At the moment, nearly 800 million individuals worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment (1). This number will more than likely rise as the global population hits 10 billion by the year 2050 (2). Worse yet, the 3 billion additional people are estimated to require an astounding 109 hectares of land for food alone (3). As available farmland shrinks one innovative style of farming could help solve this daunting issue. This style is referred to as “vertical farming”.
Simply put, vertical farms are indoor farms that grow their crops in vertically stacked trays. The plants in these trays do not receive light from the sun, but from LEDs placed directly overhead. In addition, these plants are not grown in soil but in nutrient rich water, a method commonly referred to as hydroponics (4). Growing plants in this manner offers numerous benefits when compared to traditional farming.
First, due to the fact that vertical farms are based inside buildings, nearly all environmental factors are able to be controlled. This means that temperature, humidity, CO2 concentration, and light intensity can all be altered in order to optimize plant growth and maximize crop yield (5). Controlling environmental conditions also means that resources such as water and fertilizer can be used more efficiently when compared with traditional farming. Better yet, environmental control also negates the need for the vast amount of pesticides typically used when farming outdoors. Additionally, growing indoors allows for any crop to be produced year-round, even in non-tropical areas.
Perhaps, the most attractive aspect of vertical farming is the efficient use of land. According to Gene Giacomelli, the director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, indoor farming is capable of producing 20 times the amount of food per unit area when compared to farming outdoors (4). This aspect may prove crucial over the next few decades as less and less land is able to be farmed.
Vertical farms have already become relatively common throughout cities across America. These farms are rather minor and are owned either by small companies, or individuals. Generally these farms are based in larger buildings such as warehouses or old factories; however, some people have even started farms in spare bedrooms and garages. Most, if not all, of these farms came to be because of crowdfunding. In 2015 alone food and agriculture startups raised $4.6 billion, nearly double from the year before (4). Local food, grown in vertical farms, generated $11.7 billion in sales as of 2014 and is expected to balloon to $20 billion by the year 2019 (4).
The sudden popularity of these farms is quite understandable as farming in the city certainly has its upsides. The most apparent benefit is the proximity to potential buyers. Because a vertical farm resides inside a building that lies across the street from a restaurant, shipping costs are negligible. Additionally, the produce sold would be freshly picked and would stay fresh longer. These are factors that traditional farms that ship produce from hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away simply cannot match. In the future, some restaurants could potentially include vertical farms inside their own buildings. Not only would this guarantee absolute freshness of the produce, but it could be less expensive than purchasing from farmers.
Despite the many advantages of vertical farming, it is not perfect. The biggest obstacle is, without a doubt, energy use. Traditional farming methods use sunlight to power their plants. Sunlight is free, effective, and requires no maintenance on the part of the farmer. The LEDs used by vertical farms are far from that. Although the technology is improving, at this point in time even the most advanced LEDs are only 50% efficient, meaning that half of the electricity is lost as heat energy (4). This factor alone has been a governor on the vertical farming industry’s progress over the last few years. If LED technology improves in the coming years, the industry can expand even further.
It is unlikely that vertical farming will solve the current, and impending, world hunger crisis by itself. Nonetheless, it certainly possess the potential to forever change the way we look at farming.
(1) "2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics - World Hunger." World Hunger. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(2) "World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 2050 | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs." UN News Center. UN, 29 July 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.
(3) "The Problem." Vertical Farm RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(4) Zimmerman, Eilene. "Growing Greens in the Spare Room as ‘Vertical Farm’ Start-Ups Flourish." The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(5) "Glossary for Vertical Farming." Association for Vertical Farming. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
Image: © Dutchscenery | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-led-lighting-used-to-grow-lettuce-image26268905#res14972580">LED lighting used to grow lettuce</a>
The People’s Republic of China is home to nearly 1.4 billion individuals, it should not come as a surprise that maintaining such a massive population requires an equally enormous supply of food. In the past, this was not a problem, as a large percentage of the Chinese populace lived and worked on farms. Commercial farming was uncommon as the majority of agriculture was dominated by small, independent farmers.
However, during the latter half of the 20th century this all began to change. As China’s infrastructure and industry modernized, people left the toil of the fields to pursue new lives in the city. In fact, from 1982 to 2010 the Chinese population increased by nearly a third; yet, the rural population of 790 million decreased to around 710 million (1). The Chinese government is currently struggling to garner enough manpower to support their agricultural industry.
Guaranteeing stable food supply for its people is one of the top goals of the current Communist Party in China. This begs the question of whether or not China should attempt to remain self-sufficient, or keep playing a major role in international grain trade. If China is to remain primarily self-sufficient, then the continued mechanization of their agriculture is a must. Due to the fact that the majority of farm land in China is owned by small farmers, this task is rather difficult. These farmers are often hesitant to sell their land even though they can find better work elsewhere. To tackle this issue, the government has issued $3.7 billion in subsidies for agricultural machinery in 2016 (2). These actions by the government are to ensure that modern farming machines are affordable for all farmers across the country.
As of 2015 mechanization of wheat and rice harvesting increased to 90% and 60% respectively, leading to record amounts in both grains (2). Total wheat production in 2015 reached 126.2 million tons, up from 121.9 million tons the year before (3). Additionally, rice totals were measured at 144.5 million tons, up from 142.5 million tons the year prior (3).
