Edge of Innovation

Food technology: Building future farms in the strangest of places


The way we grow our food hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. Despite technological advances in irrigation, mechanisation and genetic modification, most farmers still plant seeds in the ground and harvest their crops from traditional fields.

But not all farms work this way. Not all of them in the future will. The Pasona O2 Urban Farm in Tokyo, for example, is sited on two floors of a downtown office block.

There’s a rice paddy and a broccoli field in the building’s lobby, bean sprouts growing under its wooden benches and tomato vines hanging above its conference tables. Everything is warmed by the light of LED lamps and the produce ends up in the company’s cafeteria.

Pasana O2 Urban Farm
The Pasona O2 Urban Farm is sited in a downtown Tokyo office building.

Such indoor farming could have a big future. On a larger scale, Green Sense Farms in the US describes itself as “the country’s largest commercial indoor vertical farm”. Situated in a 30,000-square foot warehouse near Chicago, it grows lettuce, herbs, chard, kale and other green veg in 30ft-high, LED-lit racks, using a fraction of the land, water and fertiliser compared to a traditional farm.

Closer to home, in an industrial warehouse in Beckton, East London, Unit 84 claims to be the UK’s first aquaponic, vertical urban farm.

According to GrowUp Urban Farms who run it, aquaponics “combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing in a nutrient solution without soil) in a recirculating system where water is cycled from fish tanks through plants and back into the fish tanks. The plants absorb the waste nutrients in the water, and in turn, filter the water for the fish.”

Unit 84, vertical farm
Unit 84 bills itself as the UK’s first aquaponic, vertical urban farm. Photo credit: Mandy Zammit

Vertical indoor farms can provide a way for large urban areas to grow crops reliably, locally and sustainably.

They have the advantage of being able to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in conditions that are always perfect for growing. In Japan, a company called Spread hopes to take the idea a step further. It is building an indoor lettuce farm that will be tended by robots and managed by computers, dramatically reducing labour costs.

In the meantime, rooftop farms are another alternative to traditional farming.

Gotham Greens greenhouse in Chicago
Gotham Greens has built a 75,000 sq ft rooftop greenhouse on top of a manufacturing plant in Chicago.

In the US, Gotham Greens has built a 75,000-square-foot (2 acre) greenhouse on top of the Method Products manufacturing plant in Chicago. The company says that it’s the world’s largest rooftop farm and will produce “nearly 10 million annual crops of local, premium-quality, pesticide-free, leafy greens and herbs.”

Of course, vertical and rooftop farms aren’t the strangest alternatives to traditional farmland. Floating farms are another option, like the Science Barge greenhouse in New York. Moored on the Hudson River, the bobbing barge is powered by renewable energy and grows tomatoes, melons, peppers and lettuce.

Forward Thinking Architecture has had the same idea, but envisages Smart Floating Farms (see below) on a much larger scale.

Smart Floating Farms of the future
A lack of extra farmland is forcing us to think about farming in new ways, like this floating farm concept.

Stranger still, the Ocean Reef Group has been growing basil underwater in air-filled, jellyfish-like biospheres. It’s not as crazy as it might seem. The underwater greenhouses are self-sustaining with constant temperatures and high levels of plant-friendly CO2.

Dubbed Nemo’s Garden, the project’s founder Luca Gamberini ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to continue his research.

Nemo's Garden, an underwater farming project
Nemo’s Garden, where Basil plants grow in underwater bubbles that are tethered to the Mediterranean sea bed.

So there you have it, indoor farms and vertical farms, rooftop farms, floating farms and even underwater farms. By growing crops closer to towns and cities, future farmers could slash transport costs, boost yields and produce high-quality, pesticide-free fruit and veg to feed our planet’s ever-growing population. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)

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