Vertical Farming – is it worth the hype?
Farming as a way to sustain oneself is a practice as old as time. However, just like us humans, it had to evolve to keep up with population growth, climate changes, labor force dynamics and many other factors. Vertical farming is one of the latest innovative paths farming has taken to adapt to the ever-changing global challenges.
Why does farming need to change?
The last century alone has seen a huge expansion in the global population which of course caused a steep increase in food demand. There is much we don’t know about how the next century will play out, but there is strong reason to believe the world population will continue to grow and so will the food demand.
On the other hand, sustained urbanization has also led to substantial loss of arable lands. That is not only unfortunate for the planet, but also poses a serious challenge for the future of farming and meeting the rising demand for fresh, quality produce.
That’s not all. Overuse of pesticides in traditional farming as well as water scarcity and supply chain issues are very pressing concerns for the agricultural sector and humanity in general.
This is where vertical farming comes in. Since there is not much we can do to slow down population growth or food demand, much less the expanse of urbanization, a new way had to be devised that would bypass current conditions and ensure the sustainability of agriculture in the coming years.
What is vertical farming?
Given the current situation, vertical farming had to rewrite some of the basic principles of traditional farming. That means, instead of growing foods on a single horizontal level, vertical farms stack crops on vertically inclined surfaces, ensuring their growth through indoor farming methods such as hydroponics, aeroponics or aquaponics.
Far away from the unpredictability of the outdoors, crops produced through vertical farming grow under strictly controlled conditions of light, humidity and temperature, in other words a stable environment that is closely monitored.
These farms can be incorporated in any kind of building or enclosed space, like a warehouse, shipping container or even a skyscraper.
The main goal for vertical farms, besides bypassing weather conditions and other volatile factors, is to reduce or eliminate land use and maximize harvest output. It sounds easy enough when you think about it, but it actually involves a lot of sustained effort and modern technology to work as intended.
Vertical farming promises to do away with several agricultural challenges, the most pressing of which being the overuse of pesticides. By switching to a controlled-environment approach, vertical farms yield fresh crops with higher nutritional quality than those grown on fields, using less land, less water and making produce available all year long.
According to Vertical Farming Planet, USA is where you’ll currently find most vertical farms, followed by Japan, Singapore, China, Thailand and other countries in Europe, as well as the Middle East. While in Asia most vertical farms are owned by big companies, in the US this industry is dominated by local farms.
As can be expected, some countries are more open to this concept than others.
Some countries may not see the use of this type of farming, given that they have enough arable land available and stable weather conditions, or they might not find it sustainable in the long term.
Vertical farms vs traditional farms – what sets them apart?
Vertical farms challenge the traditional definition of farming, in which fertile soil, precipitation, fertilizers, agricultural tools and the human element all play a crucial role. They are also bringing agriculture back into the city, as some vertical farming can easily be done in urban buildings.
Traditional farming has a long, rich history. In many countries, it is a culturally charged practice passed on from generation to generation, imbued with knowledge. For many communities around the world, farming is about more than sustenance or profit, it is how they relate to the land they live on.
On the other hand, vertical farming is a relatively new initiative, introduced by people who understand that our planet’s resources are limited, and we have to look for alternative ways to produce food that are more efficient and sustainable.
Advantages and disadvantages of vertical greenhouse farming
If you think indoor vertical farming sounds a little too good to be true, that is partially correct. No innovation comes with zero challenges, and vertical farms are no exception. This practice has amazing potential, but it has yet to overcome a few challenges before it becomes an ideal solution for the future of agriculture.
With that in mind, let’s have a look at the main pros and cons of vertical greenhouse farming:
- It is more easily predictable, due to controlled conditions
- It bypasses weather changes
- It reduces shipping fuel costs
- It optimizes crop harvest in limited spaces
- It uses fewer chemical fertilizers
- It eliminates seasonality for crops
- It saves water
- It is too dependent on technology (a single power outage can cause lasting damage)
- It can disrupt pollination
- It has not yet been proven economically feasible (although this may change)
How does indoor farming impact the wholesale produce industry?
As it stands, indoor vertical farming can revolutionize the wholesale produce industry, especially if it is adopted on a global scale. By sourcing from local vertical farms, produce wholesalers can expect a steady, greater influx of fresh products, all-year-round, independent of weather conditions in the area.
By collaborating with such farms, food wholesalers will also be playing their part in protecting the environment, therefore developing the industry and stabilizing market prices for vertical farming produce. Sourcing their produce from local vertical farms means cutting down on shipping fuel costs from long-distance crops, which leads to lower prices. Also, this method ensures that the produce they obtain is fresher and more nutritious.
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How is the vertical farming industry growing in the US?
As mentioned before, the US is the biggest adopter of vertical farming. According to a major study carried out by Mordor Intelligence, in 2019 there were more than 2,000 vertical farms spread across the United States. The majority of them – 61% – are local indoor farms.
The most commonly grown crops in American farms in 2019 were fruits and vegetables (47%). The same study suggests that the vertical farming sector in the US will grow by 10.5% during 2020 and 2025.
Are vertical farms the future of agriculture?
The short answer is: they could be. Vertical farms have the potential to reshape agriculture as we know it and have a transformative impact on the environment as well. As more and more countries embrace this practice and more studies are done on its economic feasibility, we’ll learn whether it is sustainable in the long term or just a passing trend.
Either way, the interest in vertical farming shows that people are aware of the challenges faced by traditional agriculture right now and they are trying to find viable alternatives that will optimize farming in the decades to come.