In 2014, the Chinese government revealed that 5% of its arable land contains levels of toxins that exceed national standards. One year later, government-affiliated universities found that 14% of the country’s domestic grain was contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic and lead; 44% of the rice sampled had high levels of cadmium – enough to damage organs and weaken the bones if consumed in large quantities. The study attributed China’s dwindling farmland to rapid urbanization: to boost yields, farmers soaked fields with fertilizers and pesticides, weakening the soil and contaminating the crops. According to the World Bank, China’s farmers use 4.5 times more fertilizers per hectare (2.4 acres) of arable land than farmers in North America.

But Yang Qichang, the Director of The Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development in Agriculture at The Chinese Academy Of Agricultural Services (CAAS), has a solution: he believes that by using vertical urban farms, farmers can do away with the need for pesticides and use less chemical fertilizers, producing safer food.

urban farms

Backed by a $8 million government grant, Mr. Yang himself runs what he calls a “plant factory” on the roof of the Chinese Academy of Agriculture. The “plant factory” comprises rows of crops that stand 10 feet (three meters) in height, growing tomatoes, lettuce, celery, and bok choy, among others. The thriving crops are exposed to LED light lining the narrow ceilings of the urban farms, yielding between 40 to 100 times more crops than a traditional farm of the same size. The researcher is yet to identify which parts of the visible-light spectrum are optimal for photosynthesis and plant growth while using as little energy as possible.

Mr. Yang has great hopes for this solution. He foresees a fruitful future for China with plant factories and urban farms undergoing big developments and providing an alternative to traditional farming in big cities.

While Mr. Yang experiments to back his hopes and ambitions, Alesca Life Technologies, a Beijing-based startup, is already using recycled shipping containers to grow leafy greens, which many consider the ideal crop for urban farms. Using a smartphone application, growers can monitor the air and water conditions of their urban farms remotely, connecting them to their crops at anytime and anywhere.

Despite the state-run Agricultural Development Bank of China’s loans totalling three trillion yuan ($437 billion) through 2020 to fund key projects promoted by the Ministry of Agriculture, the country is still not ready to unleash genetically modified foods into its grocery stores. The government doesn’t allow the planting of most genetically modified crops, including pest-resistant rice and herbicide-resistant soybeans, especially after an October survey in the northeastern province of the Heilongjiang showed that 90% of respondents are opposed to genetically modified crops. “China’s past food-safety problems have caused the public to distrust the government when it comes to new food technologies,” said Sam Geall, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

As the country races to get its food production up to par with its exponential growth in other sectors, the Chinese government is betting on researchers like Mr. Yang to come up with innovations in urban farming that will allow it to cut down on food imports and reduce toxins in locally-grown produce. The country will carry out a nationwide poll on its urban farming technology next month.

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