Field farming requires labour, amenable weather conditions, adequate sunshine for photosynthesis, irrigation, and often pesticides to protect crops.
Vertical farming, a term coined by Dickson Despommier, is the practice of producing food in vertically-stacked layers. These “farms” make use of enclosed structures like warehouses and shipping containers to provide a controlled environment to grow crops in a hydroponic or aeroponic system. Electronic sensors ensure that crops receive the right amount of LED light, nutrients, and heat. The benefits include independence from arable land, year-round growing capacities, less water consumption, and improved crop predictability.
Vertical farms can help meet our growing population’s needs by offering an additional way to produce food that does not share the same volatility and risk as conventional agriculture. While vertical farms require less water and arable land than conventional farms, their climate footprint depends heavily on the source from which they draw their electricity to power lighting and control the indoor environment. As renewable energy sources become adopted more widely, the carbon cost of vertical farming will continue decreasing. On a societal level, the hope is that vertical farming can help address gaps in overall food demand where conventional agriculture fails.
Due to various factors related to geographic location, cultural difference, political support, investor dynamics, and local agricultural market conditions, what works for some might not work for others. Moreover, there are limitations to what plant species can be grown in an indoor environment. For instance, fruits and vegetables that have a lot of inedible weight, such as leaves, stems, and roots, would not make good use of vertical farming space or resources.
Traditional farming has been characterised as labor-intensive and remote to a modern and urbanised lifestyle. In some places, farm work is associated with poverty and isolation, but in the vertical farm, farmers must be data analysts, bio-scientists, and system supervisors in addition to working with crops.
Vertical farming is not Frankenstein food, but might as well be without any efforts to educate the public. Companies can clarify the value of non-field farming crops and educate consumers on the nutritional and environmental benefits of vertical farming. Governments and industry groups can be valuable allies who view local food production as economic development. Investors are essential to helping vertical farming scale.
Though vertical farms can never be expected to replace traditional farms, it is likely that they will have to complement each other if we are to meet the food demands of tomorrow. It is economically sensible, environmentally friendly, tech-savvy, and most importantly, health-sensitive. Vertical farming is not a fairytale; it is happening now.