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Verticality – the future of farming?

News Section Icon Published 24/10/2012


What do you do when you run out of space at home? Build some shelves is the answer for many. And the same principle is being applied to food production in the form of "vertical farming" – an important solution, some argue, to growing agricultural challenges, such as land unavailability and the rising food demands of an increasingly urban global population. We are always looking for viable alternatives to factory farming (see our recent blog post Extensive farming feeds the world), but what might vertical farming mean for the livestock industry? We take a look.

The rise of vertical farms

An ever-increasing number of us live in cities, far away from traditional farming areas. The common way of feeding us is to ship in the produce from more rural areas, where space is at less of a premium. Vertical farming seeks to reverse this trend, bringing the food to the people, which could potentially cut carbon emissions while increasing the freshness of the food.

And it’s not just a case of sticking a basic greenhouse on a roof. Take BrightFarms1, for example, which builds advanced hydroponic (soil-less) greenhouses on top of supermarkets to produce salads and tomatoes that are then sold just a storey below. The supermarkets’ excess heat can be used to regulate the temperature in colder months – smart thinking.

Vertical farming may be a growing trend, but it’s still very much in its infancy (as pointed out in this useful article in The Economist from 20102) and still produces a mere fraction of our cities’ food. But some argue that it will become much more widespread in decades to come. What might this mean for livestock farming?

Livestock and vertical farming

In all honesty, it’s hard to know whether vertical livestock farming could be economically, ethically and environmentally viable. But, as food for thought, here are two ideas, one positive and one negative, which play on the concept of vertically farming livestock:

A utopian vision

This idea by three South Korean students called the Circular Symbiosis Tower3 (hat tip to Inhabitat for the spot) presents a new habitat to raise cattle in an urban environment. According to the authors: “The skyscraper consists of spiralling platforms or grass fields where cows will be free to roam. After 30 days of habiting the same pasture they will rotate to the next level. At this point other animals like chickens will use the previous field until its grass has grown again. Transportation costs will be non-existent and the raised animals will have a better quality of life.”

A dystopian vision

As mentioned in this 2012 Wired feature4, this "Matrix-style vertical chicken farm" (created by architecture student André Ford) adopts a "Headless Chicken Solution"; a production method that removes the chickens’ cerebral cortex to "inhibit sensory perceptions". This would " the rising demand for meat [and] improve the welfare of the chickens by desensitizing them to the unpleasant reality of their existence." After this desensitisation process, the chickens could then by stacked vertically in gigantic urban farms, with muscle growth promoted by electric shocks.

And what about livestock crops – could these be grown in vertical farms? It’s a possibility, although these crops – such as cereals – are likely to have a far higher energy demand than salad leaves, and this could make the process prohibitively expensive and energy intensive. Furthermore, would the crops just have to be transported back out of urban environments into rural areas?

Vertical farming – flying high for livestock?

Vertical Farming is a tempting notion, and the opportunities for Star Trek-esque5 thinking have clearly captured the imaginations of many. But there are some clear conundrums to answer before it takes off. Given that a central trait of vertical farming is making best use of small horizontal spaces, would we just be shifting factory farming (and all of the associated impacts) from rural areas to urban areas? And although land is at a premium, the reality is that extensive farming can actually make use of land that we can’t use – steep, marginal hillsides, for example, are perfect for sheep grazing. We’re open-minded about the potential of vertical farming and will certainly keep our eyes peeled for developments.

Our sources

  1. Bright Farms (2012), How it Works
  2. The Economist (2010), Vertical Farming: Does it Really Stack Up?
  3. Evolo (2011), Vertical Farm
  4. Wired (2012), Food Project Proposes Matrix-Style Vertical Chicken Farms
  5. Memory Alpha (2012), Airponics Bay

Huge thanks to eVolo and André Ford for the images (cc)


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