However, despite the mechanization of corn harvesting and near record yields in 2015, China is still a net importer of the crop. Similarly, China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans at 74.5 million tons in 2015 and has seemingly given up on being independent in that regard (3).
The Chinese government’s end goal is for all domestic grains, excluding soybeans, to account for at least 95% of its people’s consumption (4). This means that China’s wheat and rice production will continue to modernize over the coming years in order to meet the expanding domestic need for those grains. As for corn, it seems as if China will likely not be able to produce enough corn for itself and will remain a major player on international grain market into the future. The Chinese government is attempting to avoid a repeat of what has happened in the soybean trade over the last decade or so. To counteract this, China is trying to become drastically less dependent on imports, especially from the United States. In 2010, the United States accounted for 97% of all Chinese corn imports; currently, the United States accounts for under 4% (5). Soybeans will likely stay China’s largest import as the government has embraced the global market for the grain.
For a country as large as China, complete self-sufficiency is nothing more than a pipe dream. Today, the international market is much friendlier towards Chinese interests than it was thirty years ago and China is looking to take advantage of this. However, at the same time, China is trying to remain as self-reliant as possible. If China continues to expand and modernize its agricultural industry at this rate, it could possibly replace the United States as the global leader in agriculture over the coming decades.
(1) Stanaway, D., & Shuping, N. (2012, November 14). Analysis: China turns to machines as farmers seek fresh fields. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-agriculture-mechanisation-idUSBRE8AC15P20121114
(2) Increasing Demand for High-Capacity Machinery Predicted to Augment the Global Haying and Forge Machinery Market Until 2020, Says Technavio. (2016, July 7). Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.businesswire.com/news/financialpost/20160707005021/en/Increasing-Demand-High-Capacity-Machinery-Predicted-Augment-Global
(3) Lyddon, C. (2015, April 9). Focus on China 2015 | World Grain. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.world-grain.com/Departments/Country-Focus/Country-Focus-Home/Focus-on-China-2015.aspx
(4) Yap, C. (2014, February 13). China Sees a Worrying History Lesson in Corn. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/02/13/china-sees-a-worrying-history-lesson-in-corn/
(5) Yap, C. (2015, July 21). China’s Corn Strategy Turns Bear Market on Its Ear. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2015/07/21/chinas-corn-strategy-turns-bear-market-on-its-ear/
Image: © Chinahbzyx | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-celery-cultivation-plantation-china-qinhuangdao-image30707791#res14972580">Celery cultivation in a plantation, China</a>
Lasers, and other Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), have long been relegated to the realm of science fiction. However, this technology is soon becoming a reality.
Directed Energy Weapons offer numerous benefits over their conventional projectile-based counterparts. A laser is inherently faster, more accurate, and possess a longer range than a bullet or missile. Additionally, lasers do not need to be stored like conventional ammunition. For example, a naval vessel would only need a generator to produce the energy needed for the laser. This not only eliminates the chance of a magazine explosion, while freeing up valuable space aboard the ship. Another benefit of this technology is the relative cost of use. A single guided missile can cost millions of dollars, while a single bolt from a laser would only cost as much as the energy used to produce it (1).
Though this all looks good on paper, it is difficult to duplicate in practice. For decades, science has been working on ways to bring a functional laser weapon to life. In the past there existed a handful of successful prototypes, but they were often massive in size and required enormous amounts of power. Only a handful of practical DEWs have been produced at this point in time.
One such system is the Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS). This 30-kilowatt laser is currently being used aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, with great success. The LaWS has shown the ability to engage a multitude of targets including drones and small boats, all while operating at a relatively low cost per engagement. The Navy has been so impressed with the performance of this weapon that it plans to test a 150-kilowatt variant later this year (2).
The Navy is not the only branch of the military implementing DEWs. The Air Force’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) is another interesting prospect. This system is fixed onto an aircraft and is designed to deal with ground-based threats such as surface-to-air missiles, rockets, mortars, and possibly even other aircraft. HELLADS is able to engage multiple threats within a short period of time; and, although it is designed as a defensive weapon, it has near limitless potential to be used for offensive purposes as well. Though this technology is still being finalized, the military is looking to implement HELLADS by 2018 (3).
In the ever-advancing world of military technology, the United States Military is always looking to be ahead of the game. Over the coming years, all branches of the Armed Forces will be using Directed Energy Weapons. Soon, battlefields will resemble something straight out of science fiction film.
(1) "Energy Weapon Sidearms." Atomic Rockets. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 July 2016.
(2) McCaney, Kevin. "Navy Cranks up the Power on Laser Weapon -- Defense Systems." Defense Systems. N.p., 28 June 2016. Web. 07 July 2016.
(3) Burlacu, Alexandra. "DARPA And Air Force To Equip War Planes With HELLADS Combat Lasers By 2020." Tech Times RSS. N.p., 20 Sept. 2015. Web. 07 July 2016.
Image: © Mariusika11 | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-optical-target-aquisition-system-modern-military-acquisition-united-states-flag-background-image54881313#res14972580">Optical target aquisition system</a>