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Vertical Farming in Caves of Steel

The future of our planet demands systems that allow for high-yield, organic-quality produce to be grown with a very small carbon footprint.

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I just received a message on LinkedIn from my chum Nazmul Hasan who hails from Bangladesh. Nazmul pointed me at an article on BusinessCloud.co.uk that describes how a company called Intelligent Growth Solutions was just crowned the most innovative technical company in Scotland (albeit in BusinessCloud’s own Scotland Top 50 ranking of the country’s most exciting technology companies).
Snooker-sized trays containing crops can be stacked 9 meters high (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Intelligent Growth Solutions)
The idea here is to grow crops indoors on snooker-sized trays. These trays are lit with LED lights from the top and fed with water and nutrients from the bottom (the CEO, a former British Army captain called David Farquhar, describes this as,”…[putting] the crops on the top and the weather on the bottom…”). The trays can be stacked in a tower nine meters (30 feet) high and monitored and controlled over the internet using a mobile phone. As Karen Meechan, who was one of the judges, said: “They have created a system that allows for high-yield, organic-quality produce to be grown with a very small carbon footprint and which can be installed almost anywhere from cities to brownfield sites.” This set me to wondering what exactly constitutes a “brownfield site,” so I had a quick Google while no one was looking and ran across the following definition on the Watchdog Project Management website: “A greenfield is an area of agricultural or forest land, or some other undeveloped site earmarked for commercial development, industrial projects or other construction projects. Conversely, a brownfield is an abandoned commercial development where hazardous substances or contaminants are typically present.” Well, that makes sense. As an aside, this discussion made me think of the current trend to develop faux meat that tastes just like the real thing. Two of the top contenders in the meatless meat market (think about it) are the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods. People are looking to faux meats for a variety of reasons. Some because they don’t like the thought of eating animals (to which others reply, “If God hadn’t wanted us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them out of meat”), others because they think they will be better for the planet, and still others who think they will provide a healthier, more nutritious meal. Sad to relate, although faux meat may well be better for the planet (according to HowStuffWorks, “The world’s 1.5 billion cows and billions of other grazing animals emit dozens of polluting gases, including lots of methane”), it’s not as wholesome as you might hope. As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to minimize one’s consumption of processed foods. Unfortunately, faux meats — while a veritable triumph of food chemistry at it’s finest — are the embodiment of processing technology. But we digress… According to the folks at Worldometers.info, the current world population is 7.7 billion as of October 2019, and — although the growth rate is slowing — this is expected to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, according to the United Nations.
Science fiction can be incredibly prescient (Click image to see a larger version)
In turn, this made me think of Isaac Asimov’s classic story, The Caves of Steel (and its sequel, The Naked Sun). These tales are set about three thousand years in our future. By that time, hyperspace travel has been discovered, and fifty planets known as “The Spacer Worlds” have been colonized. The Spacer Worlds are rich and have low population densities. By comparison, the Earth is heavily overpopulated. As a result, the people on Earth now live in vast city complexes covered by huge metal domes — the “Caves of Steel” — each of which is capable of supporting tens of millions of people. Food is in short supply, so although small quantities of items like meat and tobacco are occasional available, they are very expensive, so most of the time people live on rations grown on hydroponic farms or in huge yeast vats. The Caves of Steel was first published as a serial from October to December 1953 in Galaxy magazine. A hardcover followed in 1954, which is 65 years ago as I pen these words. Sometimes it amazes me how prescient science fiction can be. Now I think I’m going to pull The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun off the bookshelves here in my office and put them in my backpack for a long overdue re-read this coming weekend. How about you? Have you read the aforementioned books, and what do you think about all of this?

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Aubrey Kagan

I recently came across the idea of growing crops vertically on a wall. A quick search yielded this source on “vertical farming” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming) although the google search shows several interpretations of the idea. It seems that the Scottish approach is one of the variations.

Nazmul Hasan

Max, I do remember your blog on cultured meat. Though I’m still not convinced to “sink my teeth into a quasi-burger, steak, or chicken thigh created from cultured cells”, but I do love to see the future. Moreover, I couldn’t restrain myself to see the colorful LED illuminated trays. I hope there will be a day when we have the opportunity to flash those LEDs lol.

Aubrey Kagan

I recently had a plant based burger, although I am not sure which company was the source of the “meat”. It was at a high end burger place and so was smothered in lots of other stuff including avocado. Texture seemed OK, but I have no idea about the taste because of the other constituents of the burger. The concoction gave me indigestion though- although I don’t know which part was the cause.

Apparently the faux meat is derived from yellow peas, so there is quite obvioulsy some processing involved.

When I was student in Israel, we used to get dehydrated soya schnitzels. Rehydrate, coat in batter and fry- made an acceptable meal especially if smothered in ketchup.

Rick Curl

I noticed a few months ago that hydroponic lettuce is now available at many local grocery stores. I don’t know if it is generally grown under artificial light or in traditional greenhouses.
I wonder why it’s just lettuce so far, and not other greens?

Rick Curl

So what you’re saying is that mothers provide trace elements and natural fertilizers?

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