01/23/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2013

Birds Eye's Bull's-eye

To survive and prosper in the 21st century, agricultural-related companies are going to have to adapt to changing environmental conditions that will pose severe tests. Many businesses have yet to face up to the challenge, but one that is well on the way to doing so in an exciting, innovative way is Birds Eye foods.

Executives throughout the food business are confronting an ever more crowded world resulting in loss of farmland to urban expansion. Compounding this obstacle are increasing soil erosion and fresh water depletion as well as the escalating costs of distributing crops far from their point of origin. How effectively the agriculture industry meets these challenges may well determine whether humanity can halt, and eventually reverse a trend in which the rising world price of dinner table fare is heading in the direction of chronic global food shortages.

New technologies, including ones capable of harnessing nature to generate increased agricultural productivity in an age of relative scarcity are being sought. And this has led Birds Eye to an imaginative new attempt at local food production. Anticipating a major reduction in cropland due to the spread of vast mega-cities, Birds Eye is exploring the concept of raising food in the midst of that seemingly unfriendly asphalt terrain. The would-be solution is skyscraper farms. Seeds would be placed in trays on different floors of a highrise structure, and as the plants matured, they would be progressively moved from the top of the building down a conveyor belt until ultimately harvested in the lobby. The crops would be nourished by nutrient rich water (hydroponics), eliminating the need for soil and pesticides. It would be a closed system in which the same water would be recycled and reused. During the growing season, the sun's rays could filter trough translucent glass panels to provide energy. Since the plants would be indoors, the climate could be controlled for year-round cultivation (although this would probably require some fossil fuel use, creating a potential cost issue).

If vertical farming can meet expectations, the projected rewards are substantial. Three square feet of growing space is estimated to produce 180 pounds of fresh vegetables a year, and researchers at Columbia University concluded a 30-story building could theoretically provide enough produce for 50,000 people.

Vertical farming is important not just for Birds Eye and other food companies, but for humanity as a whole. Consider that 70 percent of the human race is projected to live in cities by 2050. Meanwhile, approximately 30 percent of the world's farmland is losing top soil faster than nature can restore it, and irrigation wells are starting to dry up in 18 countries containing half of the world's population. Global warming raises the specter that drought conditions will only worsen, thereby putting more cropland out of commission even as the human population continues to grow.

Projects are underway in Britain, Sweden, Japan, China, Singapore, and our own Chicago to bring some variation of vertical farming to fruition.

Let's hope Birds Eye and like-minded entrepreneurs score a bull's-eye. If they do, they will unleash the potential to turn urban farming into a salvation-oriented mainstay rather than a novel footnote in the food supply chain for a hungry world.