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BW Businessworld

A Thought For Food

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A conservative estimate by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization early this year shows nearly one billion — one for every seven people living on Earth — goes to bed on an empty stomach. The future seems scarier; over the next four decades, the global population of 7 billion will swell by half. Feeding all of them is going to be a daunting task, if not humanly impossible. That is even if the current growth of farm output is sustained.

If the population increases as projected, an additional 1 billion hectare of arable land should go under cultivation. Such a large tract of land — nearly 20 per cent more land than the area of Brazil — can never be available particularly when ever-expanding cities are gobbling up adjoining farmlands. Besides, working the soil is already an uncertain venture due to high rate of soil and water depletion and adverse impact of climate change. So, such a humongous problem indeed demands an out-of-the-box thinking.

The Vertical Farm by Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and environment health expert, puts forward an innovative high-tech solution to tackle the impending food shortage. Farming, it says, can be taken to tall buildings where different floors can be assigned to grow different crops. Such sky-scrapers with temperature and water control mechanisms and in-house energy supply can come up in cities. A city-dweller's staple cereals, vegetables and fruits can be produced in the building next door, helping them vastly reduce their farm-miles.

Bizarre it may sound, but the logic behind the thinking is simple. Farming indoors is not new to humans. Many regions in the world, particularly those in arid regions, have over decades perfected hydroponic growing techniques. Besides, many commercially viable crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and many herbs are already being raised in greenhouses.

But the challenge lies in taking it to a dimension that was never thought of. It is easier said than done. The author admits it might require cutting-edge technologies in a host of subjects: engineering, architecture and agronomy. Science may have to improve technologies available for waste treatment and energy production by several notches, before growing crops in vertical structures becomes a reality. Despommier, however, is optimistic that mankind can do this as it has done with space exploration and complex medical procedure such as brain surgery.

The book puts down a long list of benefits that can accrue on the sideline. Apart from making farming less vulnerable to vagaries of weather and pesky pests, it offers a means to recycle a city's wastewater. Similarly, it will, to a great extent, solve the intractable problem of solid waste disposal in cities. The heaps of garbage that normally pile up in cities can be turned into a source of energy. It can also provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of agricultural run-off, which, over the years, has polluted most freshwater bodies of the world. As cities take over farming, large swathes of farmland can be relieved of cultivation.

Some restaurant chains in West Asia are already putting together what can be loosely called the first-generation vertical farms, where at least some concepts listed by Despommier are being tried out. Vertical farming is no doubt fast emerging as a powerful futuristic concept, despite its share of critics who question its feasibility. The book is lucidly written and offers an inspiring read. It also offers a crash course in a variety of subjects like human evolution, climate change and agro-archaeology.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-11-2010)