Is Vertical Farming The Future Of Agriculture?

As the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, vertical farming is being viewed as a viable option for expanding agricultural operations. 

Producing fresh greens and vegetables close to these growing urban populations could help meet rising global food demand in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner. By shortening distribution chains to reduce emissions and providing higher-nutrient produce that drastically reduces water usage, could this be the future of farming?

What Is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming is the practice of producing food on vertically inclined surfaces. Rather than growing vegetables and other foods on a single level, as in a field or a greenhouse, this method grows them in vertically stacked layers that are commonly integrated into buildings, such as a skyscraper, shipping container, or a repurposed warehouse.

This modern practice employs Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology and indoor farming techniques. The artificial control of temperature, light, humidity, and gases allows for the production of foods and medicines to thrive indoors. Vertical farming is similar to greenhouses in many ways, where metal reflectors and artificial lighting supplement natural sunlight. The main goal of vertical farming is to maximise crop output in a small amount of space.

How does Vertical Farming Work?

Understanding how vertical farming works requires an understanding of four critical areas: 1. The Physical Layout, 2. Lighting, 3. The Growing Medium, and 4. The Sustainability Components

To begin with, the primary goal of vertical farming is to produce more food per square metre, so crops are grown in stacked layers in a tower-like structure to achieve this goal. Secondly, to keep the perfect light level in the room, a combination of natural and artificial lights are used. To improve this lightings efficiency, technologies such as rotating beds are inputted for maximum results.

Thirdly, aeroponic, aquaponic, or hydroponic growing mediums are used instead of soil. Peat moss, coconut husks, and other non-soil mediums are commonly used in vertical farming, this is because it creates the ideal conditions for the crops to thrive. Click here to learn more about growing mediums used in vertical farming. Finally, this method of producing crops employs a variety of sustainability features to offset the energy cost of farming. The water and nutrients needed to grow crops are usually all measured out so no waste here. In fact, vertical farming uses 95% less water than normal farming.

The Pros of Vertical Farming:

Future Planning: By 2050, approximately 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in city areas, and the growing population will lead to an increase in food demand. The effective use of vertical farming could play an important role in preparing for such a challenge.

Crop Production Increase All Year-Round: Vertical farming allows us to produce more crops from the same square footage of growing area. An independent study suggested that a 30-story building with a basal area of 5 acres can potentially produce the equivalent of 2,400 acres of conventional horizontal farming.

Less Water Required For Cultivation: Vertical farming allows us to produce crops with 70% to 95% less water than what is required for conventional cultivation.

Weather Conditions: Crops in a field can be harmed by natural disasters such as torrential rains, cyclones, flooding, or severe droughts – events that are becoming more common as a result of global warming. Indoor vertical farms are less likely to bear the brunt of adverse weather, resulting in greater predictability of harvest output throughout the year.

Organic Crops: Vertical farming allows us to grow pesticide-free and organic foods since crops are grown in a well-controlled indoor environment without the use or need of chemical pesticides.

Human and Environmentally Friendly: Indoor vertical farming can significantly reduce occupational hazards associated with traditional farming, making it both human and environmentally friendly. Farmers are not at risk from hazards such as heavy farming equipment, diseases such as malaria, poisonous chemicals, and so on. It is also beneficial to biodiversity because it does not disturb animals or trees in inland areas.

We’ve looked into so many of the positives associated with this shiny new farming method, but it’s only fair to consider the possible cons and wider impact it could have on our planet and society. 

The Cons of Vertical Farming:

No Established Economics: The financial viability of this new farming method is unknown. However, as the industry matures and technologies improve, the financial situation could change and suggest we will see an increase of vertical farms.

Pollination Difficulties: Vertical farming takes place in a controlled environment where insects are not present. As a result, pollination must be done manually, which will be time-consuming and costly.

Labour Costs: While energy costs are high in vertical farming, labour costs can be even higher due to their concentration in urban areas with higher wages and a need for more skilled labour.

Too Much Reliance on Technology: Better technologies can always increase efficiency and reduce costs. However, the entire vertical farming system is extremely reliant on various technologies for lighting, temperature, and humidity control. A single day of power outage can be very costly for a vertical farm. Many people believe that today’s technologies aren’t ready for widespread adoption.

Job loss: This new development in farming most likely means that rural life will continue to decline in industrialised countries. The labour issue is especially pressing for the economies of the global south, where there are fewer urban job opportunities. Technologies that take labour out of the fields may undermine efforts to reduce poverty and improve development in those countries.

Vertical Farming in the UK:

This method of farming has grown in popularity in the United Kingdom in recent years, with vertical farms sprouting up in cities across the country. It is being widely supported by private and government funds across the country, with the goal of promoting and integrating this approach into urban areas.This practice can ensure a constant supply of fresh produce to its population at any time in an urban environment such as London.

Currently, the United Kingdom is home to the world’s largest high-rise farm as well as some of the most innovative vertical farms in the world.  Farms such as Harvest London, GrowingUnderground and Shockingly Fresh all grow pest-free food such as salads, rockets, lettuces, microgreens, and broccoli. Let’s take a look at them in more detail:

Harvest London:

This London-based vertical farm, which opened in 2017, grows over 100 different crops, including popular leafy greens and herbs like Thai basil, Broccoletto, Holy basil, and Sweet Italian basil. Harvest London grows plants hydroponically in a highly controlled environment tailored to the specific needs of each crop. Furthermore, their pest-free crops are grown with 100% renewable energy.

GrowingUnderground: 

This next vertical farm in Clapham, South London, grows its fresh produce 33 metres below ground. GrowingUnderground primarily cultivates microgreens such as micro-coriander and micro-broccoli, as well as salad mixes and leafy greens such as dill and red cabbages. Crops are grown in a closed-loop hydroponic system with LED lights powered by 100% renewable energy, allowing this vertical farm to eliminate agriculture run-off and reduce water consumption by up to 70%. Furthermore, the farm takes pride in producing pesticide-free, carbon-neutral, and nutrient-dense plants.

Shockingly Fresh: 

Shockingly Fresh’s greenhouse in Offenham, England, can produce four times the yield of regular farming while using much less energy than other vertical farms by using only natural light for photosynthesis and heat.

Summary:

In the coming decades, global food production systems will face significant challenges. It is critical to find ways to feed a growing global population while reducing the environmental impact of agricultural activities.

The global vertical farming market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.3% between 2021 and 2026. The United Kingdom is a major player in Europe’s vertical farming market. Increasing consumer demand and technological advancements in Europe have fueled the popularity of vertical farming in these countries.

For some crops, vertical farming is a viable alternative to conventional production. It may aid in achieving the required level of food production while overcoming some environmental challenges. This approach may also enable the production of goods that are highly desirable to UK consumers but can only be grown in climates warmer than ours.

These systems are still in their early stages, and more research is needed to fully understand their environmental and economic impact. However, as more buildings are constructed and innovation continues to address production issues, vertical farming is likely to become a great reality and many crops are already being sold in UK supermarkets.