The world has lost one third of its arable land in the last 40 years to soil degradation. It takes around 500 years for just 2.5 centimetres of topsoil to be generated, and we are destroying it 100 times faster than it can recuperate. By the year 2050, the world’s 9 billion people will be fed only if we can increase food production by 50%. These kinds of frightening statistics are what keep scientists, farmers and concerned food-lovers up at night. Enter stage right: Vertical farming. Is the sci-fi food growing solution a panacea to our rapidly dwindling agricultural landscape? If so, what seems to be holding it back?
The term ‘vertical farming’ is a new buzzword among the agriculturalists and entrepreneurs who might previously have been devotees of the organic food movement. Taking off around the globe, this new food-growing trend is set to be worth in excess of $4 billion annually by 2020. Despite proponents lauding its potential, and its ‘clean and green’ image, detractors warn that it may not be the solution we’ve all been led to believe. Serious concerns about energy usage, returns and lack of space have critics decrying the technological farming innovation as a misleading endeavour.
Shigerharu Shimamura, a Japanese plant physiologist would disagree with these detractors. After a magnitude 9.1 earthquake in Japan which resulted in a food crisis for one particular region, Shimamura saw the need for a more reliable and resistant method for growing food. His vision saw the development of what is now the world’s largest vertical farm. Producing up to 10,000 heads of lettuce per day, this incredible achievement is testament to the potential of vertical farms to solve both foreseeable and unexpected food production shortfalls into the future.
David Rosenberg of New Jersey’s Aerofarms presented to the Urban Land Institute forum in October 2016 the rising cost of traditional agriculture on our planet. According to Rosenberg, 60 – 70% of all water contamination comes from harmful agricultural practices (such as the use of pesticides), while farming accounts for 60 – 70% of water usage.
“It became clear that if you want to solve the world’s water problems—solve agriculture.”
Furthermore, Rosenberg referenced the loss of arable land and the spoilage of fresh produce in transport as two of the biggest factors affecting food production today.
The United States has seen a number of large, commercial vertical farms pop up over the last decade and this trend towards locally-grown, resource-lean farming methods would seem to be gaining ground. Despite this, some of the most promising endeavours have failed to remain financially viable and have since had to close their doors. Atlanta’s PodPonics closed only last year. As CEO Matt Liotta explained at an industry conference:
“This was our wildest dream, we were ready to go, this was everything we wanted. And then we realised how much capital this was going to require, how many people we were going to have to hire,” said Liotta, referring to the $25 million offer they received from Kroger. “We were simply incapable of building everything they wanted.”
“This is really a manufacturing game,” Liotta said. “It is not an art. If you want to do art, get a garden.”
This sentiment is echoed by detractors of the vertical farming movement. In order to be feasible, financially, these farming enterprises have to compete with traditional farms on price and labour costs. Despite the higher costs (and losses) of shipping produce over vast distances, vertical farms are still heavy in labour and even heavier in setup costs.
Growing vegetables in these systems can be done without the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and with up to 95% less water than traditional methods. However, the electricity required to support an indoor farm’s lighting and other operating needs are not insubstantial. Add to that the inherently difficult setup of vertical farms—which require workers to use scissor lifts and navigate tight spaces—and the costs can become insurmountable.
While there are methods being implemented which make it easier for workers to access, the investment necessary to make a go of these farms is still prohibitive. Furthermore, until another technological revolution replaces the need for grains and fruits for human consumption, vertical farms don’t stand a chance of replacing wide open fields and orchards in food production. The sheer size of farms required to replace existing agricultural land is beyond measure, and is impossible to achieve in urban areas. Due to their very nature, indoor farms are generally limited to greens, vegetables and herbs in their production, which are unable to entirely meet the needs of the cities they’re providing for.
Despite this, it would seem futile to argue that vertical farms don’t have a place in the future of the world’s food supply. The ability to control the elements and not be subjected to the vagaries of seasons, rainfall or disease makes these farms an attractive investment from a food security point of view. Being able to grow crops year-round, with predictable outcomes is irrefutably of huge potential benefit to the world’s population. Cutting down on transport emissions and water usages, as well as giving our farming lands the opportunity to recover from many decades of damage and degradation is an indubitable boon to the planet.
The way forward, it would seem, is neither to ditch vertical farming nor to try and replace traditional agriculture completely; but to adopt a mixture of both and continue to develop technologies which assist each practice to operate more efficiently and sustainably. Vertical farming is here to stay, and will presumably continue to make gains in terms of technological solutions; however it will never replace the farms of old.