Sustainable Agriculture

What could the farms of the future look like?
Answered by Sarah Gleim and Discovery Channel
  • Sarah Gleim

    Sarah Gleim

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. When I was young, we were enamored with the cartoon The Jetsons and probably fully believed that our future would be filled with flying spaceship-like cars that fold up into briefcases, high-rises in the stars, and of course, talking pets like Astro the dog and robots like Rosie the maid. We likely also dreamt that our food would come served in a convenient pill -- or from a "Foodarackacycle" -- just as it did on the show.

    While our technology has certainly advanced eons since I was a child watching this Saturday morning cartoon, the one thing that I'm thankful hasn't been realized is food in the form of pills. Sure, the convenience of the Jetson's Foodarackacycle sounds awesome. I mean, who wouldn't want to just press a button, and voila! out comes just about anything you could ever want to eat? But on the other hand, there are so many things that are just so unappetizing about the idea of pushing a button on some random machine to get your supper.

    That's not to say that technology hasn't made its way into our food supply. On the contrary. There's a lot going on in the field of genetically modified foods these days, and proponents suggest these engineered crops might be more resistant to pests, produce higher yields, have more nutritional value and even a longer shelf life. But critics argue there's no clear benefit for the environment, and some studies have shown that none of the genetically modified food crops currently on the market benefit consumers in terms of price or nutritional value. Regardless, a future with farms full of engineered and genetically modified crops could be a reality.

    I'd like to hope things go an entirely different route, though, toward smaller, local and sustainable farms -- the idea of bringing the farm right to the source, even highly populated urban areas. Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University, is an ecologist known for his idea of the vertical farm -- "the mass cultivation of plant and animal life for commercial purposes in skyscrapers." These open-air buildings would incorporate advanced greenhouse technology like hydroponics and aeroponics, and, theoretically, become urban farms producing all types of agriculture. The crops could be grown year-round, sold in the same buildings where they are grown (can't get much more local than that) and wouldn't be susceptible to damage from harsh weather. And because these vertical farms would be controlled environments, there would be less need for pesticides and herbicides, and essentially everything could be grown organically without using huge plots of land.

    Despommier's vertical farm may not have come to fruition yet, but there is a company in Atlanta already doing something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale. PodPonics grows a variety of lettuces hydroponically in recycled shipping containers. Everything is grown in water -- no soil -- and all of the containers have computer-regulated temperature, humidity, pH levels and CO2, plus sophisticated lighting systems. The exact amount of water, lighting and nutrients are delivered to the crops right inside each 320-square-foot container. And because these are shipping containers, they can be stacked on top of each other pretty much anywhere.

    The company already provides 150 pounds of lettuce a week for local restaurants and its supply can't keep up with demand. Company founder Matt Liotta hopes that in five years, PodPonics will be supplying major grocery store chains, as well.

    So if had my choice of how I want the future of farming to look, it would definitely be more like Despommier's vertical and PodPonics container farms. I might find the idea of ordering my dinner from a Foodarackacycle a bit unappetizing, but knowing that our future could include only genetically engineered produce and agriculture is a little bit harder pill to swallow.

    More answers from Sarah Gleim »

  2. One notion that's growing in popularity is the idea of vertical farms. These would be indoor farms many stories high that would maximize the benefits of indoor farming, while taking up far less space than regular farms. So not only would farming be a more controlled and protected process, land that was previously farmed could be allowed to reforest and act as a much-needed carbon sink. Plus, since the majority of people live in cities, you could plunk them right down on any unused city block and cut back on cost and food miles -- eliminating some of those carbon emissions that come with shipping food. Many different designs are currently being tossed around, and experts are still working out how the system could be seamlessly integrated, but the technology is there already.

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