Is the Future of Farming Looking Up?

What do you do with an overcrowded city? The answer seems obvious. Upwards you go. Cities worldwide are reaching for the stratosphere as office space and apartments skim the skyline.

Now they may have a new neighbor as the seeds of an agricultural revolution are being sown.

Vertical Farming is a movement that could dramatically change how cities get their food, while making steps to solving some of the world's environmental problems.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a micro biologist, ecologist and Professor of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, has spent thirty years developing the idea and told CNBC's "Closing Bell" the idea is a lot more simple than you think: "Imagine a high tech greenhouse and then stack them on top of each other and you've got a vertical farm".

A soaring greenhouse may just seem like an idea up in the air, but according to figures from the FAO and NASA it may be a pressing issue.

Currently 60 percent of us live vertically in cities and by 2050 this will have risen to 80 percent.

So with more city slickers, there is less concrete jungle to go around.

The world's population currently surpasses seven billion people and that is set to rise by a further 3 billion by 2050.

Despommier explained just how much more land is needed to feed the extra mouths.

"Conservative estimates (say) it's the size of Brazil. That's a landmass larger than the contiguous United States. That amount of land doesn't exist in terms of farmable land. We've already used up 80 percent of what nature has given us to farm on. So another 3 billion people will really stress out this planet, " he said.

So with more mouths to feed and an increasing demand on land, skyscrapers look like they could help to put food on the table.

The idea has already taken root in some parts of the world.

"Right now you can go to the country of Japan and see over 50 examples of what I would consider Vertical Farms. They are more than 2 stories tall, they're all enclosed, over half of them use grow lights. They're quite efficient in producing leafy green vegetables for instance and lots of other related types of vegetables in that family of plant life that we eat consistently."

The idea is also sprouting up in countries such as Korea, Sweden and even the United States.

Not only does the practice pluck farmable land out of the sky, this method also greatly reduces fossil fuel use. The need for tractors and ploughing is no more, while shipping and transport costs are also slashed.

The processes also allow energy to be added back into the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of the plants. It would also reduce the likelihood of spreading disease from plant to plant.

Vertical farming seems to be reaping the rewards as it also increases production. One acre of production indoors would equal up to 6 acres outdoors.

Due to some very nifty recycling techniques nearly 90 percent less water is also used compared to traditional farming, and there is no problem with agricultural run-off. The process also says goodbye to pesticides, herbicides and commercially produced fertilisers. The controlled environment makes all this easier as well as wiping out weather-related crop failures.
It can't be all a bed of roses though.

Vertical farming, like most fledging industries, faces its fair share of problems. The main challenge it faces is the energy budget.

"It relies heavily on grow lights, LED grow lights, and the efficiency of grow lights today is about 28%. The efficiency needs to be between 50 and 60 percent in order to make this an economically viable alternative to using sunlight as your only source of energy to grow your food, " Despommier said.

"We are very close to that, some large producers of LED lights tell us that they've already achieved that level of efficiency so it's just a matter of a few months to a year perhaps until they are willing to release a 50% efficient LED grow light to the market place, " he added.

The fundamental hope of these green-fingered advocates is to return farmland to nature in order to restore ecosystems. They hope the offshoot could also create sustainable environments for urban centers along with new employment opportunities.

So the notion of fields in the sky may not come to fruition in this lifetime but vertical farming seems to ploughing ahead with new innovation and technology. Visions of crops on clouds it might not be but a rather large greenhouse may well be on its way to a city near you.