By Maddie Stone
If our planet is going to support an extra four billion people by the end of the century, we’ll need to find some creative new ways to feed ourselves. One option would be to turn buildings into farms and grow our crops in the air. Another: To install networked food computers in everybody’s home. I’m not even kidding.
Top: “Entangled Bank” vertical farm concept for Dallas. Image: Little
Both of these radical notions involve aeroponics, a method originally developed by NASA to grow food in space. Aeroponic plants require no arable land or soil, and only minimal water.Proponents say that with proper environmental controls, aeroponics could dramatically reduce agricultural energy inputs, eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and increase crop nutrient densities.
Image: Paul Goings
But is this sort of high-tech farming workable at the scales needed to feed entire cities, or will aeroponic veggies remain the exclusive snack of well-heeled nerds for years to come? To find out, I spoke with Caleb Harper, founder of MIT’s CityFARM and a pioneer in the development of the techno-farming methods that may, one day, feed the world.
To Harper, who brings years of experience designing environmentally-controlled buildings to bear on food production, the natural world is a messy, unruly place to grow things. Within the confines of building, every single resource a plant needs—from CO2 to water to light—can be precisely monitored and controlled in order to maximize yields and minimize waste.
At CityFARM, the “plant factory” supported by MIT’s Media Lab, crops like broccoli, strawberries, lettuce and peppers dangle from shelves stacked along glass-paneled walls. As Harper explains, when plants are suspended in open air and misted with an ultra-fine spray, their roots bloom with tiny hairs, dramatically increasing the surface area available for nutrient uptake.
“Growing in this way allows plants to activate all of their root system,” Harper said. “In soil, a plant may dig around and wait, but it doesn’t fully express its ability to gain water and minerals. In aeroponics, you can drive the plant much faster.”