I was sitting with my cup of coffee, checking out the latest news on the newspaper and thinking how long I would continue reading the newspaper. The feel of the paper, the smell of ink and all of that is going away soon. Newsweek just announced that their December issue is going to be its last on print. Reading the WSJ, I am wondering if that fine paper too will take the same route. Well, I for one would be sad about it, for there is nothing like stretching back and unraveling the big and wide paper, listening to the crackle and scanning back and forth, top to bottom, side to side. Whatever said and done, you can never get that right on a 10 or 12 inch screen, e-ink or not, even for a tech savvy guy like me. But then you cannot question economics, profit and loss and such things, for they drive decisions, not some longing reader’s mindset…
Before the reader wonders what all this has got to do with the subject line, I better get to the topic. It did have something to do with the first paragraph, for I read about these astonishing advances from the very paper I talked about, the Wall Street Journal, and it set my mind in motion.
I come from a family of farmers, though on my father’s side, there were a few connections to the ancient rulers of Malabar. But at Pallavur, like the rest of the people of the village, we are a farming family, an activity that my brother takes care of these days. Each time I go on vacation, he tells me about some of the new things that have happened and I end up thinking wistfully about days long gone, the days of my childhood, and all those fascinating vacation days spent at my mother’s Tharavad, the harvest festivals, the seeding period, the monsoons, the implements of the farm, the farm animals, the smells, sounds and sights of the village. The sound of vehicles, the gasoline fumes, the glitz and glamor of a city, the steel and glass on the buildings, the many conveniences, they are all nice, but you know how it is, your mind takes you back to your roots, every once in a while…and you wonder….
I think back and see all those days vividly in my mind, of the days when we would wake up early on Vishu day and go to the fields for the festivities, when the gods of prosperity are addressed. I had written about this earlier. This was the day the child of the house always looked forward to, for it was the only successful day in a monetary sort of way, the only time money was given to the children in older days, days when terms like pocket money were not in vogue in Kerala. So when your pocket bulged with coins by the end of the day though not liberal in a value sense, coming from various uncles, aunts and elders of the family, the child had a beaming smile on your face for the next few days. The following days were spent in animated discussions with cousins as to who got how much and from whom and what was to be done with all the money. But then Vishu was more than the ‘kainettam’. It started early that morning and had so much going on for the rest of the day. Starting with the Vishu Kani, then the ‘chal pooja’ at the Chira, the fireworks, the sumptuous lunch followed by all kinds of happenings at home and the temple, the day was a joy for any Malayali, though it differed a bit from location to location..
Well, as you can imagine, things are slowly changing out there too, and with higher salaries for factory work, better education and the lure of office jobs, you will not have farm hands anymore. Machines will take over and soon the situation will be akin to that of Punjab where the farming will be highly mechanized (out there the water tables are dwindling fast but we in Kerala may be saved by our great monsoons). Nevertheless who will continue with farming, especially when produce prices are regulated and margins are wafer thin? Perhaps it is time to farm exotic stuff or start organic farming, which is more profitable. My brother tries his hand at some of these new ideas at times and complains a lot when they do not find any support among the traditional lot out there. Sometimes he tries new crops like Chinese potatoes (my favorite – Koorka) and comes up with bumper produce, with great taste even appreciated by the likes of our Koorka eating ex-chief minister Achuettan.
And thus we come to the topic at hand, which is what they call vertical farms…and a time when the future of agriculture as WSJ puts it, is up, and up, not flat and flat. Can you imagine a situation when you grow crops in vertical multi storied high rise buildings in the middle of other buildings? A time, when you look out of your apartment window and see another massive glass and steel building, not full of people but full of plants? That is how it could be, I have no doubts about it, for sooner or later, land will not be available horizontally, and so man will be forced to think vertically!!
The complainers complain about the rains, they complain about all the effluents that are going into the soil; they complain of development and human greed, they complain of our complete lack of environment friendliness. What if you are able to create a situation where you isolate farming from all those environmental issues? Will your food be cleaner, untainted but perhaps not possessing just the right taste? Is it but a wasted thought?
Complainers would now say, well, scientists said the same thing when you started growing chicken and cows indoor in environments they were not supposed to be in, in overcrowded farms set up only for human consumption where the result was hormone enhanced milk or eggs or meat with huge amount of antibiotics and other chemicals in them. Was that done wrongly or was it greed?
Would these vertical farms produce food which would carry the same problems as meat and eggs and milk? Let’s take a look at this revolutionary concept sooner than later, for it will not be too long in our lifetimes that we will see this germ of an idea taking root and spreading. Spread it must, for man is producing and reproducing large numbers who will need even more space to live and compete with space needed by the very farms that have to feed them. Greed will displace these farm lands as we see on a daily basis, and so where would you go for food? Where would you grow food? This vertical farm concept has to be a way, perhaps the only way.
If these compact farms are right in the middle of a metropolis, do you need those huge trucks to bring the food from farms many a hundred or thousand miles away? Perhaps not! The supporters cite many other reasons to adopt these new ideas, explaining that this can help combat climate change, that this can help reduce the use of chemicals and pesticides. They state that prices can be maintained, is greener than traditional farming and so on. And overall, it provides food security and less dependence on others, for any country.
