Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges

Vertical farming is growing. Are we ready to switch to aerofarms?

By Harriet Piercy

Oct 14, 2020

COPY URL

A lot of the time, business is ahead of governments when it comes to coping with change. For example, multiple recent adaptations sprouted from the global COVID-19 pandemic. In some way or another, pandemics, global warming and economic unrest are all linked. As we face increasing disruptions such as cross-border migration and deglobalisation, alongside the devastating worry of climate change, the agricultural sector has to be among one of the most flexible industries that there is. There is a new way of farming, and much like cities and towns that adapted to growing skywards, it looks like our food may soon do the same. What is vertical farming, and how will it work exactly?

What is vertical farming?

The practice of vertical farming is basically the growing of crops in stacked layers, within a controlled environment that has no need for solar light. This means that these crops can be housed in buildings, shipping containers, underground tunnels and even abandoned mine shafts—any atmosphere that can be carefully controlled, really. Vertical farms use soil-free growing techniques and are designed to be able to lay the crops in beds and trays on top of eachother. Artificial lighting and climate control are manipulated to fulfil the crops’ needs, including irrigation and fertigation (which is to supply dissolved fertilisers to crops through an irrigation system).

Vertical farming was initially a concept developed by Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier, who estimated that by 2050 nearly 80 per cent of the earth’s population will reside in urban centres, the human population would increase by about 3 billion people during the interim and an estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20 per cent more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, with the current average increase in population estimated at 81 million people per year, it looks like he could be right.

To combat this problem, vertical farming has become the best solution there is in order for us to increase the production of fruit and vegetables without the need for genetic modification or the cultivation of new farmland over space that we may not be lucky enough to have in the future. Other than the ever impending doom of a potentially, if not already, overpopulated planet, climate change is showing it’s sharpening teeth with more vengeance than ever before. This means that growing plants in a traditional way might be impossible anyway if we cannot control the manmade monster.

One of the great things about humans, and there evidently aren’t many, is our ability to prepare for the worst case scenario, and vertical farming is what many seem to be betting on as the next generation’s normal. By farming in this way, it may help to preserve the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the main advantage of utilising these technologies is the increased crop yield that comes with the much smaller unit area of land requirement.

The crops will be sheltered from weather disruptions, meaning less waste due to crop failures, and because of the nature of the environment that the crops are grown in being secluded—the native plants and animals surrounding the farmland will be less affected, leading to the conservation of local flora and fauna. Vertical farming also has the potential to cut down on fossil fuels needed for harvest and transportation, and it uses significantly less water than normal cultivation.

There are of course, pros and cons to everything, and this solution to a problem is not exempt. Because vertical farming takes place in such a controlled environment, presumably without the presence of insects, the pollination process will need to be done manually, which is labour intensive and costly. However, the need for labour may be reduced, as the technological advancements of today lean towards automation and robotics. That being said, this could also lead to us depending on technology too much. A power cut could be devastating for one of these farms, which begs the question: are the technologies in use today ready for a mass adoption? And even moreso, do they have a choice other than to test out this route in our weakened climate?

Vertical farming market growth

The vertical farming market is growing rapidly, especially in places like Japan which already boasts 200 large scale plant factories, by 2022 the market is anticipated to hit a value of $5.8 billion. In the US, it’s growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 24 per cent, and by 2024, it’s expected to reach $3 billion annually. To compare this to now, the fresh fruit and vegetable industry is worth over $104 billion.

Vertical farming technologies are still relatively new, and companies are yet to successfully produce crops in the grand scale we need to meet the growing demand for food, as well as to make it economically feasible.

Aerogardens for your home

Until the big movers make it mainstream for the rest of us, we can still use the same techniques on a smaller scale, in our own homes. This technology however remains expensive to purchase and not exactly necessary as it takes a while to pay for itself. An AeroGarden is undoubtedly worth it if you live in a city. You can grow any herbs or small fruits such as tomatoes and berries to enjoy all year round, without having to splurge the extra cash on the organic section in supermarkets. Self sufficiency is possible in many ways, even in the heights of a big city, and with the urgent need for us to reduce our waste and plastic use, it is becoming unnegotiable. You don’t have to have green fingers either, the tech will do the fiddling for you. We can all start small, we all did at one point, and look how big we are now.