WORLDS POPULATION is on rise, on October 31, 2011 just before midnight, “Danica May Camacho”, a girl born in Philippine capital Manila, is chosen by UN to symbolically mark global population milestone of seven billionth. According to United States Census Bureau, human population reached to one billion in 1804, seven billion in 2011 and will be nine billion in 2046. Increase in human population by every passing moment also increases the demand for more food, more housing and more civic facilities. According to an estimate a developing country like Pakistan needs to build a new city for population of about 500,000 people every year. Urbanization is also felt as a threat like rapid population growth. Millions of the people move towards cities every year for better civic facilities especially in third world nations. It causes uneven and unplanned expansion in the volume of the cities. This expansion engulfs the fertile lands around cities under truck gardening and increases the requirement of energy, roads, hospitals, schools, transportation and other urban facilities. In 2006, 50 per cent of the worlds population was urban, but it consumed 66 per cent of the total energy and generated 70 per cent of the energy-related CO2 emissions. Both of these issues are creating another very hot issue which is “Climate Change”, which is altering our agriculture landscape. Significant changes in temperature and precipitation pattern are very much obvious now and Pakistan has faced the consequences of climate change in last few years. USDA reports, in 2012 $20 bn were lost only due to drought in Corn, Soybeans, Wheat and Sorghum and FAO Statistics claims destruction of 125 million tons of Potatoes, rice, wheat, corn, soybeans per year due to Insect, Pest and Diseases. By 2046, to feed nine billion people, 1100 million hectare land will be needed and we are, by now, cultivating 800 million hectares worldwide and most interestingly over 80 per cent of the land that is suitable for agriculture is already in use (FAO and NASA). It has brought us on a point where we have more stomachs to feed but have no more cultivatable lands, no enough water, cannot afford any further deforestation to capture more lands due to environmental threats and above all abolishing fossil fuel reserves, although root cause of environmental pollution. It is not possible to grow food for such a huge population without exhausting our resources.
The solution of all these problems, theoretically, is very simple. Using less land reduced transportation, no or less chemicals, less water, best crop protection and controlling the environment will solve all the issues. Scientists started thinking over it about two decades ago and found the solution that “Farm up not Out” generally known as “Vertical Farming”. Simplifying this comes to making the farms multistory in purpose build building with controlled environment. But, the solution, theoretically very simple, although highly complicated in practical will be inevitable in years to come, not only for developed countries but also for the developing ones. Professor Dickson Despommier of Columbia University advocates this idea in his presentations and lectures as the ultimate and comprehensive answer of the agricultural challenges. Although at present only horticultural crops seems suitable for this system, but potential is there to explore production of agronomic crops as well. Vertical farming is the growing of high quality organic produce in urban settings, utilizing vertical space and breakthrough LED technology, in a controlled hydroponic or aeroponic environment. This emerging technology in agriculture production is more valuable for the countries having good economy but less land to cultivate like Singapore and Gulf States, making it possible to grow anything, anywhere and anytime of the year. A Vertical farm of 30 stories covering an area of one hectare will provide 30 hectares for cultivation. Production in controlled environment is normally about 5 folds than that of open field. By this estimated calculation, that vertical farm will yield equal to 150 hectares. This would be huge achievement for feeding the ever increasing human population. Several times more production is not the only envisaged benefit. This system will be totally free of tractor driven ploughs and farm machinery (specially in horticultural crops) and will be right in the center of the populated cities so there will be no need to transport the produce from fields to the markets, saving significant amount of fossil fuels avoiding considerable air pollution and offering more fresh food to the consumers. A lot of work is being done on designing of these vertical farms also known as sky farms. Designers are giving their ideas to make maximum of them. Zero waste is the idea which is being worked on. They are trying to design such farms that use the waste to produce energy for running computerized system and meet other energy demands of the farm. Singapore has taken the lead by opening worlds first commercial vertical farm in December 2012, with a capacity to produce one tone of fresh vegetables every other day. Its impact on its imports of food items, currently 93 per cent of its need, will be visible very soon, when several other vertical farms will follow the success. Similarly, France has started producing Banana in such controlled conditions rather than keeping it importing from the Caribbean. China has installed controlled environment production system on really large areas as first step to the farming vertical, and has developed very high tech systems in this field. This technology is being regarded as very secret by the Chinese to maintain their leading monopoly in the near future when the whole world will be after it. The vertical farms or controlled environment systems for agricultural production might be considered too early for Pakistan but it is the path we have to drive on, sooner or later. And we have started actually, by the establishment of hydroponic farmer market “Bio Blitz” at Rawat near Rawalpindi through a privet investment and now being run by PMAS Arid Agriculture University Rawalpindi. Few cucurbits and solanacious horticultural crops are under cultivation in there. This setup can play a role model for the privet sector investment for the futuristic agricultural development in the country. The Govt of Pakistan can play a role by overcoming energy crises and making an attractive policy to encourage the privet sector to invest in this revolutionary field. It can make us not only self sufficient but also exporting country in horticultural commodities.
The writer is Senior Scientific Officer in Pakistan Science Foundation, Islamabad.
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