The dangers of industrial agriculture are no secret. Its harms – excessive water consumption, polluting fertilizers, monstrous carbon emissions, and unsustainable land use – are consistently written off in the name of cheap and efficient food production for a growing global population. But the very environmental harms this type of farming perpetuates will eventually lead to its downfall. Industrial agricultural practices are emitting carbon dioxide at a rate far too great for the carbon cycle to accommodate, causing these gas particles to trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Not only does a hotter globe experience an increase in crop-killing droughts, but due to warmer air’s increased capacity to accommodate moisture, the frequency of flooding and disastrous storm events is increasing. It’s almost as if nature is seeking revenge, disrupting agricultural operations and destroying viable farmland. Even still, the industry plows ahead – through fields of corn and wheat, sowing the seeds of an uninhabitable tomorrow.
Although fighting industrial agriculture’s monopoly can seem futile, folks like Mike Evans are paving the way for more sustainable farming. Dr. Evans is the Director of Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, as well as the Co-Director of the Controlled Environment Agricultural Innovation Center in Danville, Va. He specializes in vertical farming, a practice where stacks of horticultural crops are grown on top of one another. This model of farming capitalizes on vertical space while utilizing far fewer resources than ever before. It is so successful because the indoor environment can be tailored to the exact needs of the crops being grown, from artificial light input to soil nutrient levels. By employing this, Dr. Evans says, non-arable land can be turned into a food production area with minimal climate impact. He calls this rapidly growing field an intersection between agriculture and technology, one that is an integral part of the future of food supply.
Because of startup building renovation costs and regular maintenance of resource inputs, the vertical farm system comes at a higher cost than traditional farming. This greater expense means that high value horticultural crops like fruits, vegetables, and herbs are the only products currently viable. However, as more investment is diverted to the sector of sustainable agriculture, scientists can work to expand the number of crops suitable for vertical farming. Bioengineering and selective breeding are both ways in which this can be accomplished. As with any pioneering venture, there are roadblocks. But the many benefits of vertical farming, from the year-round growing season to the massive cutback on energy use, give innovators like Mike Evans the momentum to hurdle over these obstacles and forge a more sustainable path forward. To hear more from Dr. Evans, check out his segment on “How Hot is Your Honey” – With Good Reason’s September 2, 2022 episode.