At the moment, nearly 800 million individuals worldwide suffer from chronic undernourishment (1). This number will more than likely rise as the global population hits 10 billion by the year 2050 (2). Worse yet, the 3 billion additional people are estimated to require an astounding 109 hectares of land for food alone (3). As available farmland shrinks one innovative style of farming could help solve this daunting issue. This style is referred to as “vertical farming”.
Simply put, vertical farms are indoor farms that grow their crops in vertically stacked trays. The plants in these trays do not receive light from the sun, but from LEDs placed directly overhead. In addition, these plants are not grown in soil but in nutrient rich water, a method commonly referred to as hydroponics (4). Growing plants in this manner offers numerous benefits when compared to traditional farming.
First, due to the fact that vertical farms are based inside buildings, nearly all environmental factors are able to be controlled. This means that temperature, humidity, CO2 concentration, and light intensity can all be altered in order to optimize plant growth and maximize crop yield (5). Controlling environmental conditions also means that resources such as water and fertilizer can be used more efficiently when compared with traditional farming. Better yet, environmental control also negates the need for the vast amount of pesticides typically used when farming outdoors. Additionally, growing indoors allows for any crop to be produced year-round, even in non-tropical areas.
Perhaps, the most attractive aspect of vertical farming is the efficient use of land. According to Gene Giacomelli, the director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, indoor farming is capable of producing 20 times the amount of food per unit area when compared to farming outdoors (4). This aspect may prove crucial over the next few decades as less and less land is able to be farmed.
Vertical farms have already become relatively common throughout cities across America. These farms are rather minor and are owned either by small companies, or individuals. Generally these farms are based in larger buildings such as warehouses or old factories; however, some people have even started farms in spare bedrooms and garages. Most, if not all, of these farms came to be because of crowdfunding. In 2015 alone food and agriculture startups raised $4.6 billion, nearly double from the year before (4). Local food, grown in vertical farms, generated $11.7 billion in sales as of 2014 and is expected to balloon to $20 billion by the year 2019 (4).
The sudden popularity of these farms is quite understandable as farming in the city certainly has its upsides. The most apparent benefit is the proximity to potential buyers. Because a vertical farm resides inside a building that lies across the street from a restaurant, shipping costs are negligible. Additionally, the produce sold would be freshly picked and would stay fresh longer. These are factors that traditional farms that ship produce from hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away simply cannot match. In the future, some restaurants could potentially include vertical farms inside their own buildings. Not only would this guarantee absolute freshness of the produce, but it could be less expensive than purchasing from farmers.
Despite the many advantages of vertical farming, it is not perfect. The biggest obstacle is, without a doubt, energy use. Traditional farming methods use sunlight to power their plants. Sunlight is free, effective, and requires no maintenance on the part of the farmer. The LEDs used by vertical farms are far from that. Although the technology is improving, at this point in time even the most advanced LEDs are only 50% efficient, meaning that half of the electricity is lost as heat energy (4). This factor alone has been a governor on the vertical farming industry’s progress over the last few years. If LED technology improves in the coming years, the industry can expand even further.
It is unlikely that vertical farming will solve the current, and impending, world hunger crisis by itself. Nonetheless, it certainly possess the potential to forever change the way we look at farming.
(1) "2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics - World Hunger." World Hunger. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(2) "World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 2050 | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs." UN News Center. UN, 29 July 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.
(3) "The Problem." Vertical Farm RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(4) Zimmerman, Eilene. "Growing Greens in the Spare Room as ‘Vertical Farm’ Start-Ups Flourish." The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(5) "Glossary for Vertical Farming." Association for Vertical Farming. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
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