Can High-Tech Solutions Make Vertical Farming Sustainable?

116

Author – Sam Bowman

The world’s population is growing at an exponential rate and is estimated to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. The vast majority of these people are projected to live in large urban centers. Although these statistics are global, this issue is particularly acute in populous countries such as India. Perhaps one of the most challenging questions we face with supporting this many urban dwellers into the future is how to feed the world’s population.

Rethinking the way food is produced and creating techniques to make it both more sustainable and productive is a major concern. In addition to feeding a growing population, the strain of climate change on resources also needs to be considered. Agricultural experts seek solutions that capitalize on small spaces to produce food; reduce the consumption of limited resources such as water and energy, and decrease the distance food must travel to get from farm to plate.

Vertical farming is one such high-tech advancement that can make urban agriculture more realistic than ever before.

What is Vertical Farming?

vertical-farming-4

Vertical farming is the process of growing plants one on top of each other rather than in vast fields of horizontal rows. This cultivation approach allows hundreds of acres of fruit and vegetable crops to be grown in a much more confined space.

Traditionally, vertical farming took place in an indoor environment, such as large warehouses or factories. However, apartment complexes, retrofitted shipping containers, or actively used office spaces could also be repurposed for this goal. This ability to grow food in any indoor setting means that food can be grown in any large city or suburb, substantially reducing the distance food must travel.

Many of these vertical farming facilities rely on hydroponics to support their crops. Hydroponics is a form of farming that doesn’t use soil at all. Instead, plants are grown and supported in mineral and nutrient-rich water. By keeping the process indoors and using a sophisticated system, food growers can completely control the environment from the amount of light and heat plants receive each day to the quantity of water and nutrients provided. This strategy can greatly reduce watering needs and allow for an increase in production rates.

Vertical Farming and High-Tech Solutions Come Together

Vertical farming is a fairly new high-tech solution to many of the issues our world faces with growing food in a world with diminishing resources. Its advanced hydroponic systems can analyze the nutrient content in the water that plants are growing in and provide accurate measurements that allow farmers to make micro-adjustments to maximize the growth of their crops.

As these food-producing warehouses become larger, additional technologies come in to help keep production on track. For instance, companies are using smart tech to monitor crops that are growing at the highest rungs and most difficult-to-reach parts of the vertical system. Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already in use in horizontal agricultural systems and could be easily adapted.

Creating a More Sustainable Vertical Farming

vertical-farming-3

A major drawback of indoor food production is that growers are giving up the sun, which is easily the largest producer of free energy needed to grow crops. Instead vertical farmers typically rely on LED lights to manage their plants’ lighting needs. Buildings that are set up to grow plants for sale can also be retrofitted with clean energy sources such as solar power, greatly reducing the footprint of vertical farming and saving farmers money.  It’s also a way to ensure that growers have a reliable power source.

Similarly, vertical farming can significantly reduce the amount of water that is needed to grow each individual plant. This is particularly important for emerging nations such as India, where nearly 20% of the world’s population must make do with only 4% of the world’s water. Likewise, vertical farming also requires less land, which opens up farmland to either restoration or development. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, because everything is grown in tightly monitored environments, it is easier to mitigate pest problems. This means that farmers have to use fewer pesticides, which is a huge benefit to human and environmental health.

Disadvantages of Vertical Farming

While vertical farming does have many advantages, it is not without its drawbacks. First, vertical farmers rely on electricity to replace the natural light generated by the sun. So vertical farming has a significantly higher carbon footprint than food grown in traditional agriculture. While using renewable energy resources can help offset some of these issues, growing plants indoors will always result in higher emissions due to their electricity usage.

Because of this, it is best to be selective about what types of plants should be grown in vertical farms. The industry is successful when opting for plants that do not require a lot of light, including microgreens and lettuce. Plants like bell peppers, for example, require full sun and create a higher electricity demand and carbon footprint. For this reason, it is best to select plants for vertical framing that are adapted to low light or are high-value crops where a demonstrated economic advantage is to be gained from growing them indoors, and therefore not exposing them to environmental hazards or pests.

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here