In the last fifty years, society has made substantial gains toward reducing hunger. However, these means have been largely unsustainable. In 2018, 41 countries required external food assistance to feed their populations. With climate change in full swing, resulting in rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns, agriculture is facing an existential crisis. Since World War II, agriculture has undergone dramatic shifts to increase capital. These methods include improved tractors, chemical fertilizer, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and hybrid crops. All of these technologies require the burning of fossil fuels through transportation and manufacturing, making them inherently harmful to the environment. The global population is set to hit 9.8 billion people in 2050, and with this increased demand on our current system of resources and food supply, sustainable techniques to increase the supply of food will become necessary.
One example of research and successful implementation of such an improved technique is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose genetic characteristics have been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. The first synthetic genome-driven cell came in 2010, discovered by Craig Venter. GMOs are controversial among the public, but mostly for the reason that they are viewed as untested and illegitimate, both of which concerns have been refuted. Among the scientific community, GMOs are celebrated as a scientific achievement. They have been shown to be safe through testing and use, and in some cases can increase the safety of common foods by decreasing toxins and natural allergens. GMOs also lower the price of food, which can help poverty-stricken regions. In an environmentally sustainable context, GMOs help to reduce water waste and lower carbon emissions. The caveat to GMOs, however, is that they change farming practices by requiring new technology, which is more favorable towards developed countries. Large corporations can also buy ownership of the most successful seeds, forcing small, independent farmers out of business. GMO technology, which holds great environmental potential, still requires improvements in its implementation in order to be maximally beneficial to both the agricultural industry and consumers.
Another cutting-edge technology emerging at the forefront of environmentally sustainable agriculture is vertical farming. Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers. Whether that is in warehouses, multi-floored buildings, or even on top of buildings in urban areas, vertical farming poses numerous solutions to our growing agricultural problem. For example, the global population currently uses 50% of habitable land for farming. With our current alarming rate of population growth, this figure is unsustainable. Data from Our World in Data highlights this unsustainable figure by color coordinating three categories of countries: blue for countries where, if their average diet were adopted globally, the result would be less land used for agriculture than current levels; yellow for countries where, if their average diet were adopted globally, farming would require an expansion of the current land allocation within global physical land constraints; and orange for countries with average diets that would not be feasible at the global scale, even if all habitable land was used for agriculture. It is clear that more than half of the world’s countries live off unsustainable agricultural practices, including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and most European countries.
Vertical farming offers other environmental perks. Current agricultural practices require large quantities of water; nearly 70% of water withdrawals from natural reservoirs are for agricultural usage, three times more than 50 years ago. By 2050, the global water demand of agriculture is estimated to increase by 19% due to irrigation needs. Vertical farming poses a solution to this impending crisis by only requiring 5% of the water needed for traditional farming; the same water can be recycled through the same hydroponic system. Some of the water saved could be reallocated to water-scarce areas or allowed to remain in its natural reservoirs to protect ecological health. Much of the excess water used in traditional agriculture also affects soil quality and the ability to reuse land due to saturation and overproduction. Vertical farming would remove these challenges with runoff prevention. Harmful and overused herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers would also be unnecessary with vertical farming, thus reducing toxification of water and algae blooms via runoff into rivers, lakes, and oceans.
As the need for and awareness of such sustainable practices grow, investors have taken notice of this emerging opportunity. Between 2017 and 2018, three vertical farm companies–Aerofarms, Plenty, and Bowery Farming–totaled over $405 million in investments.
Agriculture in the next few decades will undergo a revolution as a result of climate change and an increasing global population. The last 60 years of farming saw the advancement of efficient production methods in order to yield more capital for a growing population; however, these methods, including the use of pesticides and herbicides and the overall industrialization of agriculture, were largely harmful to the environment, and with its current trajectory, will be unsustainable to meet the needs of our future. Vertical farming and GMOs offer sustainable solutions, but without steps in this direction our global food supply could be in jeopardy.
Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2017) “World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100” United Nations.. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html
“What is a GMO?” The Non GMO Project. https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/what-is-gmo/
Ricki, Lewis. (2013) “How Craig Venter Created Life” Plos Blogs: Diverse Perspectives on Science and Medicine. https://blogs.plos.org/dnascience/2013/10/10/how-craig-venter-created-life/
ProCon.org. (2020). “GMOs – Top 3 Pros and Cons.” ProCon. http://www.procon.org/headline.php?headlineID=005447
Hannah, Ritchie. (2017). “How much of the world’s land would we need in order to feed the global population with the average diet of a given country?” Our World In Data. https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets#licence
Water. Global Agriculture. https://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/water.html