Can ‘Vertical Farming’ save the planet?

There are many methods to improve biodiversity, retain and manage habitats and secure enough food and water for a growing global population. Farming is at the heart of all of this, albeit with often contradicting demands on the way we grow our produce. Here, I take a peek into the world of a highly favourable concept of mine that is ‘Vertical Farming’.

Let’s just hit you with it…

Vertical farming is thought to have many advantages, including year-round crop production; immunity from adverse weather conditions; no toxic runoff or use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilisers; allowance for ecological restoration; up to 95% less water; significantly reduced food miles; control over food safety and security; a considerable boost in employment opportunities; purification of liquid municipal waste; and finally, production of animal feed from post-harvest plant material.

And breathe…

With advances in technology making the operation costs significantly lower, the factors above combined make vertical farming an increasingly plausible and economically viable option for the future of food production. 

But what actually is it?

Vertical farms grow produce indoors and in layers or stacks. Crops have the ability to be grown in a controlled environment depicting special conditions for optimal growth rates year-round. This is done using LED bulbs to mimic sunlight where needed, with nutrients fed via soil-free hydroponic systems, which is also highly effective at water conservation. In addition, the footprint of a vertical farm is hugely efficient, with each one-acre floor having the potential to house the equivalent of as many as ten to twenty soil-based acres. Whoaw. 

Is it just me or does this method of farming seem to eliminate many of the rigorous elements of traditional farming? Such as ploughing, applying fertiliser, seeding, weeding and harvesting….  vertical farming is quickly becoming an extremely favourable concept which has the ability to combine environmental considerations with sound economics, empowering global food security. 

modular vertical farming system.jpg

A simple modular vertical farming system currently being used by AeroFarms (2014)

Can create a city without waste?

Urban agriculture and vertical farming combined will not only significantly reduce our demand for land required for crops and livestock – preventing further habitat destruction – but also help reduce water consumption by up to 98% when compared with traditional farming methods. The concept can be truly sustainable and provide an end to the current linear approach to the use of our natural resources.

I think I am of the belief that this farming method can influence the way we recycle our waste food, how we process our liquid municipal waste, increase the availability and reduce trafficking of plant-based medicines, create eco-energy in the form of biofuels, and bring an end to pollution through agricultural runoff and long-haul food distribution, not to mention bacterial disease too. 

So what’s holding it back?

One of the major factors holding back vertical farming is energy. Sunlight is essential for photosynthesis to take place, during this process plants convert light into energy to fuel growth and development. Chlorophyll is responsible for capturing the sunlight and converting the photons into chemical energy.

In vertical farming situations, there is a limit to the amount of natural light that can be captured within a building, although there are many architectural designs to maximise this. As a result, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have been specifically designed to mimic the spectrum of light absorbed by plants – blue and red. With the use of LEDs comes the additional burden of costly energy demands by using artificial lighting, but with the recent price reduction and technological advances, LED lighting is becoming more and more efficient. 

The Floriculture Research Institute has had a big impact on producing LEDs with the ability to emit only the red and blue spectrum required for this kind of farming application, meaning there is no additional energy waste. Temperature is also a factor to consider which can further add to the overhead expenses of vertical farming efforts, along with the automation of nutrient provision and watering – technology needs power.

What can they grow?

I went to a conference a few years ago where I had the pleasure of meeting Dickson Despommier – a leading voice for vertical farming and an ecologist at Columbia University in New York City. When he took the podium to talk all things vertical farming, he was challenged quite strongly about animal rights – yes I was confused also – vertical farming is not about housing pigs in high-rise buildings to address a few inefficiencies. Currently, the most suitable crops to grow in such conditions are likely to be high-value nutritious crops such as tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs. Those with fast turns include lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens, basil, and mint and are likely to maximise returns. 

In summary…

Given current technologies, one vertical farm with a footprint the size of one square city block rising 30 stories, which approximates to 3 million square feet, would be able to meet the needs of 10,000 people. This concept is bringing the once unsolvable issue of ‘food VS environment’ into a simple, closed-loop methodology that can be built into any neighbourhood.

Vertical farming ticks many of the boxes concerning politicians and communities alike; maximising land space, eliminating agricultural runoff and the need for pesticides, increasing year-round crop production, avoiding adverse weather disruptions, significantly reducing fresh water consumption and loss, energy creation, vermin control, water recycling, urban employment opportunities, reducing crop infection, plus the ability to restore farmland back into its natural ecosystem. This system highlights a nonlinear use of resources creating a fully integrated sustainable method of industrial agriculture – of which the many other methods of farming are purely linear.

There are companies out there delivering this method of farming, but I don’t feel it is enough.  If we can move away from the hypothetical offering and make vertical farming a truly economic and viable business,  with backing from the government and local policy, it can become an increasingly plausible form of agriculture where those old, abandoned building blocks could soon feed the entire city they stand in.

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