The world of food production is an industry essential to our everyday living, and recent years of growing climate volatility have highlighted the worrying fragility of our current systems. Too heavily reliant on non-renewable energy and resources, growing concerns of climate change, land and water consumption, and a growing global population put major strain on present food production methods, leading innovators and experts to devise new alternatives.
Urban growth and increased land consumption has meant that there is less suitable space for growing crops. The global population is expected to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050, and food production will have to increase by at least 70% worldwide to keep up with demand. However, as of 2016, 80% of the world’s sustainable land for crop raising had already been used with the remaining 20% insufficient for achieving the necessary rate for improvement.
To combat these ever-pressing concerns, Barcelona-based Forward Thinking Architecture have proposed ‘Smart Floating Farms’ as a sustainable and space-saving alternative to traditional farming. By making water surfaces a viable space for farming, 71% of the earth’s surface becomes available to new agricultural possibilities.
A key feature of Smart Floating Farms is their proximity to consumers. As long as the city or densely populated area has physical access to bodies of water, they can be equipped with Smart Floating Farms, significantly narrowing the distance between food production and consumer. The majority of megacities, which would benefit the most from additional food resources, are located close to water, making Smart Floating Farms an ideal complement to the existing system.
One type of a Smart Floating Farm has already been realised in the form of Beladon’s Floating Farm located in the Merwehaven harbour in Rotterdam. The facility opened in May 2019 and accommodates 40 dairy cows of a local breed, producing pasteurised milk, pasteurised yoghurt, and raw milk for the Rotterdam residents.
Floating Farm was created with several aims in mind: to safeguard for food security, reduce food loss and transportation-associated pollution, improve transparency and educate the public on food production. Rotterdam is particularly concerned with the threat of rising sea levels, with over 80% of the city located under sea level. As superstorms and large-scale climate events continue to worsen and become more frequent, our food security lessens.
A 2013 Food Trade and Self-Sufficiency Report revealed that around 16% of the global population already used international trade to meet their food needs, with this number predicted to increase as arable land becomes scarcer and the population grows. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 revealed the detrimental effect of climate change events on urban food supply as floods brought New York City (and food distribution) to a standstill. Food production infrastructure located close to the city ensures supplies are always nearby.
In addition to safeguarding against food resource depletion, the proximity between food supply and consumer facilitated by Smart Floating Farms reduces travel distances, therefore lessening pollution from the transport process.
Similar to the Rotterdam Floating Farm, Forward Thinking Architecture’s design also consists of a multi-storey structure, each floor designated to a specific function. Their example, yet to be realised, consists of a fish farm on the first level, hydroponic (vegetal) crops on the second, finally topped by solar panels that could be supplemented by other forms of renewable energy like wind or wave power.
The Floating Farms function as a circular economy, recycling energy and reusing production resources such as waste products from hydroponic crops in fish feed and using fish farm waste as fertiliser for the crops. The Rotterdam farm’s ethos is that they are in a circular relationship with the city itself. The cows’ diet consists of food production waste from local breweries, potatoes-processing factories, and grass clippings from sports fields. In return, this energy is channelled into creating dairy products for the city’s inhabitants, and the manure wasted is processed and used to fertilise the land they graze on.
So how does smart technology play a role in this? The ‘smart’ aspect of Floating Farms consists of machinery and software that allow the farm to run with minimal, even no human interference. Daily tasks are automated, various types of robots milk the cows, and collect and move dung to the required level. Big data monitoring allows for better performance and troubleshooting in the production process. Simultaneously, data analysis can also provide insight into the needs of the local population, identifying which products are more or less in demand to prevent food wastage.
While the idea of farming on water may sound incredibly futuristic, operations like Floating Farm in Rotterdam show that they are very contemporary and operational. The structural and operational technology used is not brand new either, in fact a symbiosis of existing technologies, materials and systems. It the way they are applied that makes it excitingly avant-garde, emphasising how encouraging innovation and creative thinking can lead the way in tackling the food supply dilemma.