Vertical farming: the future or a fad?

The Problem

200 years ago there were less than 1 billion humans living on earth. Fast forward to 2018 and the human population is above 7 billion with no indication of slowing down anytime soon as experts expect it to be over 12 billion by 2050. This rapid growth can be attributed towards a number of positive developments and improvements within the technology space and medical fields, but with all that growth comes plenty of problems. One of the most critical problems that a rapid growth in population brings is food. Because of the growing demand for food humans are currently overfishing oceans and without drastic measures to prevent this we could see every seafood species fall below commercially viable levels as soon as 2048. You don’t need to be a math wiz to understand that more people means more food, begging the question: how will we continue to address our rising populations as we have less space to work with and more people to feed?

The Solution

Vertical farming. It’s as simple as it sounds: grow crops vertically instead of using great plains and open fields. Sky scrappers, schools, apartment buildings, the potential hosts of vertical farms are nearly limitless. It’s a solution that is already being implemented within major cities across the globe with a wide variety of leading experts believing it to be the most effective way to combat the growing food crisis. A major bonus that comes with vertical farming is how environmentally safe it is. Indoor farming reduces the waste of fertilizers and water and because of the controlled climate it also requires ef pesticides and harmful toxins that can often be found in expansive outdoor crops. One of the world’s largest vertical farms currently produces heads of lettuce using 40% less power, 80% less food waste and 99% less water usage than their outdoor competitors, clearly indicating the eco-friendly benefits that come with vertical farming.

The Promise

What type of food can be grown and how much of it greatly depends on the availability of space and resources surrounding the vertical varm. However, almost every vertical farm will aim to work around developing a plan that includes greater water preservation, an increase in yield, more efficient use of urban space, and renewable production on top of being environmentally friendly. Vertical farms are also weatherproof and can feature year round crop production, something that many outdoor fields fail to accomplish through blistering winters or scorching hot summers.

How It’s Done

When it comes to vertical farming there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But there a few practices and commonalities found within every vertical farm, including:

  • Stacking crops

    • Instead of laying out crops in an open row farmers instead stack them on top of each other

  • LED lighting

    • Used as a energy and light source, replacing the need of a Sun.

  • Using technology to aid the growing process

    • Humidity and temperature control

    • Control monitoring of nutrients and fertilizer

    • Timed treatment of crops

  • They feature some type of “ponics”

    • Every vertical farm will include some variation of a nutrient and water delivery system intended to feed the crops (Aeroponics, Hydroponics, Aquaponics, etc.)

While these features can be found in almost every vertical farm a number of newer developments are including plans that collect their own rain water and produce their own energy for the entire building through wind turbines and solar cells. As vertical farms continue to develop, a greater sense of community involvement continues to arise; these farms aren’t just looking to maximize their profits, they’re looking to give back to their communities and help pave the way for future generations.

The Benefits

The U.S. manages to waste $165 billion in food each year. 40% of the food in the U.S. today goes uneaten, much of which finds itself in local landfills contributing towards a large portion of our current methane emissions. Vertical farming combats this growing crisis by providing food for only one city rather than shipping it off to people across the globe. A large portion of food is wasted through transportation and quality standards that overemphasize appearance, which results in less profits for the farmers and higher prices for the consumer. Vertical farms eliminates all of these problems by eradicating the need for shipping and transportation: all of the food that is grown will go towards feeding the city, so there is no need for large shipping containers that often compromise the integrity of the produce. As previously mentioned vertical farms are also extremely environmentally friendly as they greatly reduce water usage and wastage. The efficiency behind these farms also save farmers quite a bit of money on their energy bills, not to mention the 24/7 capability that shields crops from extreme weather.

The Negatives

It’s not cheap. Yes, you will save a great amount of money overtime, but that cannot be achieved overnight. Urban land is going to generally be more expensive to purchase than rural farmland. Creating a controlled weather environment is going to cost much more than gathering natural rainfall and sunlight from an open field. Unlike a rural farm you cannot employ just a farmer or two as you will need a team of engineers and scientists behind any project that is meant to serve an entire city. Another serious disadvantage is that you can only grow a limited amount of crops as not everything can be perfected under controlled climates. Plenty of produce can be grown in these farms: such as strawberries, kale, lettuce, basil, and other herbs. But some of the most widely eaten food cannot be grown under these conditions, including wheat, and rice.

Conclusion  

The world has a serious food epidemic taking place. We’re overfishing our oceans, wasting produce at an alarming rate, and not giving enough support or help to farmers who continue to lose profits on their crops. Vertical farming is a creative solution to these serious problems, and it’s a great idea and should continue to develop in cities across the globe, but is it enough? People are starving, farmers are losing money, and wasted food continues to build mountains of trash in our landfills. We need more than one creative solution to combat these serious world crises.