Vertical farming and the future of agriculture and food production

Vertical farming and the future of agriculture

Civilisations and modernity would not emerge if not for agriculture. However, because of the expanding human population coupled with environmental hurdles to farming including limited land resources, there is a need to reconsider how the global society produces food for mass consumption.

Vertical farming offers a solution for cultivating agricultural produces without the use of sprawling tracks of lands. This emerging component of modern urban agriculture involves planting and growing plant life within a skyscraper to maximise the use of limited land area.

The concept of vertical farming is hardly new. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, could be considered as a prime example of earlier attempts to cultivate plant life in manmade high structures. Several much modern literatures have also described and documented the proposed use of high-rise buildings for food cultivation. One of these works appeared in Life Magazine as early as 1909. A number of accounts have also described the existence of the first vertical farm based on hydroponicum in Armenia prior to 1951.

Numerous architecture and engineering firms and ecologists are now promoting vertical farming through proposals and reiterations of concepts relating to urban agriculture and sustainability. Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and ecologist, has received considerable media coverage for his ideas on vertical farming. Beginning 1999, he developed his concept of vertical farming together with graduate students of medical ecology class.

Vertical farming and the future of agriculture and food production

Photo credit: Claudio Palavecino Llanos

Constructing and designing vertical farms

There are varied ways to construct and design a vertical farm. In a journal article, authors Chirantan Banerjee and Lucie Adenauer mentioned the need to utilise an indoor climate control system that would regulate humidity and temperature in order to grow a variety of produce. Accordingly, this system is a major prerequisite in any vertical farms. There is also a need for artificial lighting system, preferably using LED technology for its low level of thermal radiation and longer lifecycle.

A typical vertical farm should also include several sections, each catering to a specific stage of the cultivation process. For example, germination floors would have a specific use for seed generation of varied plant species while the actual plant growth area would transpire in cultivation floors. There should also be separate sections for food processing or packaging, storage and delivery, waste management, and staff and control room. These same design considerations have been proposed by designer Claudio Palavecino Llanos.

Information technology researchers Saraswathi Sivamani, Kyunghun Kwak, and Yongyun Cho highlighted the importance of automation in vertical farming. Because a vertical farm would feature large-scale cultivation and high-volume outputs, automation through information technology and information systems would improve farming operation. For example, automation is helpful for maintaining and adjusting appropriate climate conditions without the need for regular human intervention. IT-related technology will also be helpful for monitoring crops, crop maintenance, recording outputs, and determining demands.

Vertical farming and the future of agriculture and food production

Photo credit: Claudio Palavecino Llanos

Advantages and disadvantages of vertical farming

Dependence on electricity is a critical disadvantage of vertical farming. Critics have argued that the costs associated with additional electricity needed to maintain the operation of climate control and lighting systems could outweigh the benefit coming from the supposed cost efficiency of urban agriculture. Furthermore, this same dependence on electricity could mean greater carbon footprint.

However, some proposed vertical farms have taken into consideration the use of renewable energy sources to include wind power and solar power. Equipping vertical farms with the capacity to generate electricity from solar power or other renewable resources would thereby make them self-sufficient while also lessening their respective carbon footprints. It is also worth mentioning that there is an emerging technology that involves generating electricity from plants. If it reached finalisation and commercialisation, this technology would further improve the cost efficiency and sustainability of vertical farming.

It is also important to consider the fact that some proposed vertical farms are designed to function similar to greenhouses. In other words, these vertical farms will use natural light and localized greenhouse effect.

There are many advantages of vertical farming that could overwhelm concerns about electricity dependence and carbon footprint. There is a reason to believe that this modern agricultural practice could reduce hunger and promote food security without compromising the environment. Accordingly, urbanisation will spread across the globe and by 2050, it is possible that 80 percent of the world population would live in urban areas. This urbanisation would certainly mean reduction of farmlands. Through vertical farming, there is no need to convert natural environments into lands for agriculture. Take note that this conversion often leads to deforestation or desertification.

Furthermore, because vertical farming maximises the use of limited land spaces, it could lead to an increase in crop production. There is also a possibility for better agricultural yields. Because vertical farms have built-in climate control systems, crops are spared from weather-related problems. This same automated system could also mean less dependence on pesticides. Vertical farming could support organic farming.

Closer proximity of agriculture hubs could also lessen the price of crops. Take note that in vertical farming, crops would be sold in the same facilities in which they are grown. This would definitely cut costs associated with transportation and intermediaries. In addition, this could also mean less spoilage thereby resulting in better productivity and profitability.

Through careful planning, Designer Llanos believe that vertical farming can provide several benefits centred on environmental conservation by producing food using minimal resources, economic development by profiting from useless lands, and social equity by generating jobs and improving living standards of new urban farmers.

Vertical farming and the future of agriculture and food production

Photo credit: Claudio Palavecino Llanos

Proposed and existing vertical farms around the world

Modern vertical farms exist in Asian countries, especially in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan where crowded urban areas and scarce land areas have compelled urban planners and engineers to come up with novel agricultural solutions and innovations.

The first commercial and fully operational vertical farm emerged in Singapore in 2012. Designed and developed by Sky Greens Farms, a subsidiary of industrial company Sky Urban Solutions Holding Pte. Ltd., the vertical farm emerges as a solution to ensure food supply resilience in Singapore.

South Korea is still on its way of further developing its vertical farms. Currently, the country has a vertical farm located in Gyeonggi Province that features machineries and artificial environment for planting and growing a variety of agricultural produces. The team responsible for this vertical farm has proposed to transport the technology in Qatar.

United States-based company AeroFarms LLC has turned an old 69,000 square-foot steel factory in Newark, New Jersey into an indoor farm that will grow 2 million pounds of pesticide-free produces every year. This targeted output is 75 times more productive than traditional open field farming.

Designer Claudio Palavecino Llanos from Chile has proposed the use of wasted useless urban lands generated by road junctions along urban highways for vertical farming. Doing so would give value to an undefined zone.

The future of the global society currently depends on food security. With ballooning global population coupled with pressing environmental issues, vertical farming is undeniably an exciting solution to support current population trends while also resolving existing environmental problems. Furthermore, it can bolster food production by turning non-arable areas around the globe, including certain parts of Middle East and Africa, into productive agricultural hubs. The concept can also support other developments in food technology, notably cultured or lab-grown meat. It is interesting to note that vertical farming is attuned with other innovative solutions centred on promoting sustainability, including smart city initiatives and green technologies. Photo credit: Claudio Palavecino Llanos

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