Skyscraper Farms? Going 'Vertical' with Food Supply

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PANAMA CITY, Panama - Population scientists predict that within 30 years, as many as 9 billion people will live on earth. And with traditional farming methods already struggling, many agriculturalists wonder how food production will keep up.

A century ago, about half of all Americans lived on farms. Today, that number has dwindled to less than 2 percent, with almost all food production taking place on super-efficient industrial farms.

In addition to the growing population worldwide, there's also the potential shortage of land for growing more food. Pollution and climate change also make the problem worse, as farmers struggle with declining harvests on existing farms.

To address these challenges, researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson are experimenting with futuristic alternatives to traditional agriculture.

"With the concerns of increasing world population, reduction in farmlands, food security issues, food safety issues, I think there is a huge demand for systems such as controlled environment agriculture to produce good quality, safer produce with less use of energy, water and labor," University of Arizona professor Murat Kacira said.

Kacira and his colleagues have created a controlled environment agriculture center to help solve the future farming issue.

"We are trying to save energy, reduce water use and fertilizer to produce a high yield," he explained.

Panama Paving the Way

New theories are already gaining traction in Latin America.

In Panama, springtime is the season for harvesting watermelons. Farmer David Proenza has big plans to take the production of fruits and vegetables to the next level.

"It's very simple. We have to do something," he said. "The way traditional farming is we're not going to be able to feed the world population over the next 30 to 50 years."

Proenza has been growing and exporting produce for more than a decade. Panama's climate, canal, and business-friendly government have allowed the country to become a crossroads for international shipping.

But there are problems as well.

"The climate is changing constantly. We find in our fields more and more of this problem with mildew," Proenza said. "This is created due to the weather, the rain."

'Vertical' Growing

Extreme weather conditions such as cold snaps and droughts can also cause shortages and higher food prices. Proenza hopes to tackle these agriculture problems in the future.

One potential solution -- the world's first vertical urban farm.

"Everybody knows what a greenhouse is, and around the world they have environmentally controlled greenhouses where they control everything," he explained. "They produce a better quality food with less chemicals and some even organic."

"Now if you take a greenhouse and stack one on top of the other, you have a vertical growing system. What we want to do is put it into a building," he said. "Each floor producing a very nutritious, quality food under a controlled environment so we don't have this (production) problem."

Proenza's plan is to use high-tech methods to build the urban vertical farms around the world. It's a process that can increase nutrition and cut down on costs.

"A lot of the fruits and vegetables that you have in the United States come from Latin America," he said. "And there's a substantial cost in the transportation."

"With a vertical farm right there in the city, there is no transportation cost," he said. "So you have a lot of savings right there alone."

Proenza hopes his vertical farm will be the first of many in urban areas across the globe.

"Urban vertical farms are going to be built around the world. It's going to happen," he said. "Somebody's got to do it so we figure it might as well be us."

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Chuck Holton

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