February 17, 2009 More than 50% of our planet's massive human population is concentrated into urban centres - and on current estimates, that's likely to be as high as 80% by the year 2050, a year many of us will be around to see. So the challenge facing today's forward-thinking architects is how to create positive outcomes out of a crushing space constraint. Going upwards, in projects like Eugene Tsui's Ultima Tower and the London Vertical Village concept, seems to offer some practical solutions to the living space conundrum - but what about feeding all those people? Vertical Aeroponic Farming seems to be an idea whose time has come - it will let us use land, nutrients, power and water much more efficiently than ever before, while delivering a quality-controllable, year-round and emissions-positive food source for urban communities. Eric Vergne's Dystopian Farm is a design study that examines how a vertical farm might use the latest in agricultural and architectural technology to feed the cities of the future.
A looming global food crisis
For all our many advancements and civil societies, modern humanity is a ticking time-bomb of violence and destruction if certain key criteria aren't met. The most telling is food - Britain's MI5 security agency operates on the famous maxim that any society is only four missed meals away from complete anarchy - if some catastrophe interrupts the supply of food, widespread looting and rioting will quickly follow.
That catastrophe is becoming easier and easier to imagine, with vastly overcrowded and growing cities becoming ever more separate from their food sources. And consider this: with the population continuing to grow pretty much everywhere in the world except Western Europe, we're already farming more than 80% of the land that's suitable for crops - arable land which is disappearing at a rate of more than 100,000 square kilometres per year due to poor land management and deforestation.
Much of the third world is already in a serious food crisis - but with global food prices jumping a massive 75% since 2000, the developed world, its cities and urban areas are being affected for the first time. This is not a problem that will go away - the World Bank estimates that global food demand will *double* by 2030. It seems clear that some radical thinking is needed in the short-term to avert a global hunger epidemic in our lifetime, and the social upheaval that will go with it.
But how do we create food out of thin air?
Perhaps by growing it *in* thin air. Growing plants in soil may be the most obvious and 'natural' way to produce food crops, but it's by no means the most efficient, and the vast spread of variables in any patch of natural dirt makes for a poorly controlled production environment.
All plants really need to grow and thrive is light, water, nutrients, oxygen at the roots and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. Dirt can be a supplier of nutrients, but isn't necessary in and of itself - hence the effectiveness of hydroponic plant growth, in which the plant's roots are submerged in nutrient-rich water.
But water in itself is becoming more and more scarce a commodity - and the more recent technology of aeroponics has proven itself to be a significantly more water- and energy-efficient means for food production.
Aeroponic plant growth basically suspends the plant in midair, while a mist of water combined with nutrients is sprayed over the root structure. As such, it requires vastly less water than hydroponic or soil growth, and also significantly less of the nutrient substances. Plant growth is excellent, waste is minimal and the planting and harvesting processes are exceptionally simple.
Because the roots aren't constantly surrounded by dirt or water, the plant's environment is much easier to control. Different nutrient solutions can be substituted at will with no wastage, and the entire nutrition and water programme can be managed with absolute control. Plants can be kept separate to control diseases and pests, and different optimal environments can be created for the roots and "above-ground" sections of each plant.
The results? Up to 98% less water usage, 60% less fertiliser, big, healthy plant growth and no need for pesticides. Impressive.
NASA has been examining aeroponics as a promising candidate for a "space food" program suitable for food production on other planets or long space journeys - but its more immediate Earthbound applications may prove far more urgent.
Vertical farm concept for Manhattan
Eric Vergne's Dystopian Farm concept is a design study examining how an advanced aeroponic farming system could operate in a vertical, urban environment.
Its shape, inspired by the cell structure of ferns, might be a bit out there, but the structure is designed to provide a large, dense and efficient space in which aeroponic industry can produce a large volume of food all year round.
The building contains growing space, residential space and a series of markets which can sell the fresh produce with virtually no transport costs. Adjustable lighting takes care of the different needs of each stage of plant growth, from initial flowering to cloning and vegetative growth, and the building's spine-like curvature renders it strong and earthquake-resistant to let it reach higher.
The Dystopian Farm took out third prize out of 416 entrants in Evolo's 2009 Skyscraper Competition - and while it's by no means yet a practical solution, it highlights the potential of aeroponics in combination with high-density urban high-rise farming.
Where to from here?
Perhaps with the right sort of automation technology, aeroponic farms could be made even more vertically dense, with just a foot or two between matrix levels, automatic planting, care, harvesting and packaging, resulting in a super high-efficiency organic food factory.
With bumper crops year-round and high production from a tiny Earth footprint, surely these aeroponic vertical farms could become an economically attractive use of land. Government policy and assistance would surely reflect the efficiency of such a progressive solution as population concentration and food supply problems continue to increase.
We congratulate Vergne on his design's success, and look forward to seeing a growing focus on high-density, high-efficiency food production as aeroponic technology improves.
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