Advocates of vertical farming say it could save the environment and feed an overpopulated planet. Opponents believe the environmental costs outweigh any gains and the technology isn’t needed anyway. Either way, it’s expected the vertical farming market in the U.S. will be worth $3 billion by 2024, a growth of 24%. This new technology looks set to have an impact on our food supply well into the future.
What Is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is a method of growing plants in stacked layers. The practice allows farmers to grow more plants in a smaller space, with an acre of vertical farming space equal to around 4 to 6 acres of traditional farmland. Vertical farming uses controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) to control every aspect of the growing environment, including the light, water and nutrients the plant receives. Monitoring systems can send data to computers, allowing variables to be adjusted — sometimes remotely through an app — ensuring a healthy, nutritious plant reaches the consumer.
Vertical farming also takes unforeseen circumstances out of the equation. Traditional farmers know that a bad storm or season without rain can ruin a year’s crop, but vertical farmers don’t need to worry about seasons, meaning consistent crops and often multiple crops each year.
A Healthier Environment
Eating local has become an environmental talking point, with consumers concerned about the fossil fuels used to transport their foods. Vertical farming is perfect for urban environments, so even residents of big cities can eat local.
A more important point, say vertical farmers, is the water benefits. Fresh, clean water is becoming a precious commodity in the world, and traditional farming not only uses a lot of fresh water, it also pollutes the water with pesticides and fertilizers. Vertical farming has no chemical run-off, helping keep waterways clean. It also uses far less water than farming in soil, with hydroponics using 70% less than traditional farming, and newer technologies, like aeroponics, continuing to reduce the water requirements.
Criticism of Vertical Farming
Vertical farming is still a developing industry, and there are many speaking out against it. Some say the environmental and economic cost of building these farms outweighs the advantages they bring. However, many are being set up in old warehouses or recycled shipping containers, which mitigates some of these costs.
Likewise, critics point to the energy it takes to grow these plants. Although many vertical farms use renewables such as solar panels to provide the light necessary for growing crops, it’s true that a lot of electricity is required.
Many also say that the variety of crops is limited in these growing conditions, but this is less true. The technology exists to grow almost anything vertically; the problem is profitability. Currently, fast-growing crops such as salad greens make the most economical sense, but many farmers want to expand to different crops as their businesses grow.
Food of the Future
One final criticism is that vertical farms wouldn’t be needed if we farmed more efficiently, but the truth is that the Earth has lost a third of its arable land in the last 40 years and has a growing population to feed. Vertical farming gives us more space to grow crops, including deserts and drought-stricken countries that were once reliant on imports. It’s also able to withstand the environmental shifts climate change is expected to bring.
The idea of vertical farming has brought many fanciful ideas, and maybe one day we’ll be able to reach out our kitchen window to pluck a tomato growing on the skyscraper wall. For the moment, vertical farming technology continues to advance, bringing with it the future of farming.