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

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.

COVID-19 effects on climate change

There are many conflicting opinions on whether the coronavirus pandemic is improving or aggravating our fight against the climate crisis. At first, people were quick to celebrate the lockdowns put in place in many countries—they meant less air traffic and impressive CO2 emission cuts. But as time went by, the media started changing its headlines. Despite the economic slowdown, greenhouse gases were still being emitted and recycling schemes put on hold. So, is COVID-19 having a positive or negative impact on climate change?

Cleaner air

The widely-reported benefit of the pandemic has been cleaner air in countries such as China and some European countries. In a matter of months, transport networks and businesses have closed down, which resulted in a sudden drop in carbon emissions. A month ago, the BBC reported that “levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 per cent compared with last year” because of the measures put into place in order to contain the virus.

Both China and Northern Italy have also recorded a decrease in nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant that contributes to climate change. Energy use drastically dropped in China over a two week period. As many experts predicted that COVID-19 would impact CO2 levels for the whole of this year, things looked good for the planet and most people were glad to welcome this tiny bit of positive news. But as we’ve seen more recently, the pandemic has also had some serious negative consequences on climate change.

Increase in household garbage and plastic waste

While people working from home means a decrease in overall emissions, it also results in an increase in electricity use and home heating and a surge in the amount of garbage produced by each household. People stuck at home are increasingly shopping online and ordering food to be delivered to their door, both of which come with a lot of packaging.

COVID-19 effects on climate change

Shops and businesses that once preached the use of reusable bags and containers are now advising customers to switch to single-use packaging and bags despite the fact that single-use plastics can still harbour bacteria. At the beginning of March, Starbucks announced that it would temporarily ban the use of reusable cups in its coffee shops.

In other words, the plastic bag ban that was implemented in many countries is no longer being followed in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19, but also because people have ‘more important things’ on their minds right now.

Medical waste is also on the rise

As hospitals become overwhelmed with the increasing number of patients in need of care, the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) has in turn surged. As a result, COVID-19 is generating tons and tons of medical waste.

According to Bloomberg in The Unexpected Environmental Consequences of COVID-19, during the outbreak hospitals in Wuhan, where the pandemic first broke out, produced an average of over 200 tons of medical waste per day, up from its previous average of less than 50 tons.

Recycling programmes on hold

With more plastic and medical waste being generated, countries have also decided to halt recycling programmes. In the US, some cities have done so as officials are worried about recycling centres potentially spreading the virus. In some European countries, waste disposal options have been paused indefinitely. Of course, the safety of sanitation workers should be our priority, but Italy went as far as banning any infected resident from sorting their waste at all.

So is it good or bad?

Although it is true that the coronavirus outbreak has had one positive effect on our carbon emissions, it would be shortsighted to say that it will improve our environmental impact generally. After the financial crash of 2008 and 2009, global emissions dropped for a year because of the reduced industrial activity but quickly went back up as countries turned to fossil fuel for a quick and easy fix.

Right now, most of us are struggling to breathe as the planet is finally getting a breath of fresh air. And as twisted as it sounds, the worst is yet to come, environmentally-speaking. Once we start coming out of our houses again, the world will have to wake up to another problem: a garbage and recycling crisis.