And that gets me thinking of the bullock cart, the one I wrote about some years ago … There was a time when we had a bullock cart at our maternal home in Pallavur. I remember the chap who drove the cart, Eaachran, who was also our supervisor in the fields (I guess only trustworthy positions got the exalted cart driver status). The cart was not used very much though. In our times, it was parked in the shed (yes, it had its own garage) and once a week, our man used to get the two bulls yoked up in front and take the cart to get stocks from the nearby Alathur market. The cart would come back late at night, loaded with sacks of cattle feed, vegetables, oil tins, fertilizer and provisions. The cattle knew the route back and forth; Eaacharan was normally asleep at the wheels (a few bottles of toddy maybe?) on the way back, but no problems….
But is that right? Can you really grow basmati or koorka in a vertical farm? I am not sure, but there is no reason why they cannot be, what I am not sure is if the taste will change, for taste is determined by the soil, by the local methods and so on, and not in any way enhanced by an enclosed atmosphere. Perhaps you can grow technically perfect vegetables, maybe not the tastiest. To get the right tastes, you do make hybrid versions or indulge in genetic modifications, but are they right? On the other hand, will the citizens of the future have a real choice when it comes to taste? Perhaps not! Just like you ruminate about the past, when your grandmother used to hand grind the perfect chutney, and you complain about the blander version coming out of your grinder…these things will happen, while man will adopt, and as the memories fade, the tastes will change. As another writer once wrote, huge companies like McCormick will decide the tastes of the future food.
Back to the vertical farm, how do they grow the plants? One of the concepts employed in a vertical farm is hydroponics. Economist mag states There are a number of ways to do it, but essentially hydroponics involves suspending plants in a medium—such as gravel, wool or a form of volcanic glass known as perlite—while the roots are immersed in a solution of nutrient-rich water. A constant flow of air keeps the plants bathed in carbon dioxide. Any nutrients and water that are not taken up by the roots can be recycled, rather than being lost into the soil. According to Dr Giacomelli “You can grow anything with hydroponics.
Light was another issue in glass houses or greenhouses, and while earlier farms had their own power plants to drive these lights, the new ones use energy saving LED lighting, or as I explained earlier, moving tracks which track sunlight and augmented by LED light when needed. So answers are found with developing and innovative technologies.
It is not these buildings will be just vertical farms, but they will use one side of it or two sides where sunlight hits them, with the rest of the space leased to offices so that the cost of building the vertical farm is offset to a certain extent. But these farms are not cheap by any means, they need expensive lighting, they need clean water systems, huge upfront investments on the machinery & conveyer systems and large investments in LED lighting. We still do not have a clear business model available to an entrepreneur.
According to one of the people behind the very idea of vertical farming Dr Dickson Despommier- By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA).
Agriculture also uses 70 percent of the world’s available freshwater for irrigation, rendering it unusable for drinking as a result of contamination with fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and silt. If current trends continue, safe drinking water will be impossible to come by in certain densely populated regions.
The monsoons of Malabar - yes, without those rains, we would not have any farming in Palakkad. remeber the story of how that happened? The story when the kings prayed for rain in Malabar…In days of yore, there was, at one time, no rain in the kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya, and all living beings were dying of starvation. The kings of the three kingdoms could not find means to mitigate the sufferings of their subjects. They consulted with one another and resolved to do penance to the God of rain. Temporarily leaving the administration of affairs in the hands of the ministers, they went to the forest, and did penance to Indra, the God of rain, who, at the intercession of the great Gods, took pity on them and blessed each of them with rain for four months in the year. Well pleased, they returned to their kingdoms. They soon become discontented, because the first (the Chera king) had not enough of rain, while the other two had too much of it. They again went to the rain god and conveyed to him their grievances. He thereupon directed the kings Cholan and Pandiyan to give two months' rain to the king Cheran. All the three rulers now felt quite satisfied. The king Cheran thus got 8 months' rain for his kingdom, while the other two were satisfied with two months' rain in their own kingdoms.
Or will it be as the Zamorin of Calicut, my grandfather many eons over told the Vasco De Gama (not really, it is just a myth that sounds good) - When asked by Vasco De Gama for some pepper seedlings, the Zamorin, his old leathery face twisting in sarcasm told the Gama, that he could take pepper seedlings back home and wished him the best in growing them, but added that what he would never be able to replicate the monsoons of Kerala and the sun, signifying that Vasco will have to come back to buy the pepper from Malabar.
Perhaps the person who wants to make money in the long run should take heed of humorist Mark Twain who once said: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.”
Vertical farm images – Plantagon/Sweco, Farm images, Hindu, thadeus
Note: After I decided on the heading, I found out that there is a song by Eurythmics with the same title. Originally I headed this as ‘farms of tomorrow’, but thought it a little drab and changed it to the new one, signifying what could be in store for us tomorrow. The similarity is therefore a coincidence, though I must admit that the Sidney Sheldon book ‘If tomorrow comes’, was definitely an inspiration.