Ballpark Estimate: $80 million to $100 million
The traditional concept of farming may soon be taking a new twist. Up until now, most people have envisioned farms as outdoor sprawling fields located in the country, but in the future, the picture may be replaced with a citified version of three dimensional “farms” that will be located right on busy city streets inside tall buildings, with one “field” stacked floor after floor on top of the other in order to make the best use of dwindling resources and space.
If this vision of the future (referred to in modern agricultural circles as vertical farms) sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Basically, the premise is to use agricultural methods within urban high-rise buildings to raise fruit, vegetables, fish and livestock, which can be used to feed city residents. The farms would rely on rooftop solar panels and advanced technology to capture evaporating water in order to support their operations, so they wouldn’t need to diminish the supply of other valuable resources in order to exist.
The concept of vertical farming was the brainchild of a Columbia professor and his class who came up with the idea as a potential solution to address some dire future forecasts. By 2050 food shortages in urban areas could become frightening reality. The gap in resources versus need is driven by the fact that the world’s population is expected to double over the next four or five decades, with the majority of people clustering in urban centers. This means that more people will be competing for the limited available food and the fact that 85% of all available free farmland is already being utilized.
A Productive Alternative
Researchers estimate that just one acre of vertical farm can yield as much food as could be grown on 20 traditional acres. This efficiency can be an important aspect in feeding large numbers. In fact, one vertical farm climbing 30 stories high might be able to feed 50,000 people. Better yet, by incorporating some of the latest NASA technology and also calling on other existing resources, a vertical farm is not such a far-fetched idea. In fact, within the next decade or two, the first prototypes may exist.
Why Vertical Works
The rationale for vertical farms, which build upwards instead of outwards, is clear. It could minimize the need for additional farmland and can also operate and sustain itself within the challenge of current urban conditions. But the concept also goes a step further, incorporating a green element that has nothing to do with the color of the grass and everything to do with the environment impact. Experts predict that vertical farming could have a multitude of positive benefits on the future of the planet. For instance, it would reduce some of the problems that are currently associated with traditional farming methods by allowing the soil to return to its natural state, which could ultimately help regulate the world’s climate and weather patterns. In addition, the indoor setting would reduce the need for pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to grow healthy and bountiful crops.
Further, growing food within cities would prevent the need to transport crops from distant farmlands to urban areas which would reduce the food transportation carbon footprint. Vertical farms would also incorporate valuable strategies to transform waste into resources. For instance, vertical farms would be designed to purify sewage into fresh water and to generate electricity using decomposed byproducts. Maximizing resources in this fashion would allow the farms to be self-sufficient and reduce their total carbon output.
Vertical farms may be just around the corner, literally, if you live in the city. So you may wonder what building one would cost. That’s a tricky question, since there aren’t any comparable projects to consider when compiling an estimate. But engineers are taking the guesswork out of the estimation process by using existing construction costs for skyscrapers to produce a viable cost estimation.
The following is a basic cost estimation provided by the Columbia University think-tank that was involved in the conceptual creation of vertical farming:
- Sub-structure and electro-chromic glass shell – $25,000,000
- 1000 ton Geothermal HVAC – $2,500,000
- 400 ton chiller + cooling tower – $500,000
- Biogas to fuel cell cogeneration facility – $11,000,000
- 800 kWh/day tracking photovoltaic array – $500,000
- 4,500 kW water-cooled lighting system – $2,000,000
- Energy infrastructure and automation systems – $35,000,000
- Living machine-based water recycling system – $500,000
- Floating garden hydroponic system – $1,700,000
- Office and laboratory facilities – $5,000,000
Total Building Cost for vertical farming is around $83.7 million
Adding in the costs associated with annual operation and maintenance of a vertical farm, brings the total of this endeavor to over $100 million. While this may sound like an astronomical amount, it is could be worth the investment. Economists estimate that in about seven years, the profit in fresh produce alone could pay for the initial investment. In addition, the energy and water that a vertical farm would produce could not only sustain its own needs but also provide such important elements for others.
While the concept of building farms inside skyscrapers might today sound like a far-fetched idea, when the Earth’s population doubles and there is no more viable land to farm, planting vertical crops within city limits may one day become an obvious food production strategy.