Underground Farms and Lab Grown Meat: Can Science Feed Us If the Climate Fails?

Underground Farms and Lab Grown Meat: Can Science Feed Us If the Climate Fails?

By Sami Grover
Published: October 11, 2016

From cutting usable coffee farming land in half by 2050 to crippling droughts becoming ever more commonplace, no discussion of global climate change is complete without warnings of impending doom, the collapse of civilization and an inevitable rise in the price of coffee. 

Given that the world is almost certainly on course to blow through 1.5 degree global warming target agreed to at the Paris climate talks, we have good reason to worry. As rainfall patterns change, as droughts and extreme storms increase, and as growing regions shift, both small-scale and industrial farmers will find that the crops and growing methods they’ve relied on for years may no longer be effective under different growing conditions. 

So what’s the world to do? 

Already, many farmers are doing interesting and innovative work to adapt to the changing climate. Whether it’s breeding new, drought tolerant crops or using satellite technology to enhance precision irrigation, there’s a lot of potential for innovation within our existing food and farming infrastructure. Some innovations — like the use of cover crops and compost to add organic matter to the soil — may even help slow the march of climate change in the first place, sequestering significant amounts of carbon underground while improving soil fertility and water retention. 

But innovating within the existing paradigm can only take us so far. Other farmers, scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at reinventing the farm entirely, using cutting edge technology to partially or even completely separate farming and food production from a reliance on an increasingly unstable climate. 

Greens growing on floating beds in an experimental aquaponics farm in a project called The Plant in Chicagoon June 21, 2012. Urban farming is being taken to new heights in this abandoned Chicago pork processing plant where environmentalists hope to get off the grid using the waste from one crop to feed and power another.

Indoor farming, for example, was once thought of as the sole preserve of illegal grow rooms out West. Increasingly, however, urban growers are raising edible crops under artificial light, often using soilless hydroponic or aeroponic techniques. 

Growing Underground, for example, is an underground farm located 33 meters below the streets of Clapham, London in an old, disused bomb shelter.  Using LED lighting and hydroponics in a pesticide free environment, the start up offers salad greens and herbs to local restaurants and retailers. As the marketing copy on their website suggests, there are multiple climate benefits, including reduced vulnerability to unpredictable weather and the potential for cutting greenhouse gas emissions too: 

“Thanks to a controlled environment, each tiny leaf tastes as amazing as the last. Our greens are unaffected by the weather and seasonal changes, and thanks to our prime location, we reduce the need to import crops and drastically reduce the food miles for retailers and consumers.” 

Of course, growing salad greens indoors is one thing, but what about animal protein? Absent of the world turning vegan, there is likely to still be demand for meat and dairy for some time to come. And given that many modern-day “ethical” consumers are not keen on indoor factory farming conditions, one could envision a conflict between animal rights and climate resilience. 

Futurists and animal rights activists have long heralded the dawn of lab grown or synthetic meat. In 2013, a team of Dutch scientists even unveiled a lab grown burger and invited a lucky few to taste it. There was only one problem: It cost $330,000 to produce. Prices are likely to come down, however, and the Washington Post recently reported that synthetic meat may be hitting the supermarket shelves within the next few years. 

Lab-grown meat and underground farms are by no means the only ways we may feed ourselves in a changing climate. From aquaponics (a virtuous circle of fish farming and hydroponics) to climate resilient GMOs, we can expect to see new and innovative models emerging as our weather patterns shift.

As we usher in these new ways of growing, of course, we’ll need to keep an eye out for potential negative consequences too. Are GMOs safe? (It depends on who you ask.) Will lab grown meat be palatable to consumers? (Well, a lot of people eat at McDonalds now…) Won’t indoor farms be incredibly inefficient? (Innovation in LED lighting has greatly reduced the energy footprint of indoor growing. Thanks Colorado!) And perhaps most importantly, if rich countries can feed themselves with fancy new technology, how do we make sure that cash poor regions — whose populations have done least to contribute to climate change — are not left behind to starve. 

None of these innovations reduce the need to fight global climate change in the first place. Still, given all the doom and gloom headlines about our impending societal collapse, it’s encouraging to see that new solutions are emerging. The farm of the future may look very different from the past. But at least we’ll still be able to eat. 

Sami Grover is a writer, and creative director at The Change Creation, a brand creation agency that works with entities who make the world better, fairer or truer. Clients include Larry’s Beans, Burt's Bees, Canaan Fair Trade and Jada Pinkett Smith/Overbrook Entertainment.


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