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Vertical farms are not a new idea, but their viability and the motivation for their construction has reached new heights in recent years. Growing concerns about overpopulation and food supply are coming to the fore once again and indoor environmental control technologies are helping to make the idea a reality.

The current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050, then 11.2 billion in 2100, according to The World Population Prospects report: The 2017 Revision, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Such increases will put huge strain on our already stretched agricultural systems and the fact that the majority of growth will happen in cities only exacerbates the environmental footprint of the food supply chain.

“By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth’s population will reside in urban centers,” says Disckson Despommier in his book ‘The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century’. “An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today.”

Furthermore, according to the FAO and NASA, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is already in use and some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. The numbers just don’t add up and the consequences of doing nothing are not pleasant to think about; a solution is needed, and technology developed for the smart building movement may be part of it.

Smart buildings have taken great strides in controlling the indoor environment for the benefit of occupants. Lighting systems mimic sunlight to help people feel more alert at work and restful at home in the evening. Smart environmental controls ensure occupants are comfortable, even accounting for each person’s unique preferences.

Mastering the “artificial” indoor environment for adaptable humans is one thing but reinventing the outdoor environment for plants seems to be something else entirely. Vertical farming is the practice of producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers or vertically inclined surfaces, these can also be integrated into other structures such as buildings. The recent emergence of vertical farming uses indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture technology, where all environmental factors can be manipulated by the “vertical farmers”. Some vertical farms are now incorporating the natural environment, using glass like a greenhouse for example.

Whether 100% controlled or not, vertical farms monitor and manage light and environmental control elements such as humidity, temperature, air quality and fertigation. Like The Future Workplace, which controls the worker environment to increase productivity, the vertical farm aims to increase the quality and quantity of its produce. Driven by the falling price of sensors and other technology, many innovative vertical farm projects are already well underway.

Following a $200 million investment this summer – the largest agriculture-tech funding round in history – San Francisco based vertical farming startup Plenty is expanding. The company is opening a second farm in the greater Seattle area, and the 100,000-square-foot warehouse facility is expected to grow 4.5 million pounds (over 20 million kilograms) of green vegetables each year, enough to feed around 183,600 Americans, according to the USDA.

The company, which grows fruits and veggies under LED light, using a cloth made from recycled plastic instead of soil, intends to sell its organic produce for the same price as traditional produce. Looking further, Plenty hopes to drive down its operational costs by automating their growing processes as much as possible – which you’d expect is quite a lot in such a controlled environment.

East London startup GrowUp Urban Farms is pioneering the field of aquaponic farming in the UK. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient rich solution other than soil) – potentially inspired by the ancient Chinese practice of farming fish in rice paddies. Business partners Kate Hofman and Tom Webster have developed their farming methods to enable a year-round production of fresh fish, leafy salad crops and herbs, in an energy and space efficient controlled environment.

Built directly in urban centres these smart farms can reduce the significant environmental footprint and congestion created by the traditional food supply chain. Free of pesticides and pollution the food produced by these farms should be of high quality, and the scalability of farms means they can grow to meet increasing demand. Energy and water efficiency also provide important environmental benefits.

The traditional image of rural farmland is already an endangered species, replaced by heavily mechanized, industrial, dystopian farming complexes largely run by engineers and businessmen. The smart green urban vertical farm may take our agricultural system further from nature but it also solves many of our food supply problems, potentially making it a glimpse into the high-tech future of agriculture.