy as we need.

Still, I do recognize that the idea of using solar panels to power vertical farms seems silly and complicated when the food itself can turn the sun into food just fine.

There are lots of places that are very sunny and can’t grow food though. When it comes to resources sun greatly outweighs fertile land. We could use deserts to make energy, have vertical farms in our cities, and leave the fertile land for the birds and bees.

This is a very optimistic scenario, but possible. Not probable, but possible.

Modularity

Along with large warehouse sized farms there’s also the possibility of smaller mass-produced pods. Many startups are already refitting cargo containers into portable farms. These could be mass produced and rapidly shipped to their final destination much more cheaply than having to build freestanding buildings.

The cargo container mini farms benefit from the fact that we already have a ton of cargo containers, and we’re good at moving them. (That’s what they’re for after all.) Unfortunately, they look like cargo containers, so they lose any visual wow factor.

Cargo Containers

This is pretty important. In order to get something adopted globally it needs to be economically viable and be desirable. No matter how well intentioned and efficient something is, if it looks ugly people won’t want it.

Vertical Farming Needs Good Marketing

We’re still monkeys after all, and shiny sells almost as well as sex. For this reason, I can’t see shipping container farms being the future, but it is good research and proof of concept.

If a mass-produced vertical farm pod were to be implemented in cities it would need a redesign. Something that serves the same purpose as a shipping container but isn’t a shipping container.

It would need to be strong, easy to produce and transport. It would also need to be immediately recognizable, shiny and something to be envied by others. “Wow you got the new iPhone! I’m so jealous! Wow your apartment building has a pool! I’m so jealous! Wow your apartment building has VertaPods! I’m so jealous!”

They need to be something that everyone can have, but doesn’t have. That way you’re a trendsetter if you get them when no one else does, and a Luddite if you don’t when everyone else does. Consumer technology is good at this and smartphones are the best at it.

I want them already. Anyhow, the actual shape is important and my moneys on hexagons. We can be like bees! Hexagons are a shape that is seen as both futuristic and natural, which is exactly what we’re going for here.

Bees!

Hexagonal pods meet every requirement with flying colors while also benefiting from the structural benefits that our buzzy friends figured out millions of years ago.

A failure through no fault of its own.

Perhaps not everyone shares my enthusiasm for shiny Sci-Fi farm pods, but it’s a shame that our power grid makes them environmentally unsustainable. There’s a lot of really cool stuff we could do if we didn’t have to worry about carbon production every time we use energy.

Vertical farming is the one that’s been on my mind but there are others. The high energy demand of desalination plants would be trivial if that energy was from a clean source.

My intention isn’t to demonize fossil fuel industries though. We have reached incredible levels of prosperity through their use. We owe fossil fuels a great debt of gratitude, but we have more advanced ways of producing energy now, so we should start using them.

Once we invest in shiny new solar panels, we can build all sorts of shiny new things.