Rural Underground Farming

How underground farming can help farmers increase revenue, productivity and sustainability.

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Why Agriculture Needs A Change

There could be several books written about this topic alone, but the key takeaway is that agriculture technology as we know it today is no longer an efficient solution for feeding the world, we need new technology.

Here’s a few major reasons why: 

Land use

Agriculture already claimed 50% of the world’s habitable land. With a growing population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, we can’t afford to eat up any more forests to make room for food production.

We need technology that multiplies yields per acre, marginal improvements are not enough.

Chemicals

Farmers use chemicals to protect crops against external agents that can compromise their yields such as pests, herbs, fungi and more. Without heavy chemical use, there wouldn’t be enough food to feed the world. 

The boost in productivity, though, comes at a high cost. Agrochemicals are heavily damaging the environment and our health, and may already have caused irreversible damage to insect biodiversity

Soil Degradation

Soil degradation is the loss of land’s production capacity caused by unsustainable practices such as intensive farming. In other words, our current agricultural systems degrade the soil to a point where it can no longer be used for food production. 

According to a recent report to the United Nations, almost one-third of the world’s farmable land has disappeared in the last four decades. The report also stated that all of the world’s surface would become unfertile within the next 60 years if current rate losses endure. 

Unhealthy Food

In the US, food is estimated to travel an average of 1,500 miles before making it to the dinner table. 

When food is stored for such a long period before being consumed, it loses its nutrient value. Moreover, in order for it to survive during its trip and shelf time, it’s filled with chemicals. 

Biodiversity

Arguably one of the biggest threats posed by current agriculture technology is the destruction of biodiversity. In fact, agriculture is considered to be the biggest contributor to biodiversity loss.

Territories claimed by high-intensity, monocultural farms are no longer habitable by wildlife.

How Underground Farming Can Help

What is Underground Farming? 

Underground farming is a subset of CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) that consists in growing crops in vertical stacks below the surface. It’s vertical farming, but underground. 

There are underground farming applications that exploit unused or abandoned underground spaces such as old mines or basements. In the case of GreenForges, we drill holes in the ground and grow fruits and vegetables inside them, arranged in hydroponic modules. 

Saved Space

One of the main advantages of underground farming is that less space is required to achieve the same level of productivity. Instead of requiring 10 acres to grow X amount of lettuce, a farmer only requires 1 acre of underground farms to grow the same amount of crops.

The ratio is dictated by the depth of the underground farm; the deeper we go, the more we can  produce.

For example, here’s a scenario for lettuce production: 

Underground GreenForges farms with a depth of 200 feet (60m) can produce 140 times more lettuce per acre than California field farms.

Saved space can be claimed back by nature


Potential Impact

What could switching some of our farms to underground agriculture mean for us and for the planet? 

Regeneration

As we’ve seen in a previous section, one of the major issues of agriculture is that it’s eating up the world’s forests, and it’s not going to stop because we do need to feed ourselves. 

Exponential reduction in space needed to grow our food means we can temporarily reverse the destructive process of agriculture by converting existing cropland into underground farms and giving the saved space back to nature or regenerative activities.

Underground farming is not as regenerative as other regenerative agriculture practices such as permaculture or agroforestry, but arguably exponentially more productive. 

The future of food production is not a silver bullet scenario where one practice will rule them all, rather a mosaic of new and old technologies co-operating in harmony with the environment.

Healthy Food 

Food grown in underground farms, like most of other CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture) practices, is pesticide-free. 

Although common perception may lead us to think that crops grown without sunlight are not ‘natural’, artificial lighting is perfectly capable of reproducing the right wavelengths needed for crops to grow healthy and tasty. 

No Chemical Runoffs

Agrochemical runoffs from field farming contaminate the surrounding environment, compromising the health of nearby ecosystems. 

Because underground farms are circumscribed within a closed environment and no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides are needed, no chemical contamination of the surrounding biosphere takes place. 

Save Water

Underground farms use 98% less water as compared to field farming. Water is recycled in a closed-loop system, minimizing waste. 

More Revenue

Increased productivity per square meter directly translates into higher profitability for farmers. 

Our calculations show that, with GreenForges 200ft (60m) deep growing lettuce, farmers can benefit from a whopping 377 times higher revenue per acre ($4,248,011) as compared to California field farming ($11,256). 

Less Labor

Automation is embedded within the machines to minimize the labor required to successfully run the farm. Farmers can virtually operate their farm remotely through software.

Challenges

As good as the potential impact of underground agriculture in rural areas may sound, there are a few drawbacks that need to be addressed. 

High Capital Costs 

Although profitability is much higher compared to field farming, underground farming requires a relatively large amount of initial capital. The investment may be prohibitive for small farmers that don't have access to such funds. 

This being said, there is an abundance of government grants and loans targeted at sustainable agriculture practices and innovations. GreenForges will partner with companies and institutions to provide farmers with the financial solutions they need to kickstart their underground farms. 

Energy Intensive

Despite all of the benefits that come with farming underground, it still requires more energy as compared to field farming. There is no escape from that as artificial lighting is needed for growing healthy plants.

Although, if the source of energy used to power the farm is renewable, underground farming (or vertical farming) can emit less CO2 into the atmosphere despite requiring more energy. 

According to a report from vertical farming company OneFarm, energy use improvements, renewable energy sources and full recycling of waste energy can take vertical farming to emit up to 98% less CO2 as compared to open field agriculture.

Average CO2 emissions per kg of lettuce for Green Vertical Farming, Conventional Vertical Farming, AdvancedGreenhouse, Conventional Greenhouse and Open Field Agriculture. Source: OneFarm CO2 report.

Conclusion

Underground farming, in cooperation with other sustainable practices, can have a large impact in making food production scalable in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment. 

There are challenges to overcome, but lots of smart, driven people are working tirelessly on making the technology available for the world.

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