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Business, STEM

Part 1 – Feeding 9.6 Billion People: Will Vertical Farming Grow Roots?

06-05-2013foodmarket_source-worldbank-mariafleishmannIf I were a middle school student participating in this year’s Future City Competition Arizona Region, my team would probably be in the process of finalizing our decision on the primary vegetable and protein source that will be farmed in our city. Our future city will need to produce enough of each source to feed the local residents for at least one growing season. We will also need to show how each will be produced – via traditional or alternative farming practices.

These real world thoughts and many others are being addressed by middle school students, working in teams of three, in the Arizona Region as well as other regions across the U.S. Most have already finalized the lay-out of their city, created an economic base for workers as well as recreational activities for residents and visitors, and added energy and transportation infrastructures.

The primary challenge for this month is completing the written essay. The research topic for the essay is feeding future cities. Producing enough food to feed the residents of their city is not only a challenge for these middle school students. Elected leaders, government and private employees, non-profits like the Gates Foundation, and citizens around the world are looking at new ways to increase agricultural production. Why? The world’s population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050 (Source: The United Nation’s (UN) report, World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision). Current agricultural practices will not produce enough food to feed a global population of this size.

While 9.6 billion may not seem like a large number to some of us, what most readers may overlook is that the growth in population of almost 3 billion people in the next 35 years will not be evenly distributed. The UN report notes that the population of developed regions are expected to remain unchanged at 1.3 billion during this period, however, the 49 least developed countries are projected to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050.

The challenge of feeding 9.6 billion people will not only fall to the countries and regions with the most growth. It will impact everyone! Therefore, it is imperative that all nations work together to tackle this looming problem to avert disruptions to current or future food supplies.

Enter vertical farming as a potential solution….

For starters, vertical farming is not a new term or concept. It was first coined by Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915 in his book Vertical Farming. [Source: Wikipedia] Although Bailey’s concept of vertical farming was to take the agricultural practice underground, today’s concept is just the opposite. The general idea is to use greenhouses, multi-level buildings, or skyscrapers and add a form of natural light.

The concept of vertical farming is also not new. Some suggest that it may date as far back as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And while there is debate as to whether or not the Hanging Gardens ever existed, the visualized concept is less of a garden and more of a simulated mountain with rooftop gardens and/or multi-level terraces.

Another key point that is raised in the U.N report is that nearly 80% of the world’s population will reside in urban centers or cities. Without improvements to current farming practices and new technology and methodology, more land will be needed to feed them, and here in lies a big part of the problem. Throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for farming and raising crops is already in use (Sources: United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and NASA).

While vertical farming won’t answer every problem of feeding almost 3 billion more people, it could be one of several strategies to increase crop production.

Part 2 of this post will discuss the pros and cons of vertical farming.

For more information about the Future City Competition Arizona Region go to www.futurecityarizona.org. For more information about the National Future City CompetitionTM, go to www.futurecity.org.

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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