How University of Arizona Is Solving the Food Crisis

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By: A.J. O’Connell

It’s the kind of farming you see in science fiction: plants grown, not in a field, but in a series of tubes rising high into the air in an enclosed space. But vertical farming is very much real. And it’s happening here on Earth, masterminded by University of Arizona professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering Joel Cuello.

Cuello, director of the Global Initiative for Strategic Agriculture in Dry Land, has patented a modular farming system that will allow people to grow food in whatever space is available; called the Vertical-Hive (or V-Hive) Green Box, the system is capable of providing a garden in a studio apartment, or—more importantly—of turning a warehouse into an urban farm to stave off world hunger.

By 2050, in just 30 more years, we will have to feed 2 billion more people, and our resources are already stretched thin. Farming has already claimed half the arable land on the planet and threatens regions like rainforests and grasslands, while driving wildlife extinction and accelerating global warming.

Currently the V-Hive is being used in a shipping container on University of Arizona’s campus, but space travel did play a role in Cuello’s designs. His postdoctoral research work at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System served as the inspiration for his work in sustainable farming.

“For any manned mission on the Lunar surface or the Martian surface, food has to be produced on-site,” said Cuello. “And given that there are no readily available resources on site […] resources then will have to be utilized and managed in a closed-loop cycle so that as much of everything could be recycled and reused.”

The extreme kind of sustainability that would be needed on Mars is also useful on Earth. Cuello’s system will help farmers grow food in small spaces, using the least amount of space, water, and energy possible.

The V-Hive Green Box, to the untrained eye, looks like a system of pipes, but the system also includes lighting and growing boards, all of which can be positioned in a tiny area. Cuello designed it after looking at several closed-environment crop-production systems and finding that all of those systems wasted something: space, energy, or even the money needed to run the system.

“Given that these closed systems are generally tech-dense, wasting volume or space is simply profligacy in my view—a reckless waste of investments, be it for Earth or space application,” said Cuello.

The V-Hive Green Box uses hydroponics and lends itself to automation, although at the moment, Cuello’s students are playing the role of the servos that may someday tend the crops growing in the pipes.

Asked what one thing he wants his UA students to take away from their work with him, Cuello pointed toward the coming food crisis.

“It will be our indispensable need today to produce our food in a resource-sustainable manner,” he said. “This will be the only way that we can feed every one of the 9.5 billion people who will be calling Earth their home by the middle of this century.”

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