In-Chapter Pagination

At its most basic form, life requires energy, water and food. Historically, we’ve depended exclusively on nature to provide those first two resources so that we could grow the third. This would no longer be true with Universal Energy.

That’s because an unlimited supply of electricity, water and fuel provides the means to sustainably cultivate food in environments that we could command greater control over. This gives us opportunities to revolutionize our industrial and agricultural systems to grow food locally, food that can be healthier and of better quality than much of what we produce today, yet grown at greater efficiencies with reduced environmental impact.

In his book The Vertical Farm, Dr. Dickson Despommier talks about how advances in technology allow us to grow crops indoors, which is becoming an ever-greater necessity as population growth explodes. These systems can be built close to areas where food is consumed, reducing obstacles to transportation and delivery, especially within urban environments. Indoor farms can also be climate controlled and operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – dramatically increasing output and efficiency compared to traditional agricultural methods.

This becomes all the more possible with Universal Energy. As its fifth resource is building materials (which we’ll check out next chapter), we would have the resources to build these systems on a far larger scale than we could hope to today. And as the National Aqueduct would deliver as much water as we’d want or need anywhere, water can be sourced directly to their greatest area of consumption.

Today, agriculture consumes 70% of our national water usage, followed by another 22% for industry. But unlike industrial use, which tends to be centered in more urban areas, agricultural use is spread over thousands of miles. As more people move toward cities, this requires an increasingly larger amount of food to be delivered from rural locations to feed people, which in turn requires more land to grow crops. Universal Energy gives us another option to reduce the load placed on our current agricultural systems, and that’s where indoor farming comes in.

The logic of indoor farming comes from a few angles. First and foremost being that it solves a primary problem with population growth: the lack of available land to grow crops. With indoor farms, as long as there is water, light and heat, the location and outside environment doesn’t matter. This allows food to be grown anywhere on the planet at any time of year with benefits that don’t exist outside, including increased yield, efficiency, length of growing season and food security. To see how, start by taking a look at this concept image:

In this concept, water from storage tanks is mixed with an organic fertilizer made from excess plant matter grown within the warehouse itself. This water is then pumped through the facility and dispersed over plots of crops that grow under high-intensity lights. These crops grow on modular platforms that can be easily moved and the crops growing on them can be manually pollinated as necessary.

What water isn’t absorbed by crops drains into a collection mechanism in each floor, which then sends the water to the bottom of the warehouse where it is filtered and sent back into circulation. As we see today, the construction of large warehouses at acceptable cost isn’t uncommon, as I’d venture to say few of us haven’t stepped into a Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot or other big-box retailer at least once in our lives. These buildings are huge, enormous even, sometimes encompassing millions of square feet. And while the effectiveness of this approach for retail sales might be debatable, their structure presents promising opportunities for indoor farming.

From this example, we see that a 1,000’ x 1,000’ building has a growing space of about 1 million square feet (minus walkways). Yet at five floors, that building now offers five million square feet of growing space. Extrapolating that figure to a group of warehouses, say 20 for example, that figure becomes 100 million square feet of growing space. That’s roughly 2,500 acres (3.5 square miles).

As these warehouses would operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, their output if grouped together could be enough to provide food for any city on the planet. Combined, these systems create a food cultivation mechanism that allows food of effectively any kind to be grown locally. And even so, it’s noteworthy that this food isn’t just grown, it’s grown under ideal conditions.

For example, here are some of the more remarkable benefits of indoor farming:

Total control of environment and constant operation. Since we’ve started farming, we’ve been beholden to a growing season. Indoor farming completely bypasses this limitation. Moreover, indoor farms can be compartmentalized into sections where we’d have total control over temperature, humidity, strength of light and soil composition. Technology allows us to make summer indoors during a blizzard, and grow pineapples in January. As indoor farms operate 24/7/365, they can reflect the ideal light cycle for any plant grown. This would dramatically increase overall efficiency, as there would be no seasonal slowdowns.

Technology-driven pest/contaminant prevention. Pests and weeds are a problem in the open environment, problems we’ve tried to solve with herbicides and pesticides that are of varying degrees of toxicity to humans and livestock. Yet because indoor farms can maintain total control of environment, the presence of weeds and pests can be managed without reliance on chemicals. For example:

  • Positive pressure. The indoor farm can be pressurized higher than the outside area, so that when a door opens, air blows out of the building instead of outside air blowing in. Alongside worker sterilization and air filtration mechanisms, this would limit the presence of contaminants inside the farm.
  • Active anti-pest measures. In the event that a pest did get in, we could respond more surgically or with organic approaches, such as ladybugs for mites/aphids or the application of more benign pesticides.
  • Isolated sections. In what would also benefit food security as a whole, isolating areas of the indoor farm would hinder the ability of a pest contamination to spread from one area to another.

Waste management. Indoor farms can be designed to minimize use of artificial fertilizers by using composting. Whenever a plant dies, sheds material, etc., that material can be collected into a composting mechanism (shown earlier in the concept image) that can be mixed with other organic fertilizers and pumped directly into the water supply that is used to irrigate crops. As much of the world’s soil is facing varying degrees of contamination (such as arsenic in rice and steroids in runoff water from feed lots), this translates to healthier food.

Diversity of crops. As their components would provide an ideal growing environment that is naturally pest-resistant, indoor farms can allow greater use of heirloom crops that might not fare as well as a genetically modified variant outside. This can afford the cultivation of a greater diversity of crops, as well as crops with greater nutritional properties, expanding the organic and farm-to-table markets.

Local operation. Indoor farms can be built close to metropolitan areas so food is grown close to the people that consume it. Food production in New York would be consumed by New Yorkers, food production in California would be consumed by Californians. This simplifies the delivery of food from production to market, saving resources, and allows for fresher produce compared to produce sourced from distant locations. It can also present major improvements to how we provide food aid, as global anti-famine initiatives usually involve shipping food that’s already grown. With indoor farms, the system itself can comprise the aid, allowing stressed regions to produce food by their own hand.

Food security. Local food production in isolated environments allows us to reduce security risks to our food supply. In late 2011, a Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe killed more than 20 people in the United States, and events like this repeat semi-frequently. We face this issue because supermarkets across the nation are stocked with produce that comes from different states, different countries, even different continents, and it’s hard to keep track of where everything is coming from in real time. Thus when something does happen, our food networks are thrown into chaos until investigators can pinpoint the source of the contamination and isolate it. With food grown locally, security issues (however rare) are automatically isolated since production environments are sealed.

This also protects our food supply from pathogens, a serious threat since 90% of our crops currently come from genetically modified seeds with often identical genetics, meaning that any self-replicating pathogen that could infect one plant could inflect swaths of them. By design, indoor farms exercise self-quarantine, which is likely the best defense they could have.

Indoor farming can provide local and sustainable food production anywhere on the planet, systematically avoiding many of the obstacles and threats that exist toward our food production today. But beyond indoor growth in warehouses, we can integrate indoor farms directly within urban environments, not only to supplement food production but also to serve as centerpieces for more advanced cities with next-generation infrastructure.