The future is hungry

As we run low on arable land, science is bringing farming indoors.

Our tendency to mass in urban areas has long posed practical dilemmas, many of which concern a lack of space. But while city planners have mastered the construction of highrises, food production has remained relatively static; most of what we eat still grows outdoors, on farms well outside the city.

That, however, could soon change. As urban sprawl encroaches on the world’s arable land, and environmental disasters send food prices soaring, innovators are seeking to take agriculture off the farm. Such indoor farming — ranging from skyscraper greenhouses to in vitro meat — is altering our definition of agriculture and creating technologies that could stave off a global food crisis.

In the wake of flooding in Australia, droughts in Russia and uprisings in north Africa, food prices hit a record high in January, and experts predict it’s only going to get worse. With 80% of the world’s farmable land already in use, Dickson Despommier, an ecologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, says that in 50 years we would need “another Brazil-sized landmass” to feed the three billion people expected to be added to the global population. “That land doesn’t exist,” he says. “So you either have to get tremendously efficient with farming, or you have to figure out another way to produce that food.”

Despommier is heavily invested in the latter. For more than a decade, he has been fine-tuning what he calls “vertical farming,” a greenhouse-inspired concept that scales up a relatively niche technology. Though science has yet to hit upon an affordable artificial light source — a key obstacle to making agricultural skyscrapers commercially viable — Despommier envisions a future populated by greenery-filled glass towers. “Vertical farms, many stories high, will be situated in the heart of the world’s urban centers,” asserts the project’s website, promising year-round food production without pesticides.

Similar thinking is behind AeroFarms, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that has developed an indoor, soilless system of “urban agriculture.” By growing leafy greens in a cloth medium under LED lights, the technique eliminates the need for sunlight and pesticides, and dramatically reduces water consumption. “I like to think of it as protected agriculture,” says CEO Ed Harwood. “We’re controlling [external] threats to getting a good, high-quality crop.” Because of high cost, aeroponics is unlikely to supplant field crops, but Harwood sees great potential in growing leafy greens and vegetables in arid regions. (He recently shipped a growing unit to Saudi Arabia.)

A shortage of farmable land will also make it difficult to feed the animals we eat — which is breathing life into the burgeoning science of in vitro meat. By growing animal cell cultures in a broth, researchers in the Netherlands have been able to produce small strips of muscle tissue, which, under a microscope, looks just like the tissue found in ham or beef. The verdict on taste, however, is still out. As Eindhoven University physiologist Mark Post recently told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, “We don’t eat our experiments.”

To be sure, many of these innovations are still a long way from the dinner table. But as Despommier sees it, indoor farming is more a question of popular will — and capital investment — than anything else. “It’s the same situation we faced when we announced to the world that we were going to the moon,” he says. “Pour money at the problem, and you see what happens.”

Players to watch:

Nelson and Pade
Based in Wisconsin, it makes aquaponics systems that allow fish and plants to grow together in a soilless, mutually sustaining environment.

Plant Impact
The U.K.-based company is developing environmentally friendly technologies that boost crop nutrition and health while improving yields.