By 2025, the world’s population will swell from 6.6 billion to 8 billion people. Climate simulations predict sustained drought for the American Midwest and giant swathes of farmland in Africa and Asia. Is mathematician Thomas Malthus’s 200-year-old prediction, that human growth will one day outpace agriculture, finally coming to pass? Advances in farming technology have kept us fed so far, but the planet’s resources are tapped.
The choice is clear—rethink how we grow food, or starve. Environmental scientist Dickson Despommier of Columbia University and other scientists propose a radical solution: Transplant farms into city skyscrapers. These towers would use soil-free hydroponic farming to slash demand for energy (they’ll be powered by a process that converts sewage into electricity) while producing more food. Farming skyward would also free up farmland for trees, which would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even better, vertical farms would grow food near where it would be eaten, thus cutting not only the cost but the emissions of transportation. If you include emissions from the oil burned to cultivate and ship crops and livestock in addition to, yes, methane from farm-animal flatulence, agriculture churns out nearly 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
You can’t buy vertically grown groceries just yet. Most urban farming efforts have been small-scale experiments run in neighborhood parks. Despommier’s vision is bigger: a $200-million, 30-story tower covering an entire city block, stuffed with enough fruit, vegetables and chickens to feed 50,000 people. “With waste in and food out, a vertical farm would be like a perpetual-motion machine that feeds a lot of people,” he says. Most of the technology already exists, he adds, and with some refining, the project could be up and running quickly if granted 0.25 percent of the subsidies paid to American farmers in the past decade—a piddling $500 million.
Despommier is advising investors in Abu Dhabi and South Korea who are considering vertical farms for new eco-cities. Seattle and Las Vegas are investigating similar, smaller concepts. Turn the page to explore the farm of the future, inspired by cutting-edge research from agricultural companies and scientists. With any luck, it will help repel the Malthusian catastrophe for another 200 years.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.