In ancient times, the only way for humans to get reliable fruits and vegetables was to collect them. We collected wild fruits and nuts in the autumn, and dug or clipped leafy vegetables and tubers in the spring. While as in-season and local as any modern human could ask for, agriculture was, of course, destined to change.
Humans first started cultivating vegetables in an established agricultural environment about 23,000 years ago. Since that pivotal moment, we’ve been consciously selecting what to grow, harvest and eat based on how good the food tastes, how satisfying or nutritious it is, and how much effort we have to put in to get a harvestable yield.
In fact, the produce available in our modern supermarkets is the direct result of thousands of years of selection based on some of these very same factors.
Not until the beginning of the 20th century did farmers begin to experiment with protecting crops from the elements. What began as a simple small box placed in the ground and topped with a flat piece of glass quickly developed into small-scale greenhouses. With this exciting new technology came a steep learning curve to create optimal growing conditions for a large variety of plants.
The first artistic renderings of food grown vertically was published in Life Magazine in 1909, and although the idea was actually for vertical homesteads set in the middle of farming country, it was a beginning. After that, architectural proposals sprang up throughout the 20th century. But these were mainly wistful dreams by visionaries far ahead of their time.
The technology couldn’t support these visions until greenhouse technology caught up. Around the 1970s, we found a way to grow crops without any soil. First using a medium called rockwool (basically a collection of stones and rocks), this technology reduced the carbon footprint and produced better quality and quantities of crops.
Technological leaps in hydroponics and artificial lighting followed. LED lighting advancements have only been introduced into greenhouse within the last decade, but it was an important one advancement, and the idea of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) quickly developed. This is the process where crops are given their own, optimised environment in a controlled indoor system. This advancement directly led to growing crops vertically in stacked layers.
Although the first true example of a vertical farm was first developed in Armenia in 1951, vertical farming didn’t really gain traction as an idea to feed growing populations until a professor at Columbia University in New York posed a difficult question to a medical ecology class of graduate students in 1999.
The story goes that Professor Dickson Despommier tasked his students with figuring out how to feed the entire population of Manhattan (about two million people at that time) using only five hectares of rooftop gardens.
After his class failed the assignment — they only figured out how to feed two percent of the population with rooftop gardens – Professor Despommier grew enthusiastic about the idea. He calculated that while we couldn’t feed the entire population of Manhattan, we could feed 50,000 using one city-block and an entire 30-floor building, not just the rooftop.
His original idea was to dedicate the upper floors of the building to producing hydroponically-grown crops and the lower floors dedicated to chickens and fish, feasting on the organic waste from the plants in the floors above.
By 2001, Professor Despommier had the first official outline of a commercial vertical farm, detailing the specifics of water and nutrient systems and other early technology systems of modern indoor vertical farms.
If you’ve never seen or heard of a vertical farm, the idea, especially when compared to traditional open-field agriculture, might seem very futuristic and unnatural. But history is full of examples of how agriculture has always been based on technology — even the Romans used aqueducts to supplement water to their fields.
The paper that resulted from that one graduate class went on to popularise the idea that food production could be thought of in a different way than historic, traditional, open-field agriculture. As with many technological leaps, the idea was heartily challenged at first.
But since then, the industry, and the technological advancements, have accelerated. Today, indoor vertical farming is on the verge of reshaping the global food model and is expected to reach USD 9.96 billion in sales by 2025.