• Dr Emma Derbyshire

Growing Up: The Rise of Vertical Food Production


Today the population of the world is approximately 7.8 billion, and it is predicted to grow by another 2 billion people by 2050. Arable land is continuingly lost due to industrial development and urbanisation, and as such the increasing food demand of the growing population alongside the decreasing of arable land is an enormous challenge. There is thus a need for realistic strategies for implementing novel food production systems around the world. Could the answer lie in vertical farming?


What is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming is a novel food production system that doesn’t require arable land, but instead makes use of derelict spaces in an urban environment. Instead of growing crops the traditional way, in fields, utilising the sun or greenhouses, vertical farming grows crops by stacking them vertically, in cities, utilising UV lights. This method of indoor farming meets all seventeen requirements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These goals are a plan to attain a better and more sustainable future for the world’s population and address current global challenges. Furthermore, vertical farming also incorporates all of the Urban Future programme’s ten tracks, who believe that cities are key to a sustainable future for our planet.


Furthermore, it has been proposed that rooftop greenhouses be developed in schools in Barcelona, Spain. It is believed that schools can play an important role in the environmental sustainability and the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology in Barcelona has developed a procedure to install rooftop greenhouses in compact cities. The implementation of urban agriculture proposals supports the development of novel methods for environmental sustainability in our ever growing world.


How Does it Work?

There are three main models for vertical farming:

  1. Hydroponics, where plants are grown in a nutrient-rich basin of water.

  2. Aeroponics, where crops’ roots are periodically sprayed with a mist containing water and nutrients.

  3. Aquaponics, which involves breeding fish to help cultivate bacteria that is used for plant nutrients.

Aeroponics uses less water overall, but is technically more complicated. Interestingly, the water used in hydroponics can be recycled several times after it has evaporated from the plant and recaptured from the humid air.


Pros and Cons of Vertical Farming

Vertical farming is able to yield more crops per square metre than traditional farming or greenhouses can. Furthermore, vertical farming is not weather or season dependent and as such year-round crop production is possible. Vertical farming also uses 70-95% less water than traditional methods and as the crops are produced in a well-controlled indoor environment it is possible to eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and grow organic crops with a faster harvesting method. This is key, as one of the biggest problems with fresh vegetables is the time it takes between harvest and consumption. A faster harvesting times could mean that more vitamins and nutrients are also maintained within the produce.


Vertical farming is a relatively new venture and as such the financial and economic feasibility remains uncertain. Yet several vertical farming companies have been set up in the past decade utilising old warehouses and disused factories with structures to grow vegetables and herbs. One certain disadvantage is the initial cost of real estate in cities, which could impede the viability of urban locations. In addition, labour costs in cities tend to be higher. Although, maybe most impeding is the total dependence on power for lighting, maintenance of temperature and humidity, and as such the loss of power for just one day could see a significant loss in production.


Conclusion

Vertical farming has the ability to provide fresh and safe food in sufficient quantities, independent of climate and location. Today, we are well aware of climate change and the immediate need to change our current way of life, as such vertical farming and food production has the potential to become a necessary solution in global food production.


References

The United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

Urban Future Programme’s Ten Tracks. https://www.urban-future.org/about/

What You Should Know About Vertical Farming. https://www.thebalancesmb.com/what-you-should-know-about-vertical-farming-4144786

Association for Vertical Farming. https://vertical-farming.net/

How Vertical Farming Reinvents Agriculture. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170405-how-vertical-farming-reinvents-agriculture

Nadal A et al. (2018) Rooftop greenhouses in educational centers: A sustainability assessment of urban agriculture in compact cities. Science of The Total Environment. Jun 1;626:1319-1331

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