China’s pollution problem isn’t going to get solved anytime soon. Citizens believe that urban farms may be one part of the answer. Urban farms reduce damage to the nation’s ecosystem due to deadly carbon emissions. This has led local scientists to adopt bold and unconventional farming methods to secure the country’s food supply.
In a country with close to 1.4 billion people, China’s agricultural scientists could soon be dependent on ‘plant factories’, indoor vertical farms that grow produce requiring minimal energy and land resources. These self-contained systems are not exposed to choking air pollution levels; said to be five times over the safe levels declared by the World Health Organization.
Yang Qichang of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science in Beijing is pinning his hopes on agricultural technology to grow higher yielding crops. His efforts have so far been successful. Bloomberg reports that these indoor patches of bok choy, tomatoes, celery, and lettuce produce more than 40 to 100 times more crops than an open field farm.
“Using vertical agriculture, we don’t need to use pesticides and we can use less chemical fertilizers—and produce safe food,” said Yang, who is the director of the Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture.
Urban Farms May Save China’s Ecosystem
For decades, China had focused on industrialization to improve its economy. Rapid urbanization ate away farmlands. Farmers then turned to pesticides and chemicals to ward off pests as well as fertilizers in an attempt to boost growth. The World Bank says Chinese farmers use 4.5 more times fertilizer per hectare of land than farmers in North America.
“The future of farming—to us—is urban.”
In 2014, one-fifth of farmlands in China, an area covering about half of California, had toxic levels above acceptable standards. Reports said 14% of domestic grain tested positive for lead and cadmium as well as arsenic. The levels were highest – at 44% – in Guangdong province. Ingestion of these chemicals severely damage internal organs and weaken bones.
In addition, Researchers from the University of Exeter have revealed that air pollution and chemical use in farms has negatively impacted the ability of crops to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.
More than 295 million vehicles emit 44.725 million tons of pollutants each year. Couple that with the extent Chinese farmers bombard arable land with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and you are left with ‘ozone vegetation damage’. This is a condition where leaf photosynthesis in oxidizing plant cells is weakened, making plants weaker, smaller, and lower-yielding.
Can Urban Farms Provide Food Security?
Ultimately, this poses a problem to China’s food security. China has been unable to feed its people from domestic production. In 2015, it imported $31.2 billion worth of soybeans, a third of which were imported from the U.S.
This is a precarious situation to be in, given China’s volatile international relations not only with the U.S. but other produce-exporting countries as well.
Vertical farms such as Yang’s are seen as the best hope for survival. His plant factories received an $8 million grant from the government with the end goal of perfecting this kind of urban farming technology. Yang uses energy efficient farms which look like greenhouse structures. His project aims to make produce items more affordable to consumers.
Urban Farms Contribute to Efforts at Food Production
Technology is seen as the only way to make farming in China productive again.
Apart from vertical farms, private companies are also stepping up. Alesca Life Technologies is a Beijing startup that creates and uses upcycled shipping containers to farm leafy, green vegetables. They can be set up on small alleyways atop metal stilts.
The company’s co-founder Stuart Oda is a former investment banker for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He explained that Alesca Life allows growers to monitor air and water conditions remotely via a smartphone application.
“Agriculture has not really innovated materially in the past 10,000 years,” Bloomberg quoted Oda, who added: “The future of farming—to us—is urban.”
Additionally, Shunwei Capital Partners, a Beijing-based fund which is backed financially by Xiaomi Corp. has reportedly invested in 15 separate agriculture and rural startups in China. At the same time, the Chinese government has also created initiatives to modernize farming and improve the livelihood of its farmers. Some $437 billion will be released until 2020 to finance key agricultural projects.
More importantly, Chinese companies are being encouraged to invest in overseas companies to further development in the agri-tech sector. China National Chemical Corp is set to acquire Swiss company Syngenta AG for $43 billion. Doing so will give the state-owned company full access and rights to both intellectual property and seed technology – a prime commodity in the agriculture business.
Urban farming is seen as the bold and viable alternative to farming in big cities. Plant factories and vertical farms are the best solution to China’s current agricultural challenges which are punctuated by the pressing need to supply safe food to billions of people.