No other species besides humanity has radically altered the surface of the planet to grow food. Some ant species raise and harvest fungi, but most creatures survive on naturally occurring plants and animals. The development of farming techniques allowed mankind to spread into every habitable corner of the world, but at a very high price environmentally. Vertical farming systems are an increasingly realistic alternative to current production practices.
As arable land and water supplies suitable for large-scale agriculture continue to decrease due to over-use and climate change, new methods of food production are no longer considered the realm of science fiction. The idea of creating farms in buildings that stretch upward rather than outward has existed for decades, but has not been considered a large-scale alternative until this century.
The idealized vision of a peaceful family farm has disappeared in real life. To be profitable, big agriculture must rely on industrial practices that stress heavy pesticide use and practice mono-culture with genetically engineered plants. Even though few people would sensibly or realistically argue for scaling down agribusiness, current practices have resulted in fragmented natural ecosystems and disappearing habitats.
Back-yard or deck gardens often make use of multi-tiered pots having several growing levels, and large-scale vertical agriculture uses the same principles. Many plants that are traditionally raised on large outdoor plots actually thrive when planted in upright structures. When applied to high-rise agriculture, comparable harvests are produced using less soil and supplemental fertilizer, allowing farms to flourish in the shadow of skyscrapers.
These methods expand on the same principles used by greenhouses, which have existed in various forms for hundreds of years. Theoretically, the inhabitants of a major city could grow enough food for all inhabitants without resorting to imports. Although most of the experimental farms today concentrate on plant-life, animals such as chickens or pigs already adapt well to life in small spaces.
The advantages of this type of growing system are numerous. As long as the power supply remains consistent, there is little or no weather-related crop damage. Pesticide runoff that currently plagues agricultural areas becomes practically non-existent, as does reliance on fossil fuels to power machinery or make field fertilizers. Water can easily be reclaimed and reused, and there are fewer opportunities for plant and animal disease transmission.
High-rise agriculture eliminates most field waste, and what little remains can be recycled. Methane is a by-product of some forms of big agriculture, but in a vertical system the gas can be captured and used to help generate electricity, and the excess added to the grid. Large-scale upright growing practices would create employment for urban workers, who could produce local food on a year-round basis.
The biggest winner would be the environment. If human farm production outdoors were to be cut back significantly, many ecologically and environmentally stressed areas would immediately begin to recover, as has happened before with older, collapsed civilizations that have been reclaimed by nature. While this concept will probably never completely eliminate traditional methods of farming, it is a concept that is becoming increasingly practical.
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