MindBullets 20 Years

Skyscraper farms solve urban food supply chain

Indoor farming produces fresh food where it's needed - in the store

New thinking in urban design, plus new technologies, are turning city blocks into self-contained ‘country villages’. Hydrogen fuel cells and community reactors now power whole city blocks, which rise up and turn inwards creating a new open-plan living that includes business, residential and farming.

City dwellers want their fruit and vegetables fresh, and want to be sure that they are healthy. Modern techniques mean that farming needs less space, and crops can be grown right in front of you, and you save on transport and logistics costs.

Farming has taken to the skies. Multi-storey food markets actually produce the goods right here in the city. With hi-tech growth mediums and nutrient drips, the best herbs, fruit and vegetables are now grown in the heart of the metropolis.

Of course, corn, wheat and rice hybrids are still cultivated on traditional farms, but new species of crops have been engineered to make high-rise farming amazingly versatile. The latest fashion foods are born and bred upstairs, in climate-controlled and bug-free conditions.

The limiting factor for indoor farming has been insufficient light, especially in winter months, but advances in OLED materials have solved that. Now the whole ceiling can be as bright as day, all day and night if necessary, without huge energy bills.

Savvy, green urban consumers know what they want. Produce has to be fresh, healthy and ‘cool’. They’re getting it from city skyscraper farms.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-1990 deprived Cuba of its main source of agrochemicals. These included the fertilizers for the hydroponics units which were the market gardens of the city. The original hydroponics units, long cement planting troughs and raised metal containers, were filled with composted sugar waste and hydroponicos became organóponicos. All garden crops such as beans, tomatoes, bananas, lettuce, okra, eggplant, and taro are grown intensively within the city using only organic farming methods since these are the only methods permitted in the urban parts of Havana.

As new sites were constructed in varying ways, organóponico buried its hydroponics roots and came to mean an urban and organic market garden. An organopónico is very efficient in getting food to the people who need it by avoiding transportation from the countryside farms. These producers sell their products in the same place where they produce them, so in general their prices are lower. Yields have more than quintupled from 4 to 24 kilograms per meter squared between 1994 and 1999, and currently around a million tons of food per year is produced in the organoponicos.


2007: Food security tops agendas
Eleven years after the 1996 World Food Summit the number of undernourished people in the world remains unacceptably high, with 820 million in developing countries, 25 million in countries in transition and 9 million in industrialized countries. “Promoting the right to food is not just a moral imperative or even an investment with huge economic returns, it is a basic human right,” says the UN’s FAO.

At the same time, still greater pressure is being put on food supplies. Staples such as wheat and milk have seen price rises mainly due to climate-change induced weather fluctuations that affect harvests, the switch to biofuels and increasing demand from new and emerging markets.

Food safety concerns are rising. Melamine enters the food chain in processed products from China. Even the US and EU are not immune. In America fresh produce is regularly infected with E. coli bacteria and European animals are subject to bouts of viral infections.

2015: Farming technology
Although the technology of food production has accelerated beyond the commercial mega-farms of the late 20th century, many subsistence farmers in Africa, China and India are still using traditional, low-tech methods. Biotech advances, GM crops and even synthetic biology have made huge impacts on farming methods, yields and nutrition values, but these technologies still remain beyond the reach of many ‘peasant’ farmers.

Food production is splitting in two directions:

The first is the ‘all natural’ trend that began in the early years of the millennium. What was a rejection of modernity has become part of the artisanal return to craftsmanship. Wealthy city-dwellers are demanding hand-made bread, boutique wines and beers, along with crafted meats and vegetables. The lessons learned from the ‘organic’ revolution have allowed a wide variety of niche and diverse fresh produce to enter the market. The high prices, limited demand and short shelf-lives mean that these products are being produced as close to their market as possible.

The second is the demand for safe, high-bulk inputs to processed meals. After breakthroughs in genomic products many new genes have been synthesized and added to algae. These algae are now vat-grown on organic waste streams to produce high-quality protein rich food supplements. Where does one find the highest quality organic waste?

Why, in the teaming cities of the 21st century.

2019: Organic for the elite
In an ironical twist of human nature, affluent, urban consumers are now demanding that everything be ‘organic’. Synthetic and chemical processes are shunned when it comes to food, unless you are poor and starving, of course.

Clinically clean ‘food factories’ spring up near big cities, where fully organic farming is practiced indoors, safe from bugs and airborne diseases. The cost of these products, especially their care and transport from farm to market, puts them way beyond the average city dweller’s budget.

Ordinances are passed that turn cities into coordinated processing plants. Household garbage is now separated at the source. Each home processes part of its waste stream and city municipalities earn a tidy sum by selling this on to manufacturers outside city limits.

Sewerage waste is a highly nourishing soup for the new bacteria that produce the long-chain alcohols that go into your fuel tank, all courtesy of Dr Craig Venter’s breakthroughs in genetically enhanced sugar-burning genes.

Other ‘safe’ organic waste forms the nutrient base for food streaming back into the city.

2025: Urban dwelling is the norm
For the first time in history, more than half the population of the entire planet now lives in cities. Rural communities still exist in large numbers, but they are sparsely populated. The inexorable attraction to urban centers – and their access to resources, jobs and opportunity – has created mega-cities and densely populated suburban regions throughout the world.

Modern urban designs cater for high-density living with entire city blocks turned inwards on sheltered gardens and water features. While the cities have become astonishingly crowded the modern city resident has no need to confront a grey teaming mass of strangers.

The mega-cities of New York, London, Shanghai and Chennai set the standards with massive re-investment in maglev super transport, and distributed power systems based on hydrogen fuel cells.

The cities are larger, but the cities themselves are more like a set of numerous interlocking independent nodes. Waste processing and energy production are local. This opens up tremendous new opportunities.

2027: Food factories in your neighborhood
Farms have always been located close to good supplies of water, and plenty of cheap arable land. Farming itself is backbreaking work requiring cheap labor, and plenty of it.

By 2027 that cheap labor is in ever shorter supply. Later than expected, but – nevertheless – finally achieved 12 years after the 2015 target, the Millennium Development Goals are completed. Poverty has been all but abolished from Asia and Latin America. Africa is still far behind with some 300 million impoverished on the continent. However, this hasn’t helped agriculture in the West.

Farms are now considerably smaller than they used to be, but produce significantly more food than ever before. Plant life-cycles have been vastly shortened by a combination of highly specialized nutrient mixes, and new genes. Farmers feel a little like corporate IT departments in the 1990s surveying the little box now sitting in the massive air-conditioned hall that used to house their mainframe computers.

A modest 20,000 meter squared warehouse can feed 100,000 people a day. Farmers start taking up space in industrial zones around cities. City administrators discover that these vast green spaces, full of bright light and healthy-looking produce, are very popular with the populace.

They offer tax-breaks to farmers willing to relocate into the heart of the city.

2030: Farming takes to the skies
Small organic produce markets have long been producing their own stock above and around their stores. Now they are joined by the behemoths of agriculture.

Monsanto announces that, in partnership with the city of Shanghai, they are opening a 250,000 meter squared farming and residential city node. Modern materials, clever architecture, and tremendous wealth combine to produce a tiered landscape of apartments, business offices, retail space, and farmed produce. The entire block is self-sufficient.

Power comes from hydrogen fuel cells, supplemented with solar power. Low power electrical systems ensure that minimal energy is required. All waste streams are channeled back into agriculture. And all the fresh produce required in the block is locally produced.

Monsanto proudly displays fresh tomatoes, broad beans and carrots that are sold fresh each morning. The trip is a little over 50 meters, straight down, from the farm on the 20th floor.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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