New ways of growing food could enable the rapid restoration of degraded and lost ecosystems
There is no denying that our current climate crisis is accelerating faster than anticipated. Bold and radical solutions are required to combat it. To effectively combat the crisis, the world needs to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The most effective way to do this is restore degraded and lost ecosystems. However, right now roughly half the habitable land on earth is being used for farmland and cannot be restored. Vertical farming, a relatively new technology where agriculture is conducted indoors, where the crops are stacked vertically on top of each other, offers a unique solution to the issue of land use.
Proposed legislation like the Green New Deal suggest, that as part of an infrastructure deal, countries like the United States should switch their agricultural production to outdoor organic farms. Organic agriculture if done correctly can sequester carbon from the atmosphere. This is known as carbon farming. The goal is to alter farming practices through techniques such as composting and replacing synthetic fertilizers with organic ones. These changes would certainly help reduce emissions and even remove some carbon from the atmosphere. However, in terms of carbon sequestration, carbon farming pales in comparison to most terrestrial ecosystems like forests, grasslands and wetlands. In the U.S alone, switching to an agricultural system made up of organic farms would require countless more acres of these vital carbon absorbing ecosystems to be destroyed. An agriculture system based around vertical farming would enable a far more efficient use of land in regards to combating the climate crisis.
History has demonstrated that when natural processes have restored these ecosystems the planet has cooled considerably. Look at the 1500s, when European colonialists brought a cocktail of diseases to the New World, such as measles and smallpox. These plagues spread through the indigenous populations like wildfire and claimed tens of millions of lives. This historical tragedy, while terrible, has given us insights into how much a restored landscape can alter the climate. As the plagues ravaged the New World, urban centers and farmland were abandoned. This led to numerous areas collectively the size of France to be reclaimed by nature, with forests and savannas once again growing in the place of human made environments.
This regrowth took several decades and had a profound impact on the planet’s climate. The new plant growth removed 7-10ppm of carbon out of the atmosphere, or roughly 3 years worth of modern global carbon emissions. This triggered what is now known as the Little Ice Age, a climatic period lasting from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The impact of that climatic shift could be seen around the world. Colder temperatures froze the Thames River and enabled Londoners to enjoy yearly frost fairs, where they would engage in a multitude of activities on the frozen river.
The Little Ice Age, was responsible for numerous periods of starvation and subsequent political upheavals, due to the cooling climate that affected crop growth all around the world. In Europe, crops failed and livestock perished. In many parts of the continent witchcraft was blamed and a resurgence of witch trials occurred. In China, rebellion broke out in the Northern Provinces. As the years went by, the climate change weakened Imperial China and ultimately accelerated the downfall of the Ming Dynasty.
The re-greening of the Americas demonstrates the power that plants hold over our climate and their potential in fighting the current crisis. Considering that the overwhelming majority of terrestrial ecosystems on Earth are at the very least heavily degraded, there are numerous areas on each continent that have immense potential to be restored. Studies have shown only a tiny percentage of the surface of the world is free from degradation. Restoration and rewilding provide the key to reversing many years of human CO2 emissions.
Areas can be restored with surprising speed. An example of this is The Miyawaki Method. This is a reforestation technique that places a heavy emphasis on biodiversity and manipulating the plants’ biology to create an entire functioning forest ecosystem in as little as a decade. The emphasis on biodiversity is important, as forests with numerous tree species are far more resistant to drought and are capable of capturing twice as much carbon as a mono-culture.
Of course, a significant reason that the majority of land in the world contains degraded habitat is because it is being used for agriculture. Transitioning to a more urban-centric agriculture system would enable us to restore these long lost environments and in turn suck numerous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
Vertical farming also offers a unique solution to one of the greatest sources of human and wildlife conflicts plaguing the globe. The presence of numerous species of animal can be extremely damaging to farmland and to the livelihoods of the farmers, as well as the communities they sustain. Elephants throughout Africa and Asia trample and destroy farmland leading to farmers killing elephants in retaliation, or as a preventative measure. In the UK, beaver reintroduction efforts have been greatly opposed by farmers across the nation, out of fear that they will flood farmland. Rodents, monkeys, boars and porcupines are also sources of conflict for farmers. Shifting farming to an urban environment would negate the initial cause of these conflicts altogether by taking the farms out of the reach of most wildlife.
