With a growing population and increased pressure on farmland to be more productive, we look at alternative methods of food production,  such as Vertical Farming where instead of farming out, they farm up.

According to data from the World Bank , approximately 37% (down from 40 % since the mid-nineties )  of the earth’s land area is dedicated to agriculture, with 3% being dedicated to urban areas and a further 57% being deemed uninhabitable. As we are all well aware the population is predicted to grow by another three billion over the next thirty-forty years so in all likelihood the percentage of the earth’s surface that is being used for agriculture will drop even further.

So how do we feed these this growing population off of a smaller land base? Well it all boils down to one word: efficiency. To keep up with this growing population the farmers of planet earth must be much more efficient with the way in which they produce food, growing more in a much smaller area. However seeing as in Ireland for example 90% of our soils are deficient in at least one major nutrient (Phosphorus, Potassium or pH) meaning this efficiency is far from being achieved. So in the meantime producers must look elsewhere to try to obtain more produce from a minimal area.

One solution to this problem is vertical farming.  this is defined as the practice of producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers, vertically inclined surfaces and/or integrated in other structures (such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container). As humans have been living in apartment structures since Roman times as a space-saving measure, many believe that is about time that the food we can consume can be produced in a similar manner.


Vertical Farming Explained, with Dickson Despommier

Vertical farming is fully automated, with monitoring systems to be installed in each floor to detect plants needs for water, nutrients, light and all the other requirements for growth. It is more cost-effective to stick to quicker-growing crops that yield a high market value. Herbs, baby greens for salad and edible flowers are the most common crops to be grown.


Advantages

Production per metre2

The main advantage that vertical farming enjoys over more conventional methods such as traditional farming and greenhouses is that they yield more crops per square metre. one indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending on the crop. For strawberries, one indoor acre may produce yield equivalent to 30 acres. Dickson D. Despommier, an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University suggests that a building 30 story high with a basal area of 5 acres (2.02 ha) has the potential of producing crop yield equivalent to 2,400 acres (971.2 ha) of traditional horizontal farming. Expressed in ratio, this means that one high-rise farm is equal to 480 traditional horizontal farms.



Water conservation

Vertical farming technology uses less water than conventional agriculture. It uses aeroponic technology, which involves misting the roots of the plants, using astonishing 95% less water than more conventional farming methods.  According to David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms “Typically, in indoor growing, the roots sit in water, and one tries to oxygenate the water. Our key inventor realized that if we mist nutrition to the root structure, then the roots have a better oxygenation.”

No weather reliance

As all farmers are aware the growing of crops is seasonal dependant, meaning there are only certain windows in the year where crops can be grown and even at that yields can be compromised, especially when there is unfavourable growing conditions.  However vertical farming eliminates the reliance on weather. The use of led lighting and irrigation means that the right conditions are present 24/7 365 days a year and in theory once the infrastructure is in place vertical farming can be carried out anywhere in the world, no matter what climatic conditions are present.

Distance to the market

Food miles are the distance food travels from where it is grown to where it is ultimately purchased or consumed. Food miles—and the resulting pollution—increase substantially when we consider produce and goods imported from halfway around the world. For example Imports by airplane have a substantial impact on global warming pollution. In 2005, the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables into California by airplane released more than 70,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to more than 12,000 cars on the road. This is eliminated by vertical farming as produce can be grown in cities, virtually on consumers doorsteps, thus eliminating the need for food transportation costs and the associated pollutants.

Disadvantages

While there are a number of advantages to vertical farming it also does have its disadvantages:


Fossil Fuels

If fossil fuels are used to power the vertical farms; the net environmental effect may be in the negative. It is possible that the traditional horizontal farms will burn less coal and contribute less to climatic change, so renewable energy sources must be used.

There is also extra requirements for energy in vertical farming. It is estimated that with 30 storeys, the supplemental light that needs to be supplied per square foot in every floor is ten to forty watts.

Property Costs

If it becomes more widespread, the cost of obtaining premises for growing plants will shoot up, leading to higher expenses thus reducing the profitability of vertical farming.

Attaining more sustainable ways to feed our planet is no doubt the greatest challenge of our times. So instead of rolling our eyes to heaven we must look upwards and see what other, alternative solutions are out there. While vertical farming may not be a silver bullet solution, it is significantly more efficient than some practices being used today.