While finishing Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw-Revolution, I came to realize how agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and eventually human evolution are inextricably intertwined. Fukuoka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher who is considered as one of the personalities who inspired the permaculture and natural or organic farming movements. In opposition to modern industrial farming, Fukuoka was advocating farming at a smaller scale. In an ideal world, every family would produce its own food.
The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
― Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
Technology also has always been holding the same promise of human progress. And considering that an ever-growing number of people are living in cities nowadays, the question came up to me if present technological evolutions are creating an opportunity for small-scale agriculture in metropolitan environments. In this article, we will take a closer look at urban farming, more specifically rooftop farms and indoor vertical farming.
While working for Bagaar, I’ve been enjoying access to the rooftop of the PAKT, pioneers of urban farming in Antwerp. Rooftop farms are mushrooming in cities all around the globe. This relatively new phenomenon has numerous environmental, economic, and social benefits. Just to mention a few: better stormwater management, mitigation of urban heat islands, lessening carbon emissions by producing zero-mile food, reducing noise and air pollution, promoting bio-diversity, etc. Because of their position, on top of a building, rooftop farms don’t have access to traditional means like tractors that utilize fossil fuels. This situation makes them rely more on human labour and on low-tech tools like battery-powered cultivators and harvesters. On the other hand, high-tech is not shunned when monitoring soil quality and irrigation; think about rain sensors and moisture sensors combined with IOT based smart farming systems.
IOT and automation
Vertical farming is another field where IOT and automation are playing an even bigger role. Originally, just like rooftop farms, vertical farms were conceived as horticultural building systems, where vegetation and architecture would exist in a mutually defined and intentionally designed relationship supporting as well plant growth as the architectonic concept and structure. Great architects like Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas have been experimenting with the idea to grow plants inside buildings all along the 20th centuries. Today vertical farming reached a whole new level with super technological companies like LocalRoots or SquareRoots (the company of Kimbal Musk, brother of). Usually built in containers these organisations manage to combine hydroponics with advanced monitoring systems tracking how much and what kinds of nutrients the plant has absorbed, detect the presence of plant pathogens, analyzing its flavour etc.
When considering the sustainable impact of vertical farms we should not forget in the first place that it requires much greater energy per kilogram than traditional agriculture and regular greenhouses. It’s artificial led-lightening versus solar light. So how the energy for vertical farms is generated should be taken into account. On the other hand, there are a number of clear advantages like all-year-round production with no weather disruption, reduction of outdoor farmland, healthier work environment for farmers, food security in growing urban centres, zero-mile food production etc.
Maybe after reading the above paragraphs, Fukuoka would be turning in his grave. Isn’t high-tech directly opposed to his natural farming philosophy? But if by 2050, like estimated, the world population will reach 10 billion people, of which 80% will live in a city, maybe smart farming in urban environments can help us build more sustainable food production systems. Only the future will tell.