The global agriculture system has benefited from technological advances, and scientists and farmers continue to search for ways to combine technology with agriculture to feed increasing numbers of people. Examples can be seen across the globe: Japan hosts an indoor lettuce farm, vertical farming takes place in Singapore, and hydroponic rooftop gardening can be found in New York. Many countries in Europe, such as Sweden, contain buildings designed with agriculture in mind. These “plant-scrapers,” shown below, serve to produce food and are aesthetically pleasing, attracting outside visitors in a process known as agro-tourism. These innovations are trendy, but trends are not always practical.
Plant-scrapers exemplify a technological advance to the food production system that is an entertaining but unrealistic solution for feeding the world. This is a daunting task in itself, as current food production must double by the year 2050 in order to meet future need (Foley et al. 2011). Plants require soil, water, and sunlight to grow, all of which must be supplied to an indoor setting. The most costly of these is providing enough light, which is passively obtained in an outdoor setting. If vertical farms were used to produce a year’s amount of wheat in the United States, running only the lights would require eight times as much electricity as the nation’s current utilities can supply in a year. This would only free up 15% of the nation’s cropland. Growing corn in the same manner would require 40 times the nation’s energy. Even growing just vegetables indoors would necessitate the doubling of the current power supply, and this would only free up 2% of crop land. These numbers don’t consider the energy required for climate control either, such as heating in the winter and cooling in the summer (Cox and Tassel 2010). Examining these inputs discredits the idea that vertical farming is an efficient use of space and resources. Agricultural solutions must be sustainable and scalable, neither of which apply to indoor growing.
The danger of promoting unrealistic growing methods is a resulting decrease in appreciation for large scale rural farming. The majority of the world’s food is generated this way, and incorporating traditional forms of agriculture into the urban environment is an alternative way to bring agriculture to the city without building high-input indoor systems. An analysis of Cleveland, Ohio found that using vacant lots, residential lawns, and hydroponic gardening on industrial and commercial rooftops can supply up to 100% of the city’s fresh produce need (Grewal and Grewal 2012). Additionally, outdoor urban agriculture can help reduce the urban heat island effect, mitigate storm water impacts, and lower the amount of energy that goes into food production (Ackerman et al. 2014), benefits that are lost when agriculture is moved indoors.
While plant-scrapers may not be a global solution, they do help increase awareness about sustainability issues. An indoor growing facility is intriguing and can help city dwellers reconnect with the natural world. The United Nations reported that 54% of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and this is expected to rise to 66% by the year 2050. Currently, the world contains 28 megacities with populations of over 10 million people; this number is expected to increase to 41 megacities by the year 2030, less than 6 years away. Inspiring urban dwellers to consider global food issues is therefore important, and urbanites may be inspired to start their own gardens upon seeing a beautiful plant-scraper. Plant-scrapers should not be viewed as the way of future farming, but seen as one way for a city to generate food with a limited amount of space.
Demanding forms of agriculture that can help feed the world in a sustainable manner is more important than demanding a flashy, futuristic form of farming that is less efficient. Incorporating plant-scrapers into cities should be done with the knowledge that these buildings contribute to the local food supply, but come at a cost and are not scalable on a global level. We must acknowledge the reality of our global state of agriculture and demand practical solutions; nature has mastered both form and function and we should strive to do the same.