Agri Business

Growing crops vertically to feed the growing population

Mohan Bajikar, Nikhilesh Bhowmick, Chander Saberwal | | Updated on: Nov 05, 2020

Humanity has experienced several changes in the course of history: revolutions in science, revolutions in industrial production as well as numerous political revolutions. However, it is the revolution in agriculture that lies at the core of all human progress. For no matter how much we may move ahead in time, basic human needs, i.e. food, feed, fibre and fuel, remain unchanged. The forthcoming decades pose multiple challenges of global food security, bio-energy supply, drastic climatic change, water shortages and sustained economic growth. Unarguably, the demand for food will continue to grow. Food production must more than double itself in the next 40 years.

Food security

The world population is estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050 from the current 7.8 billion, with two-thirds of the people living in urban areas. This unprecedented demographic growth would see creation of mega cities worldwide. The pressure of providing every necessity to its inhabitants then ― including reliable health care, quality education, decent housing, food, water, energy, and safe travel, cannot be undermined. Consequently, the economic, social and psychological challenges for the burgeoning population worldwide would be near insurmountable. By 2028, India’s population is projected to surpass that of China. The inconvenient truth is that out of the 680 million hungry people globally, India is home to the largest number, with over 200 million Indians facing the harrowing problem of food insecurity. As humans, we know that hunger and peace are incompatible partners.

Climate change

Climate change has been wreaking havoc on agriculture, and particularly in India, coping mechanisms have failed. The world’s largest producer of sugarcane – India, saw its production fall to 54 per cent in 2019-20 with only 279 sugar mills across the country crushing cane, against 418 in the same period last year. Major crop yields which form the staple food of the Indian people are likely to fall by 9 per cent by 2039 and a gloomy 25 per cent by 2070. Whereas agriculture constitutes 20 per cent of India’s GDP, rising temperature will push the issue of food security to the level of despondency in the long run. Environmental and human factors have had their impact on arable land. In an ambitious move, India’s Ministry of Environment has announced plans to convert 50 lakh hectares of degraded land into fertile land by 2030.

Water scarcity

Nearly one billion people across the globe lack access to clean and safe water and the number will more than double in the coming decade. Long serpentine queues of people waiting to collect water from supply points throughout India are a common sight. Home to a fifth of the world’s population, India has only 4 per cent of the world’s fresh water resources. With 62 per cent of the country’s irrigation taking place through ground water resources, the water table is declining alarmingly. Government data warns that the average per capita water availability in India will fall by 43 per cent by 2050 unless radical measures are taken to control the factors that threaten this perilous fate.

What is vertical farming?

Vertical-farming is the buzzword in agriculture technology today. Although it may sound like science fiction, vertical farming consists of growing food in vertical stacks under controlled environmental conditions, using soil-less techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics. A single building that houses a vertical farm can yield 390 times higher food per square foot while using 95 per cent less water and zero pesticides. Above all, the food would be 100 per cent organic. Dr Dickson Despommier, Father of Vertical Farming and professor emeritus Columbia University, says, “If we could engineer the vertical farming approach to food production, then no crops would ever fail due to severe weather events (floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc.).”

Currently, there are many vertical farms in the US, Europe, Japan and China, while some of the most robust ones are underway in the Middle East. Says Despommier, “If vertical farming in urban centres becomes the norm, one anticipated long-term benefit would be the gradual repair of many of the world’s damaged ecosystems.”

Despommier, in his research article for Agrihouse India International Pvt Ltd, says that there is good reason to believe that a significant amount of energy to run a vertical farm can come from organic waste such as methane. He also states that vertical farms will be engineered to take in contaminated water and restore it to near-drinking water using bioremediation and other technologies yet to be fully developed. The byproducts of burning methane ― CO2, heat and water ― can be added into the closed loop atmosphere of the vertical farm for fostering optimal plant growth. “Any water source that emerges from the vertical farm should be drinkable, thus completely recycling it back into the community that brought it to the farm to begin with.”

Agrihouse India Ltd set up the country’s first aeroponic laboratory at the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad in 2016. In India’s first-ever World Conference on Vertical Farming organised by Agrihouse India, in Bangalore, in 2015, Dr Richard Stoner, Father of American Aeroponics, said in his keynote address that an urban vertical farm can generate a profit of 57 per cent while providing safest and healthiest food to its consumers.

Stoner has been the principal scientist for developing a high-performance aeroponic system for NASA for the orbital space shuttle and also earth. NASA endorsed that Stoner’s aeroponic system could reduce the use of water by 98 per cent, fertilizer by 60 per cent and pesticides by 100 per cent. The system can be used for growing anything from leafy greens to strawberries and cucumbers to root crops. Stoner’s technology is widely used in commercial farms in the US, Canada, Vietnam and Europe.

Setting up of vertical farms in India will help mend damaged ecology, create food security and generate employment. Most importantly, it will save India’s farmers from resorting to extreme steps due to unpredictable climatic ravages. Let us all join in praying ‘Annadaata Sukhi Bhava’.

Mohan Bajikar is an Agriculture Futurologist. Nikhilesh Bhowmick is the Director Finance and Chief Administrator at Agrihouse India Ltd. Chander Sabharwal is a Senior Professor in Rural Marketing, Director Agrihouse and Managing Director at Crop Health Products Ltd.

Published on November 05, 2020
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