When people hear the term sustainable future, they usually imagine modern sky scrapers, flying cars, and everything with a shiny steel and glass surface. I like to refer to this image as our Jetson-like future. A future where technology makes our lives much more efficient and easy. Where architecture is state of the art and we’ve somehow managed to solve all major issues regarding waste, resources, transportation and communication. Little do most people know, we are currently heading along that very path. Though we might not be living in high-rise platforms and taking the family rocket-car to work, we have developed the technology to begin living more sustainably. Our future is here and it’s our job to start adapting if we want to keep up.
According to a study overseen by microbiologist, ecologist, and Columbia Professor Dr. Despommier, a group of students set out to research what it might take to provide a sustainable method for providing food for all of New York City. Originally the students examined how much food they could grow if every rooftop had a garden, but after processing the final calculations realized that if they were to hypothetically grow rice on every rooftop in New York, they could only feed two percent of the city’s population. By introducing the concept of vertical farming and replacing all the abandoned buildings in the state with roughly a hundred vertical farms (in which each thirty story farm could feed fifty thousand) they found that they could feed the entire state.
So what is a vertical farm? In 2008 a company called AeroFarms leased an old steel yard from Grammer, Dempsey & Husdon where they erected a brand new building built upon the old frame of the previous structure. With tables stacked twelve layers tall they began to grow kale, bok choi, watercress, arugula, red-leaf lettuce, mizuna, and other salad based greens. The challenge of how to grow crops stacked vertically inside a controlled environment without soil, sunlight, or large amounts of water, leads to the concept of aeroponic farming.
Aeroponic farming provides water and nutrients to crops by spraying them with a fine, nutrient rich mist. As a result, this specific type of farming uses seventy percent less water than tradition agriculture methods. Another positive effect of not weighing down plants with heavy amounts of soil and water is the ability to move and hang them more easily, allowing them to be stacked high off the ground. In the 1990s NASA began experiments regarding agricultural growth aboard space shuttles and the International Space Station with the added challenge of plant growth in microgravity environments. NASA’s experiments with aeroponic farming have developed plants with higher yields of minerals and vitamins providing food that is essentially more nutritious.
Ed Harwood, associate professor at Cornell’s school of agriculture, developed and patented a special fabric specific for vertical farming. With fibers woven from recycled plastic water bottles, the thin white fleece is able to hold plant seeds while they germinate and continue to hold plants upright as they grow. The roots extend below the cloth and come to rest in a nutrient rich water spray.
Today vertical farms currently exist in various shapes and sizes in Seattle, Detroit, Houston, Brooklyn, Queens, and just outside Chicago. The leading company in the industry, AeroFarms, which is currently supplying vertical farm grown food to the New York Times and Goldman Sachs employees, is looking at expanding in all metro areas across the country, and eventually, the world. Their goal is to create an opportunity to distribute products locally, thereby saving time, transportation costs, fuel, and not to mention, CO2 emissions.
Sweden in particular has fully embraced the concept of vertical farming with the introduction of their first Plantagon. As “clean tech and climate smart” vertical greenhouses, Plantagons have the potential for leading the way in new and innovative agricultural practices by combining resources. Click here for a four minute video covering the in depth and intricate relationship between Sweden’s bio gas facility, state-of-the-art waste incineration plant, and Plantagon. Developed together with Sweco, the first Plantagon greenhouse is expected to house vertically grown vegetables in a mostly urban area and Swedish architects hope that the new greenhouse will provide solutions to issues surrounding excess energy, heat, and water usage while reducing waste and CO2 emissions.
Designed to be a multifunctional building, Sweden’s first one hundred and ninety-three foot tall, eighteen story, Plantagon, functions as both a greenhouse and an office building with a glass wall facing south towards the Sun and the north side housing a seventeen floor work space. Sweden’s Plantagon will be able to produce ten times the amount of food than the tradition greenhouse covering the same square footage. Overall the facility is able to maintain premium quality while providing additional benefits in air quality for employees in the office space from the extra oxygen created by the plants inside. Designs for other additional Plantagons will vary based on location and the architectural angles needed for maximum sunlight availability.
In 2003 a team of Dutch scientists revealed the first lab-grown hamburger which was sold for $330,000. In another recent development American company Memphis Meats fried the first ever lab-grown meatball which was then sold for $18,000 per pound. Participants lucky enough to taste the beef said they barely recognized a difference between the lab-grown beef and farm raised beef. Scientists hope that in just a few years lab produced meat will begin appearing in restaurants and supermarkets.
The top challenge currently faced is the need for consumers to overcome the “ick factor”. However, opinions might change based on the many positive effects. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that demand for meat, between the years 2011 and 2020, will increase in the United States by 8%, Europe by 7%, and Asia by 56%. In an alternate study the Natural Resources Defense Council states that meat consumption in the U.S. is actually decreasing.
Thirty percent of the world’s ice free surface is farm land strictly dedicated not to growing food for people but for the grain we feed to livestock. Livestock production (meat, milk, and eggs) contributes to forty percent of global agricultural gross domestic product and one third of the world’s fresh water supply. According to an article published by Brian Walsh from Time Magazine, “the highest total of livestock-related greenhouse-gas emissions comes from the developing world, which accounts for 75% of the global emissions from cattle and other ruminants and 56% of the global emissions from poultry and pigs.”
Benefits from pursuing cultured meat include reducing the amount of methane produced from cattle, switching farmland from feed based agriculture to consumption based agriculture, and an overall reduction in water usage. As of right now scientists cannot determine specific added health benefits to consuming cultured meat, but have suggested that lab-grown meat might be better because it has been produced in a sterile environment, free of dangerous bacteria, and significantly reduce saturated fats which could then be replaced with healthier omega-3 fatty acids. The result of such experiments is a healthier hamburger. According to the Washington Post the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pathogens in conventional meat are the most common sources of fatal food-related infections”. The resulting use of antibiotics in animals for fighting disease and helping growth have been identified as the source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria dangerous to people. One such hormone, estradiol, has been banned in Europe since 2003 but is still administered to farm animals in the United States today.
On the other hand pig related meats such as ham, sausage, and bacon include potentially carcinogenic (cancer causing) compounds that would be more difficult to remove. These compounds include nitrites and nitrates which are responsible for preserving the meat during processing. Because cultured meat is sterile it would require fewer of these compounds to fight bacteria but still require some to prevent oxidation and maintain its original appealing color.
Overall, there are certain possible harmful qualities that cannot be removed from meat. These include heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heme iron which can cause DNA damage but are also responsible for enticing color and flavor.
According to co-founder and chief executive officer of Memphis Meats, Uma Valeti, “we’re not there yet, but in just a few years, we expect to be selling protein-packed pork, beef and chicken that tastes identical to conventionally raised meat but that is cleaner, safer and all-around better than meat from animals raised on farms.”
There are many aspects to achieving our Jetson-like future; food production is just one of them. In a world of finite resources we constantly face the issue of over usage and unsafe industry practices. There are already many different ways that we can combat these issues and we must pursue them, because we only have one planet and it’s our job to do all that we can to make sure we keep our environment happy and healthy.
-Posted by Carly