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How to combat climate change with empty offices

In a world that’s already stretched with food shortages, office spaces that are empty courtesy WFH may hold a solution to growing quality food

Vertical farms use 95% less water than traditional farms and can produce food all year, irrespective of the weather.
Vertical farms use 95% less water than traditional farms and can produce food all year, irrespective of the weather. (Unsplash/Erwan Hesry)

Office space, post-Covid-19, has become a wasteland. What used to house a vibrant hum of workers talking on cell phones, checking their watches as they busily made their way to meetings, lies eerily empty with remnants of recent history. Covid-19 unshackled us from our desks and sent us all home to work from our bedrooms and kitchen tables, leaving our office space looking like the set of the next big horror movie. 

Perhaps extreme, but COVID-19 was not only a hallmark and harrowing experience in our lifetimes, but it's also one that transformed many things about our society, not the least of which was our desire to collectively work from a big building. Companies have realized how virtual they can be when pressed and have learned how to optimize their workforce to deliver the same quality of their operations despite workers dispersed across major geographical areas. Office buildings are now mere monuments to a time just passed.

Also read: When food industry meets the world of virtual reality

And what do we do with such empty vestiges of the corporate world? Grand office buildings take up space and require energy and money to maintain, but equally so to bulldoze them to the ground. Well, some innovative companies worldwide are looking at these empty hulls and realizing that they make amazing vertical farms.

A vertical farm is precisely as it sounds: a farming structure that is vertically stacked on top of each other, some by using hydroponics and aeroponics, some with conveyor belts to mimic a plant’s transition through a circadian rhythm. Whatever the process, the goal remains: we can grow food in these structures.

Growing cleaner food 
It’s mind-boggling that we haven’t figured this out sooner. We have greenhouses and hothouses and at-home hydroponic plant-pod machines. Still, we have yet to consider converting our empty architectural structures into full-blown plant-growing devices, such as empty office buildings, shipping containers, and abandoned underground mines.

They are surprisingly efficient as well. It just requires a steady electrical supply to power the artificial lights and access to water. According to “How Vertical Farming Can Transform Unused Office Buildings,” an article published by Nasdaq, vertical farms can grow up to 350 times more plants than traditional farming using the same amount of land and 95% less water. They can also produce food year-round, no matter how bad the weather is outside. And they also don’t need chemicals to control pests and weeds, making cleaner food. 

The trickle-down effect of growing food in urban locations, rather than large swathes of farmland in rural areas, is that it brings the proximity of the ingredients and the food itself closer to places that need it – restaurants and grocery stores. Being centrally placed where most people live also reduces transportation costs and carbon emissions associated with transport and delivers fresher food more quickly.

Also read: Why you should step out for a ‘silent walk’

There are a lot of benefits associated with vertical farming. However, you still need to keep the electricity running to keep the lights on, which can be a costly expense. This is why many vertical farms tend to stick with items like leafy greens and strawberries. However, AgriPlay, based in Calgary, Alberta, produces tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, greens and much more, with some crops, according to an article in the Smithsonian titled “Empty Office Buildings Are Being Turned Into Vertical Farms,” being harvested thirty times a year.

However, for every benefit, there is a drawback. For example, the article “The 7 Biggest Disadvantages of Vertical Farming” on agritech company Arcticfarming’s blog explains that aside from the rather substantial start-up costs because the technology doesn’t exist in economies of scale, vertical farms are truly limited to small items due to the space in which they need to grow, and the correct pollination strategies that need to be employed. 

However, I am a little sceptical about these arguments because if we can set our brains to developing a metaverse and an A.I. bot that is now the CEO of a drinks company (Dictador), I daresay we can rub some brain cells together, find the funding, and research the solution to these issues.

We will, however, have to get innovative with the foods we grow, as I don’t think many people want to base their entire diets around basil and strawberries. We must bear in mind that many of the plant species we know and love today may simply not exist in years to come because of the change in the climates in which they are grown. 

According to food delivery app Deliveroo, only 15 plants contribute to almost 90% of our energy intake, and that’s a hefty reliance on something. According to National Geographic on “Staple Foods,” more than 50,000 plant options are available worldwide, many of which are low cost in terms of water usage and energy, that may make natural alternatives. We just have to find what they might be.

Also read: Reimagining well-being in the corporate world

The 15-minute city of the future
If we zoom in and take the micro view, it’s not hard to get excited about how using abandoned office buildings as vertical farms can change the shape of how we live our lives. In fact, it’s a significant step towards the idea of the “15-minute city”.

The 15-minute city is an urban-planning concept that encourages sustainable living, where all the trappings of small communities – your grocery stores, work, restaurants, and more- lie within a fifteen-minute walk from your home. It’s almost as if our entire psyche is starting to shift from being urban dwellers who endlessly commute to the things we need to adopt a local way of living while still living in our grand cities. Deliveroo initiates the conversation about vertical farming in their 2023 ‘Snack to the Future’ report by imagining that they could use their food delivery service to scoot around town and collect freshly picked and packed produce as and when it’s needed, reducing transportation costs and a substantial amount of food waste.

If we zoom out and take a macro view of the benefits of vertical farming, it’s more than just allowing humans to be connected on a local level and offering fresh produce; vertical farming in office buildings could be a substantial piece of the food supply chain puzzle, in the face of climate change and food shortages. Deliveroo's report projects the world’s population to grow by another 2 billion people by 2040. That’s 2 billion more mouths to feed in an already stretched global economy with famine, natural disasters and food deserts where people can’t easily access healthy, fresh food options to feed their families. 

To say we need innovation and human ingenuity to tackle this problem yesterday is an understatement. By making a concerted effort to become fractional farmers and plan food harvests within our office buildings, we could collaborate and personally take on the challenge of feeding the community around us based on its unique needs. 

Good for our health? 
In vertical farming, crops are grown in a controlled area, which engenders a lot of health benefits.

  1. Complete control over growing plants enables growers/farmers to focus on the nutritional needs of the crops without having to worry about the success of their harvest. 
  2. Growing crops in accessible spaces like empty office spaces or within one’s home means fresh food can be harvested moments before cooking. 
  3. There is ongoing research that’s using vertical farming to grow foods that can be adapted to specific dietary needs. 

Jen Thomas is a master women's health coach. 

Also read: How a mountaineering team climbed the highest peak in every Indian state

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