Megafauna, like the aforementioned elephants, are also crucial allies in the fight against climate change as their presence can greatly bolster a carbon sink’s ability to absorb the gas. For example, African forest elephants, while walking through the forest, will destroy smaller trees and saplings. Reducing smaller vegetation reduces competition for resources and thus enables larger plants to grow even bigger, sequestrating more carbon. Elephants’ effect on carbon sequestration is so dramatic that a single square kilometer of elephant inhabited forest can absorb 14 times more carbon than Central Park in New York.
Extinct megafauna like the woolly mammoth are also needed to combat the climate crisis. Mammoths were ecosystem engineers. Their presence alongside other megafauna such as horses, woolly rhinos, musk ox and saiga antelope, created an environment called the mammoth steppe. One of the largest terrestrial ecosystems in history, the mammoth steppe was created by megafauna fertilizing and tilling the Siberian soil, enabling plant life to grow in what otherwise would have been a desolate ecosystem. This created amassive carbon sink. The Siberian megafauna also kept the permafrost intact. A layer of soil permanently frozen, the permafrost contains dangerous amounts of methane and nitrogen that would spell disaster if released. The megafauna kept the permafrost frozen by clearing away an insulating layer of snow to access the vegetation underneath. This exposed the permafrost to the frigid Siberian winter, ensuring the gases stayed entombed below. With the aid of de-extinction technologies, we could restore this ecological phenomenon and create a massive new carbon sink, while preventing any further permafrost thawing.
The animals most effected by agricultural practices are insects. Insects are experiencing catastrophic declines around the world. Numerous factors are causing insect declines greater than those seen during the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. These declines are due to numerous factors. However, the largest are the conversion of land for agricultural use and, most significantly, the pesticide use from agricultural operations. Pesticide use in recent years has increased exponentially and its toxicity has followed suit, with pesticides like Neonics being roughly 50 times more deadly to insect populations than DDT. These particular pesticides are being used in over 120 countries around the world. Vertical farming being conducted indoors in controlled conditions eliminates the need for pesticide use entirely.
Right now our agricultural system is centered around large scale industrial farming, with vertical farms being little more than an afterthought in the grand-scheme of global food production, this however is changing rapidly as this technology is being adopted around the world. Singapore has recently invested heavily in Vertical farms as part of a climate resilience program. Japan has recently built dozens to of farms to compensate for their limited amounts of usable farmland.
Many have criticized vertical farming for being limited use, only being functional for a small selection crops like spinach, hemp and cannabis. This however, is incorrect as numerous other crops are being utilized for vertical farms, including fruits like strawberries and key crops like wheat, where vertical farming can produce a yield 600 times greater than your average farm.
According to Erik Runkle, a horticulture researcher from Michigan State University “we can grow virtually any crop indoors – the biggest challenge is whether it is economically viable or not.” A massive infrastructure deal such as the green new deal would be the perfect opportunity to enable a national transition to an agricultural system centered around vertical farming, as enabling businesses to make it by themselves is unfeasible.
Of course, we don’t need to rely on governments to make this transition. The technology that enables vertical farming is readily accessible to many consumers and the internet provides many resources to learn how to utilize this technology in your own home. “I'm personally, almost sure that decentralized vertical farming will replace traditional agriculture eventually” Says Mateusz Piechowiak, who runs a farm in his home and vertical farming blog, called Vertical Farming Planet. Perhaps this transition, won’t be the result of government or private enterprise, but ordinary people instead.
In the face of an existential threat like the climate crisis, bold new solutions are required. Vertical farming, is one of those solutions. Enabling solutions to problems that have persisted since the dawn of agriculture. This technology is truly revolutionary and its impacts are only just being seen.